The NFL offseason. It starts with veteran players getting whacked and casually rolls into free agency. There's big money there, too. Bags of loot for the top guys on the market. And everyone is looking to get paid.
Before you know it, players will be back at the team facility in early April. Speed work, running and lifting. The standard NFL strength and conditioning program. And then it's on to organized team activities, mini-camps when the rooks show up after the draft. Those first-year guys are just trying to line up correctly and avoid puking on the field in those practice sessions. It's a routine cycle, really, in the offseason until it's time to report for training camp and padded practices.
But before all that happens -- in the glimmer of the offseason where formal obligations are at a minimum -- here's what players do to recharge and prep for another year in the league (if they make the team).
Book that vacation
The Caribbean. Long weekends in Vegas. South Beach clubs. European adventures. Back at home with your boys on the Xbox. Hit the links in 'Zona or Florida. Whatever. Just get away from the team facility, the film room, the coaches, the grind. It could be just two or three weeks. Maybe a month or so. But every player needs a break from the routine of football after a full season.
These guys need to let their bodies heal -- finally. That doesn't happen in-season with pain shots that just mask injuries. Injuries don't recover when players continue to kick the can down the road week after week with injections or pain management routines. Nope. These veterans need some real down time to let those knees, shoulders and ankles actually heal up without the constant physical beating of the regular season.
Plus, the mental break is crucial. After 16 weeks of game plans, a playoff run (hopefully) and a thousand hours of film, it's time to check out. So why not do that on the beach with an umbrella drink in your hand? The start of the offseason is when players actually take a vacation. Yes, players get a "union day off" on Tuesdays during the regular season, but guys are still at the facility on that day watching tape or lifting or meeting with a coach. That routine melts your brain after a while.
Book a flight and go. Don't look back. And grab a drink or two. The NFL will be waiting for you when you return from paradise.
Go under the knife
No one wants to be on the treatment list, showing up at the team facility early in the offseason to rehab an injury. For starters, that means you can't leave town just yet. And it also means you probably just went under the knife for something. Fix it up, right? Outpatient surgery, even. But you still have to get that thing right.
For many players, the beginning of the offseason is the time to get a shoulder or knee or ankle cleaned up. It might just be a simple scope done to repair some cartilage hanging by a thread in your knee or to clean out bone chips in your ankle. It will be reported as "minor," but that still means the doctor is going to slice you up a bit. I had a knee procedure once. MCL stuff. A quick procedure in early February. Clean the junk out and then get back in the training room before you have to pass a physical to get cleared.
And that's pretty standard in the NFL. Tons of players will go through these quick surgeries in the offseason -- year after year -- to clean out joints. But there is some caution involved here too. NFL players are no different than car engines. You keep pulling stuff out and they stop running smoothly.
More speed, more power
Functional training. What does that mean? Train like an athlete. Explosive movements, Olympic lifts, plyometrics. It doesn't matter how much you can bench. That's meathead stuff. The protein-shake guy at the gym. In the pros, it's all about how fast you can move the weight. I'm talking about the ability to generate speed and power that actually translates to the field.
Some players train back at the team facility with the strength staff, others go to top-tier training centers around the country and plenty work with their former college strength coaches back on campus. The location is all based on a player's needs and comfort level, but the goal doesn't change. You want to start next season and hold off those incoming rookies looking to take your job? Then it's time to get to work.
Offseason training is part of your job as a player. And you can't wait until the official team program starts in the spring. Nah. That's not going to cut it. Use the late winter and early spring to make gains in the weight room, add lean muscle mass and show up to the team facility ready to compete in the spring. The ones who don't? Man, they won't last.
This time of the year is about having some fun and recharging for another season. But it's also about being a pro. And the vets who play a long time are working off a structured training schedule. Put that bag of McDonald's down. And start lifting, running and improving your speed.
Tie the knot
Get married? Sure. I did. A February wedding in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. A little cold, but the pictures looked good in the snow.
Why did my wife and I tie the knot when the lake was frozen? (I mean, seriously, there were dudes out there ice fishing in tents.) Well, we wanted to use the time off to go on a honeymoon without having to worry about when I had to report back to the Redskins' facility. No schedule to follow. No meetings. No lifting sessions. Just a flight to the islands. Newlywed stuff. Me and my bride.
Players will also get married during the summer "break" between the end of the offseason program and the start of camp -- a five-week cushion before the true grind begins. Once the season starts, you are a professional football player. And the coach doesn't have time for wedding parties or open bars.
Get on the tape
Late winter and early spring is a great time to study film, but there has to be a plan here. Don't just start watching random plays. Instead, break it down to benefit your own game and to study your divisional opponents.
Players call it "self-scouting" when they go back and review the season. Study the positives and the negatives, but focus more on those situations where you got beat. Why? Because that's exactly how your opponents will attack you next season. What can you improve? Is it your footwork, angle to the ball, hand placement, depth? Lot of things to study here. And those others teams in the division are watching the same tape. You better get it corrected.
Outside of the bye week during the regular season, players don't have a bunch of time to go back and self-scout the tape. You are overloaded with game plans and scouting reports during the week. So the offseason is the perfect opportunity to get a head start on your divisional matchups. Remember, those guys have weakness too. And they can be exploited.
Sunday dinners. Mom's cooking. Beers with your old man. Get back home and see the family. As a player, you miss that stuff during the season. Holidays too. No Thanksgiving at home. No Christmas morning. And it can get lonely, especially as a young player in the league.
During my rookie season with the Rams, a couple of my teammates and I ate Thanksgiving dinner together. We were all rooks, single guys, no family in town. The solution? A pre-cooked turkey (which we put in the microwave), a box of mashed potatoes and a case of Icehouse. Gross, right? Yeah. No doubt. But we still ate that nasty turkey and pounded those beers. It was a good Thanksgiving, I guess, when you are 22 or 23 and away from home.
The point here? Take time in the offseason to go home and kiss your mom. Stay for a while too. She misses you. Heck, your whole family does. You don't get to pick where you work when you are drafted into the NFL. And it can be a long way from home. So now that you have the time -- and some money in your pocket -- make the most of it. Mom's meatloaf will never taste so good.
ESPN.com NFL analyst Matt Bowen played seven seasons as a defensive back in the NFL.