Offseason restrictions bad for game

Baltimore coach John Harbaugh hates the rules governing the offseason. So does Denver coach John Fox and Atlanta coach Mike Smith.

They are not alone.

Coaches hate that they can't have a meaningful, football-related conversation with players until mid-April, at the earliest. They hate that the offseason program is limited to just a handful of weeks. They hate that there now are three distinct phases to the offseason, and especially that at no time can there be any contact, any pads worn, any live action or any one-on-one offense-versus-defense drills.

But in 2011, the coaches got what they earned in the collective bargaining agreement the National Football League and the players union agreed to, because in the absence of rules, there was abuse. Lots of it. There didn't used to be this thing now called an organized team activity (OTA).

It used to be coaches could contact their players and pressure them to come to the facility in February or March. They could insist on film sessions with the quarterbacks just weeks after the season ended. They could hold "voluntary" workouts that everyone knew were "mandatory." They could work the players for countless hours in the spring. And they could hit and go full speed and require that pads be worn. As NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith told me earlier this month, it became like "an arms race" on how many teams could get their players into the facility the earliest.

Hence, the stringent rules set forth in the new collective bargaining agreement.

"In the absence of those rules, the vacuum always, always ended up at the detriment of our players," Smith said.

The thing is, the rules really are too strict. Smith maintains that the abbreviated offseason allows players' bodies to recover more effectively from the rigors of the season, which is a valuable benefit.

But there is a price. Players don't have as many opportunities to learn or to prove themselves or to practice their craft.

Veteran players might not need to be on the field working at full speed, but younger players most definitely do, young quarterbacks in particular. And the player at the biggest disadvantage is the one who is on the fringe of making a team.

Undrafted rookie free agents now face even more of an uphill battle when it comes to winning over a coach with his hustle, understanding of the playbook and efforts in practice, because he simply doesn't have access to the coaching -- either on the field or in the film room -- that the generation before him did.

Atlanta coach Mike Smith touched on the matter earlier this week when asked how the Falcons' rookies looked. Not only is the offseason program short, this year's rookie class got a later start to their careers because the league pushed back the draft two weeks.

"These rookies are at a disadvantage, in my opinion -- simply because of the way the draft fell this year -- in terms of the amount of time you're going to spend with them and the quality of time," Smith said. "Even though we still have a seven-week program, the actual quality of time that we're able to spend with them is not nearly as good as it needs to be."

There isn't enough teaching going on under the current system, and that is a problem. The offseason is when the real teaching -- and thus, the real learning -- takes place. Coaches are more relaxed in the offseason. They're more patient. They have time to help a player get better. They have time to teach things like proper footwork or proper tackling.

That simply doesn't happen during the regular season because most coaches are strung out. They're sleep deprived. They're focused on the upcoming opponent. They're concerned primarily with only the players who will be starting or contributing. And invariably some coaches during the regular season deal with the added pressure of having their jobs on the line.

That is not an environment conducive to teaching.

There has to be a happy medium between the old, no-holds-barred way of conducting the offseason and this regimented, rules-heavy system. DeMaurice Smith said that if the NFL wants to propose a modification to the offseason rules, he is "ready to hear what their concerns and comments are."

That hasn't happened yet.

"The reality of any offseason rule or any rule we push for in the NFL is we have to create rules that are aimed at the lowest common denominator," Smith said. "And I've certainly heard that there are some coaches that are concerned about offseason practices.

"My issue is that none of those coaches stepped up when we knew we had coaches violating the rules in the old days. People are fond of griping about the offseason and the rules that apply to them now, but certainly none of them advocated for penalties on coaches who violated the rules wantonly under the old system."

And Smith also said this: "We're always willing to talk about fixes, but this is a situation that we feel strongly about, and we certainly have no intention on modifying the offseason rules."

That's a shame, because there is value to the players getting the coaching that ultimately should make them more successful. There is value to practicing in pads, simulating game situations and being prepared for the arduous season ahead.

Coaches get that, which is why they loathe the system in place now. The NFLPA should get that, too, and be receptive to creating a system that is advantageous to all involved.