The pandemic has forced the business world to make plenty of changes. And those changes have, in many cases, become improvements. The president of the NFL Players Association believes that changes made by pro football should be regarded as improvements, and should be made permanent.
“The COVID CBA forced significant changes, and it has shown us another way players and teams can successfully prepare for and play in the NFL,” Browns president JC Tretter writes in a column at the union’s official website. “This year has brought less time at practice than ever before. We had no offseason practices, fewer training camp practices and no preseason games. While some feared that those changes would lead to a sloppy 2020 NFL season, our collective level of play across the league has actually never been higher.
“I believe the changes implemented this season have demonstrated that we can put an entertaining product out on the field while further reducing wear and tear on our players’ bodies. Sloppy play would usually be evident with low-scoring games, a high number of penalties and more missed tackles — all things that have historically been attributed to insufficient practice time to hone our fundamentals. But we have seen the exact opposite this year, with points per game at an all-time high, a decreased number of penalties and even fewer missed tackles compared to last year.”
Tackling is the one thing that has suffered significantly since the practice changes made as a result of the 2011 CBA; thus, comparing 2020 to 2019 may not be an ideal barometer. Likewise, there could be fewer penalties this year because officials are throwing fewer flags.
Regardless, the games are exciting and points are being scored and that’s really all that matters. As a result, Tretter wants the changes made in 2020 to be permanent.
“[T]here is no reason for us to ever return to the previous offseason program,” Tretter writes. “We are the only major sports league with an offseason program. The most physically demanding sport is the only league that brings their players back for extra practices outside of the season. The argument in favor of these offseason practices is based on the assumption that players need reps during OTAs to develop and learn while teams need the practices to gel. Yet, the lack of OTAs this year demonstrated that those theories aren’t substantiated. New and first-year head coaches had success. Newly assembled teams had success. Rookies stepped in and played at a high level all across the league.”
The irony of Tretter’s position is that the vast majority of the offseason program is voluntary. Players don’t have to show up. But they do, either because they have money tied to showing up or they fear that other players vying for roster spots and playing time will be there or they simply want to do it, in order to get better. On that point, consider the extent to which Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady and his teammates engaged in offseason practices, even after the union advises all players to stop practicing on their own.
“When we hopefully complete the current season, we will have to take a hard look at what forced and temporary changes should be made permanent,” Tretter writes.
That’s fine, but any changes will be the product of collective bargaining. If the union wants to get rid of offseason practices, the union has to be ready to give up something else. Tretter is smart enough to know this, and he’s smart enough to already have some ideas about what the union would be willing to do to get the changes he wants. Maybe, just maybe, Tretter and the union are dangling this request as part of a potential tradeoff for an 18-game regular season.
The NFL already will go to 17 games in 2021, in order to make back some of the money lost during the pandemic. An eighteenth game would make back even more of it. Dumping the offseason program and dramatically reducing the preseason could be the key to get the union to agree to a change that will generate plenty of revenue for the league and the union to share.