Thursday, May 31, 2012

Summer School Is in Session: OTAs and Minicamps

You may have been hearing the acronym “OTAs” quite a bit in sports news and water cooler conversation recently.  If you’ve been wondering what that means, I’m here to ‘splain all.

Under the NFL’s rules, teams are allowed to hold up to ten days of “organized team activity” during the offseason.  They can also hold “minicamps” for rookies in one of the two weekends following the NFL draft, and one mandatory minicamp for veterans.  If a team has a new head coach, however, it may hold one additional voluntary minicamp for veterans.  Under no circumstances, however, may any team hold any activities during the ten days prior to the start of training camps—which usually start in mid-July.*  So, what are these events?  Read on…



The rules governing offseason training and workouts are set out in Article 21 of the collective bargaining agreement (“CBA”) between the NFLPA (the labor organization representing the players) and the league and team owners.  Among the many changes to the CBA hammered out last summer are some of the rules by which OTAs are conducted.  The rules governing offseason training are quite extensive, believe it or not, but I will do my best to summarize those that apply to the OTAs and minicamps, which are basically preliminary practice sessions for the teams.  Under the CBA: 

&   OTAs are voluntary, and no one can indicate to a player that failure to participate will result in adverse consequences, such as not making the team;

& Activity is limited to a maximum of six hours a day, with only two hours on the field;

& There is no live contact, which means no one-on-one offense vs. defense drills; and

& Players are allowed limited padding:  only helmets and knee and elbow pads can be worn, presumably to dissuade full contact activity.

To ensure compliance, and because (believe it or not) league officials can’t be everywhere at once, the teams are required to film on-field workouts during OTAs.  Each team must keep copies of these films until thirty days after the start of the regular season, in the event the league receives a complaint about any violations of the CBA’s rules.

Even before the OTAs start, however, the CBA provides for two “phases” of offseason workouts.  In Phase One, teams can allow players to use team facilities to work out, but only for strength and conditioning and any needed physical rehab.  During this phase, only strength and conditioning coaches (who can have no other coaching duties for the team) are allowed to be present.  No footballs can be used during Phase One either, except for quarterbacks who want to practice throwing to their wide receivers.  During Phase Two, all coaches are allowed to be present, but there is to be no contact and players cannot wear helmets.


Article 22 of the CBA sets out the rules for “minicamps,” the other type of offseason activity teams can run.  As noted earlier, each team can hold only one mandatory minicamp for veterans (the exception being that teams with a new head coach can have one more voluntary minicamp).  There is no limit on how many minicamps a team can have for its rookies, provided that they are held within a seven-week “Rookie Football Development Program,” which starts around May 16th.

The CBA’s rules about minicamps are very extensive, specifying: the weekly schedule (i.e., physicals on Monday, with no practice or workouts, and practices Tuesday through Thursday); the maximum time allowed for on-the-field activity; the length of meal breaks; and exactly when in the offseason the camps may be held (e.g., voluntary veteran minicamps must be held before the draft). 


If any coaches are tempted to stretch their interpretation of these rules, they should take a look at the penalties for violating them that are outlined in the CBA.  The NFL Commissioner is empowered to impose hefty fines for violations:  against head coaches, up to $100,000 for the first violation and $250,000 for a second violation; against the team, up to $250,000 for the first violation and $500,000 for the second.  The league also has the ability to cancel a portion of a team’s remaining OTAs and dock the team’s fourth-round draft pick the following year. 

This dramatization isn't that far off.

If a violation occurs in the last week of the team’s offseason workouts (i.e., the last week before the break leading up to training camp), the first week of the team’s OTAs for the next offseason will be cancelled.  It is interesting to note that in such an event, the penalty will follow the head coach should he be hired by a new team in the interim.  For example, let’s say that the Washington Redskins violate the OTA rules during their last minicamp (June 12-14), and the NFL decides to cancel their first week of OTAs in the 2013 offseason.  If Mike Shanahan is fired at the end of the 2012 season and is hired by the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Redskins will be able to have their full 2013 OTA schedule back, and the Jaguars will be staying home during what would have been their first week of OTAs in May 2013.


It may seem that such extensive regulations over when and how to practice is an extreme form of babysitting—after all, these are grown men who have attended at least three years of college and many of them have already played at the professional level for many years.  However, the basis for these limits lies in the real risk to the health and safety of the players, which can often be ignored by the athletes who are more concerned with making the teams. 

Even though minicamps and OTAs are voluntary, all players typically show up, unless they are injured or are in protracted contract negotiations with the team (e.g., QB Drew Brees in New Orleans).  Remember, the offseason is an extended job interview for each player; just because he has been with the team for many years, or he was just drafted in the first round, doesn’t mean that his spot on the final roster is guaranteed.  In fact, many use offseason workouts to improve skills or parts of their game that coaches may deem lacking.

The pressure to impress one’s coaches and teammates can lead players to disregard their personal health and safety.  One of the more memorable examples of the toll that the offseason routine can take is Korey Stringer (right), who was an offensive tackle for the Minnesota Vikings.  A 1995 draft pick, Stringer had an impressive career; in his six seasons he played in 93 regular season games, starting 91 of them.  Unfortunately, he died of complications from heat stroke during the team’s preseason training camp in 2001, at the age of 27.

Korey Stringer’s death prompted the football community at all levels to reexamine its practicing methods to determine how to prevent heat stroke and other heat-related injuries.  Discussions over player weight also arose, as Stringer weighed 335 pounds (actually the lowest in his pro career) at his death.  Since 2001, teams at all levels have taken protective measures against heat injuries—e.g., wearing light colored uniforms for practices and having water and shade accessible for players (and coaches) at all times.

Even though player-on-player contact is prohibited during practice and workouts, there is still a significant risk of injury during OTAs and minicamps, and such injuries can be costly to both the player and his team.  Teams and players were reminded of this risk when New York Giants wide receiver Hakeem Nicks (left), who is one of quarterback Eli Manning’s go-to receivers, broke a bone in his foot last week.  Nicks was having a routine workout session when he broke the foot; he had surgery to repair the break with an implanted screw the next day. 

Nicks should be able to play in the Giants’ season opener against the Dallas Cowboys on September 5th, but the injury certainly put a damper on the excitement that comes with the start of offseason training.  One positive to come out of the situation for the Giants, however, is that other receivers who are further down the depth chart on the roster will now have a chance to play pitch-and-catch with Eli Manning during the OTAs and minicamps.  It’s doubtful that anyone will have a chance to oust Nicks from his starting position, but one more receiver who otherwise wouldn’t have had a chance might stay on the final team roster.


*Click here to see the complete list of OTA and minicamp schedules for all 32 NFL teams. 

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