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Wednesday, May 7
Rules set for offseason workouts

By John Clayton

Sometimes, rules need to be spelled out. Sometimes they don't. But in the case of NFL offseason workouts, something was needed.

As the offseason began, coaches and general managers received stern reminders that the NFL and the NFL Players Association wanted more restraints on overzealous conditioning programs and minicamps. Year round conditioning is supposedly voluntary, but NFL coaches have become so good at putting peer pressure on their players, it's unofficially mandatory.

But that can be a good thing.

It's made players more professional in their work. Most of the players keep their excess weight manageable throughout the year. In most team facilities, the number of overweight players can be counted on one hand. Because teams pay players to stay in shape at the facility, the union is all for these programs.

But the NFL, like any other sport, is competitive by nature. Give coaches 40 to 50 players at their facility during a day and watch them try to get them into more organized work. Give coaches more organized offseason work in the conditioning programs and watch them turn their minicamps into mini-training camps. Pretty soon, you have year round training camps.

So the Players Association and Management Council got together and hammered out a few rules to be followed this offseason, and they had the backing of commissioner Paul Tagliabue. Sure, most of the coaches and general managers who received the instructions tossed them out because it caused no change. With more coaches using the veteran friendly West Coast offense and more former players who are head coaches, the last thing on the minds of these teams is wearing the players out when games are months away.

Still, there needed to be more clarity. Penalties were attached. The first violation would cause a one-week cancellation of the offseason program. Second violations would cost a team a fourth-round pick. Start mentioning draft choices and you get the attention of teams.

Welcome to Offseason Lite.

  • Where there was no official start to offseason workout programs prior to this season, the NFL set a start date -- March 25 -- this year.

  • The maximum length of a program was shortened from 16 weeks to 14.

  • Time spent by a player in a team facility was defined. In the past, they could be held captive all day. Now, the maximum time for a player to fulfill his offseason daily duties is four hours. The team can't specify more than two hours for the player to do specific things at the facility. The player has the latitude to spend the other two hours lifting weights if he wishes. The maximum amount of time a player can be on the field is 90 minutes.

  • Disputes will be given priority attention. If a violation isn't quickly investigated, an arbitrator will become involved to render a decision within 48 hours.

    While all of these things may be regarded as nitpicky, it should serve as a deterrent to overzealous coaches. More than anything, though, it should serve as a boost to working out with teammates at the facility. What's to lose? For no more than four hours a day, four days a week, a player gets a chance to bond with his teammates, earn $400 a week and enhance his chances of making the team.

    A fitter league is a better league, and for the most part, the players skipping the programs cause more news than those who attend because so few aren't attending. If attendance league-wide is 90 percent and players aren't being overworked, quality of play this season should even be better.

    So if minicamps appear to be quieter in terms of stories than in past years, these new rules may partially be the reason. Twenty five teams held minicamps over the past weekend and headlines were in smaller type. Practices were shorter. Work was more instructional than physically damaging. Spirits were better because players knew these practices weren't going to last forever.

    At some camps, Big Brother was watching. There may have been a league spy or someone watching from the NFLPA to make sure that there wasn't a lot of excess contact on the field. Defensive coaches shied away from man-to-man press coverage, saving those techniques for camp and exhibition games.

    Injuries weren't as prevalent. Bucs guard Jason Whittle broke a leg. Jaguars wide receiver Donald Hayes sprained a knee. Bengals receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh sprained a wrist. 49ers cornerback Jason Webster re-injured an ankle that bothered him last December. Considering that was the extent of first-weekend minicamp injuries, the league is in relatively good health.

    More attention was paid to the minicamp of Browns coach Butch Davis. For three years, Davis has heard from the Players Association about his way of overdoing things with conditioning. He had set times by position for players to do their work together. In past years, the union was concerned about the number of days Davis held the offseason program. The union warned Davis last year about excessive contact on the practice field during the offseason.

    Davis was never found guilty of any offense, but part of that was because very little was considered illegal except the use of shoulder pads during the offseason. Now, the rules are specific.

    No one has done a study on how much time off a players' body needs after a season. Each body is different and who can really tell the effects the pounding has during the course of 17 weeks of regular season football and a six-week training camp. However, there has been a growing theory that injuries were becoming more prevalent because teams aren't giving the players' bodies enough time to rest during the offseason and recover.

    Seeing the carryover effect of this offseason may offer a few answers. Sure, it seems silly to have a stopwatch around the headquarters making sure demands by a coach don't exceed two hours and that practices don't last more than 90 minutes during training camp. But if there are less injuries, this new league-wide emphasis may be considered a major success.

    The league is changing. Training camps are lighter. More and more teams are moving training camps back to their facilities as opposed to having them on college campuses because the demands of having two-a-day practices on foreign soil can be counterproductive. A good offseason program means that most of the players will show up in camp in shape and ready for the pounding of the exhibition season.

    But players have to be part of the equation, too. Asking 14 weeks of paid sacrifice isn't a lot. Let's see. The regular season is 17 weeks. Training camps are six weeks. The playoffs eat up four weeks. That provides 11 weeks to rest, 15 for non playoff teams.

    By creating more rules to make the system more flexible and player friendly, the NFL and the union have taken the excuses out of not participating in offseason programs. I know it's called the offseason, but players can't afford to take "off" too much time or they will find themselves off the team.

    John Clayton is a senior writer for

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