If you can believe it… NFL teams, including rookies and veterans (Bucs QB Josh Freeman pictured), will soon be back to work as OTAs take place
The time between the end of the draft in April and the start of training camp in July is supposed to be a quiet time in the National Football League (NFL). Coaches and players are supposed to recharge their batteries during the months of May and June in anticipation of a hot tough training camp. However the quietness of these months has since past as a new and overused term “OTA” has crept into NFL teams’ vocabulary.
OTA stands for “Organized Team Activities”. It is a term that was created in the legal jargon of the NFL’s Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) to keep a close eye on team’s off-season preparations before training camp. Much like the NCAA’s rules around “practices” in the spring, the NFL has tried to define a strict code of who can practice, what types of drills can be run, voluntary/mandatory attendance and the amount of contact in OTAs. Rules around these activities are strict enough that teams can get themselves in hot water easily, if violations are found. The Philadelphia Eagles in the spring of 2005 lost a week of activities for the simple violation of reportedly several players showing up to train before the official off-season start date the club had sent to the league.
NFL Teams may differ on X’s and O’s, however they all can agree that OTAs are essential to building the foundation of a winning cohesive football team. Many times when I talk to players and coaches during the crucial season ending playoff-stretch months of November and December, they point to OTAs and training camp as keys where everyone got on the same page. Most OTA sessions are in clandestine settings with players, coaches, and a few members of the media allowed to watch. But with everyone’s year around fascination with the NFL exploding, OTAs have become big news even though it is just players running around in helmets, t-shirts, and shorts.
Key areas to keep in mind when talking OTAs
Are sessions voluntary?? – Some head coaches may have as many as 14 OTA’s during the NFL’s “down period”, but all of them cannot be mandatory. In the “Good Old Days” of legendary coaches George Allen and Vince Lombardi, there was never the term “voluntary” in their vocabulary. Players knew they better be at every practice in or out of season if they wanted a job. But with today’s modern athletes of the NFL – many of whom make more money than their coaches – some them don’t respect the coach enough to attend all OTAs whether the coach wants them to or not. So head coaches walk a thin line when it comes to “voluntary” OTAs. Former Eagles head coach Andy Reid once said after an Eagles post-draft mini-camp, “This is not a mandatory camp coming up, these are OTAs, and players have the option of being here or not being here”… Sure they do coach. Don’t be fooled most coaches subscribe to the thought what happens in June usually has a distinct affect on training camp and into the season.
Contract incentives and fines are used to improve attendance — Most teams use contract incentives (ex. Attend “X” number of OTA sessions and receive a bonus of “X” dollars) as a way to make players attend OTAs. But every year there are holdout type players that won’t attend OTAs for one reason or another, usually contract squabbles. Fines are another tactic used by teams to motivate players to attend mandatory OTAs. The catch with fines is they are only affective if a player is currently under contract. But when you are talking about thousands to a guy with a multi-million dollar contract, sometimes fines don’t work either. Sometimes when push comes to shove, some players will show-up to OTAs just to avoid fines. But players and their agents have even found injury loopholes, like a mysterious “pulled hamstring”. Teams really don’t have much leverage in terms of player holdout fines until training camp when fines can pile-up at a cost of $14,000 or more per missed day.
Rookie Participation is affected by some colleges – There is a long-standing controversial rule between the NCAA and NFL that stipulates rookies cannot participate in more than one mini-camp before their college class has finished for the Spring Semester. The rule was put in place years ago in an attempt to keep kids in school and progressing towards graduation even if they intended to go to the NFL. But in today’s NFL, the rule is total non-sense as most drafted players have left their universities months – usually in January after Bowl Games — before the NFL Draft in April to prepare or they have no intention of graduating as they are underclassmen. The rule usually affects players from larger school that start and end their spring semesters late (Ohio State and UCLA don’t end until June) causing some players from these programs to get a late start as rookies. With 90-man roster limits, competition is everywhere so, in my opinion, rookie players drafted or undrafted should be allowed to hit the practice field as soon as they are officially part of an NFL team.
How much contact is allowed?? – The CBA says, “No contact is allowed anytime (during OTAs).” But we all know coaches and teams will push the envelope. Almost all practices are no pads, but there is always jostling and pushing as teams try to figure out who is close to mid-season form. But the amount of contact can have repercussions as seen a couple of years ago when three clubs were penalized for OTA violations (Arizona Cardinals, New York Giants, and Detroit Lions).
Lloyd Vance is the Editor for Taking It to the House , who is also an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA)