Lighter offseason forces adjustments

With a lockout in full force last year, NFL coaches had an impossible job in 2011.

Their successes or failures were tied to so much that was out of their control. They had no offseason programs to keep veterans in shape. They had no chance to groom rookies in May and June. Basically, the owners and the union gave coaches the whistle and let them do what they could.

Out of this came a collective bargaining agreement that isn't great for coaches but is more refreshing for players. In exchange for accepting a lower percentage of the revenues as pay, players received an easier offseason. The six teams with new head coaches had volunteers report to team headquarters on Monday. The rest of the league can report April 16.

Offseason workout programs for teams with new coaches can run for nine weeks within a 12-week period. The other teams have a 10-week window to conduct the nine weeks of workouts. The programs cannot exceed four days a week and must be conducted Monday through Friday.

As I said last year, I thought it was unfair for any head coach to lose his job under the difficult circumstances of last season. But now that the confusion of the lockout has ended, coaches have to make the best of a new era of preparation.

Get ready for offseason-lite.

"I've always looked at the first day of the offseason that you have that much work to do before your first game," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "It's really the philosophy of the offseason program, the commitment of the players to the offseason program, began with, 'If we can do this much in the offseason, we can do this much in training camp. If we can get this much done, then we can do this much in training camp.' I've always stuck to that."

During the 1960s and 1970s, offseason programs weren't the rage; training camps were often mysteries. Players used camps to get in shape. You never knew the physical condition of the players until they arrived.

Through the 1970s, I would go to Steelers camp. Ooohs and aaahs always would be associated with the arrivals of the players as they approached the dorm. Some players would show up in great shape. Others would not.

But with the onset of free agency, the rules gave coaches more control of the players' offseason.
From mid-March through early July, coaches could work their players. In some ways, the coaches probably had too much control. The good coaches urged their players not to miss offseason workouts.

That's gone under the new collective bargaining agreement. What used to be 14 OTAs (organized team activities) and a minicamp turned into the current system. Coaches had four and a half months to be the boss. Now they have nine weeks.

The OTAs have been spread over four weeks, which basically gives a coach only four weeks in which he can organize practices with contact (albeit minimal). Those are the only times a coach can run an offensive play against a defense and vice versa.

"My only negative in the offseason program isn't really the April 16 start date, it's the fact that you can't have your quarterback and kickers working in March," McCarthy said. "I just think their skill set is different. They handle the football more than any other position. The only thing we'll really lose evaluating it is the quarterback school."

Even the most experienced quarterbacks will be affected. Eagles coach Andy Reid describes how the new offseason will affect Michael Vick.

"The thing that he can do, he can go through and look at the tape," Reid said. "That's what he can do. And so you can't sit in there as a coach with him, but he can go -- he's a pretty smart guy -- so I mean he can go through and evaluate the tape as well, and he knows how to do the little cut-ups on the machine and all that bit.

"That's the first phase here. Really that's no different as it was before. And I would say that's a pre-first phase and then you go into phase one, which starts April 16, and then he can meet with the coach in the classroom, and then you get into phase two when the coach can work with him on the field and the classroom. I don't think it'll be a problem; as a matter of fact, I think it'll be a positive for him and where he's at in his career."

The big adjustment will be not having as many padded practices.

"Padded practices get your body in a different position," McCarthy said. "If you're playing in pads, you ought to practice in pads."

The players preferred the easier offseasons to give their bodies a chance to recover from the previous season.

"It's like all coaches do, you adjust and that part of it we'll work out," McCarthy said.

McCarthy and the 31 other head coaches have no choice but to adjust.