In the first of a three-part series on why the NFL offseason is broken, let's look at how the current rules limit the learning curve for first-year players and players on the fringes of the roster.
When Joe Gibbs came back to the NFL during the 2004 offseason, organized team activities at Redskins Park were ultracompetitive. Guys battled. Full-scale one-on-ones, 7-on-7s, team periods -- you name it, we did it. Rookies started graduate coursework in football right there on the field in April, May and June. Speed, tempo, repetitions. That's the only way you learn in this league.
Those days are gone, swept away by the new collective bargaining agreement rules on offseason workouts, and the reduced practice time doesn't cater enough to rookie development.
These young cats are placed in an environment that is much softer than it used to be. With monitored one-on-ones between wide receivers and defensive backs (no bump and run -- ridiculous) and limitations on contact, offseason practices put coaches in a tough spot. How do you develop talent in that environment? Where do you even start?
"It's a shame," one NFL coach told me. "You have to be creative. But you can't simulate football with the physical contact taken away."
That "physical contact" isn't about Oklahoma drills or using the helmet as a weapon. The game has changed -- for the better -- and that old-school, tough-guy nonsense isn't going to fly.
Rookies still need reps in press-man (hands, contact), tackling drills in the open field (come to balance, square up, shoot the arms), one-on-one pass rush and so much more. That's excellent work in the offseason and vital for rookies. And you can do all of that in shorts and helmets with smart, effective coaching.
But with such limited time on the field and not enough reps in true competitive situations, rookies aren't getting the correct orientation into the league. Pre-practice reps? Post-practice reps? Those were standard during my time in the league. Come out early with your position coach and stay late -- really late. The on-field work is critical. More drills, more footwork and, yes, more technique. But it's no longer allowed at OTAs. When that horn blows, it's quitting time in today's NFL.
Where is the teaching? That's what gets me. This is a game built on extra repetition and drill work -- with your coach.
Yeah, that's football, that's learning, that's the start of development.
"Things get left unresolved after practice," the coach said. "Guys aren't allowed to get better."
Think of the players who come into the league with supreme athleticism but undeveloped skill sets. Guys in the past like Barkevious Mingo with the Browns or, from this year's rookie class, Bears outside linebacker Leonard Floyd. The measurables are there. So is the speed. And the freakish skill set. We project that talent and talk about how pro coaching will push the ceiling even higher throughout the draft process.
But without the one-on-one time on the field, the extra coaching and the reps, the transition process can be bumpy for even the most talented rookies. And some never realize that expected potential.
The very basics
OTAs are now used to teach the basics. That means installing the playbook is the priority for position coaches. You can't play unless you can line up, right? But that has created a league more heavily invested in alignment and assignment than technique and execution with rookies.
Think of a new guy on a framing crew who is handed a hammer and maybe a box of nails. That's it. Go to work. Build a house. A big one.
"Guys know what to do," the coach told me. "But they don't know how to do it."
What does that mean? Think of a rookie safety who knows where to line up in Cover 2. Get to the top of the numbers, right? Fifteen yards off the ball. Push to 18 yards at the snap. Stay square. Cool?
But does that rookie safety understand what the wide receiver split is telling him, the formation, the field position, the down and distance? That stuff matters if you want to actually make a play. And then, when the ball is snapped, does the rookie understand the release, the stem and the break? Or how to use the proper technique to take away the post while also playing the deep corner route? That all tells a story.
What about offensive tackles coming from a college spread system who now have to play in a pro-style offense? Or receivers who ran only bubble screens, fades and slants on Saturdays? And quarterbacks?
This is advanced stuff, and the only way to learn it is to see it on the field and on tape. But most rookies don't truly learn how to study film in their first offseason program. Where is the time?
Now, many teams have adapted their offseason structure to facilitate more learning with rookies. The Los Angeles Rams, for example, have started to schedule specific meetings and practice periods just for rookies. That allows the coaching staff to put the rookies in a position to compete once they return for training camp. It also allows the club to acclimate rookies at a slower pace so their bodies can adjust to the rigors of a pro practice.
Adapt, right? Sure. That's on the coaches. And it has to be done, because the front office isn't giving out free passes. Rookies are expected to be ready to compete come training camp.
"I am coach-friendly, but I never let them give me the excuse there is not enough time," an NFL executive told me.
But even with some teams adapting their offseason structure, a lot of the coaches I've spoken to are still playing some form of catch-up when training camp starts. In the past, it was all about competition over teaching in August. The playbook was installed, the techniques were taught and rookies could just worry about fighting for a job on the team.
"If you wait 'til training camp to start getting ready, you've already lost," the coach told me.
The bubble guys
Where would I have been as a sixth-round draft pick out of Iowa in 2000 under this current CBA structure?
"You would've been f---ed," the coach told me.
He's probably right. I was an underdeveloped late-round pick with a limited skill set. The Rams' Greatest Show On Turf tore me up as a rookie during OTA practices. But I also had more reps, more teaching time and more individual time on the field with my position coach than these guys ever will. It was a crash course in pro football. And school was in session every single day during OTAs. I made the club -- barely.
But what about today's sixth-round picks or undrafted free agents? The bubble guys who may or may not have a roster spot in September? There isn't enough time to make an impression. Not with the Day 1 and Day 2 draft picks seeing more reps than the late-round guys.
"It causes the bubble guys to get cut," the coach told me.
Added another coach with NFL experience: "No question the new rules inhibit your ability to develop players over time. The late-round guys and free agents are really hurt by these rules. So, in turn, the depth of all the clubs continues to suffer."
Talking to NFL scouts, the grading process hasn't changed to reflect the new rules, or limitations, under the current CBA. Scouts aren't looking for more developed talent that is pro-ready. And that leads us back to the issue at hand. Is there really enough time to teach and prep these rookies during offseason OTAs?
I don't see it. And that's a problem for the league.
ESPN.com NFL analyst Matt Bowen played seven seasons as a defensive back in the NFL.