The offseason of discontent continues for NFL players, with many of them skipping all of Phase One of the voluntary workout program. Phase Two, including the first opportunity for on-field coaching, begins on Monday. How many players will show up?
On Friday, the NFL Players Association informed PFT that only 38 percent of all players had participated in Phase One. It’s unclear whether this number includes the rookies who participated in this weekend’s minicamps at 29 teams. Most if not all rookies were planning to be present. (We’ve requested clarification from the union on the 38-percent number; we’ll provide it when it arrives.)
The offseason program increases in intensity and, in turn, significance on Monday. It’s not simply working out, which players can do on their own (but, as former Broncos tackle Ja'Wuan James learned the eight-figure hard way, at their risk). Absences will grate more on coaches who, though they can’t say it, want all players present.
Phase Two lasts only one week. The offseason program culminates in Phase Three. Otherwise known as Organized Team Activities (an annoying eight-syllable alternative to “practice”), this is when plenty of offensive and defensive playbook installation happens, allowing the process of preparing for Week One to accelerate once training camp opens.
The NFL Players Association has expressed concerns about COVID-19 protocols in support of the recommendation that players avoid voluntary workouts. Other members of NFLPA leadership simply want to get rid of the offseason program entirely, or at a minimum to restrict it, regardless of the pandemic. Some in NFLPA leadership remain miffed that the league forced a 17-game schedule upon them, with every intent to lock out the players in 2021 if the players didn’t accept a new labor deal that expanded the slate of games that count.
In a recent conference call available to all players (it’s unknown how many participated), the union encouraged players to negotiate the counters of the offseason workouts directly with their coaches. That prompted one agent to wonder aloud, but off the record given that the NFLPA regulates all agents, “They want the players to individually negotiate practice intensity with their coaches? Isn’t that the union’s job?”
The union continues to be in a very difficult spot, given the unique nature of the workforce it represents. For each team, the 90-man roster will be slashed to 53. On each team, the prospects of many players actually having a job and playing football in September hinges on proving themselves now.
Throw in the James dynamic, which puts any player who suffers serious injury away from work in jeopardy of not being paid, and it becomes a very difficult decision for a player to stay away and to undermine his own financial interests by working out at Planet Fitness and/or the local high-school field.
This definitely isn’t about carrying water for the league; PFT has consistently argued aggressively for player rights, and he repeatedly wondered why fans fall so quickly in line behind the American oligarchs who own the franchises. This is about navigating a system that reflects the product of many rounds of collective bargaining. From 2011 to March 2020 to July 2020, the union has had opportunities to secure collective and uniform changes to the offseason program. The owners, during those bargaining sessions, have shown an inclination to chop away at practice time and intensity, given that it costs them not a penny to do so.
Currently, there’s no natural leverage for the union. No quid pro quo, like adding a regular-season game or introducing Tuesday Night Football. No way to exert any real pressure on the owners — who simply don’t care if players skip offseason programs — to eliminate workdays or restrict workplace exertion.
I’m told there’s an endgame to all of this. I hope to find out what it is, and to explain it properly so that anyone who cares to read stories about union unrest in the second offseason of an 11-year CBA will understand why the players are attempting to exercise their rights to skip voluntary workouts when, in reality, being there helps many of them in the quest to be employed in September and to avoid a Ja’Wuan James-style outcome if they suffer serious injury while exercising on their own time and in a place other than the team facility.