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NFL work is year round

Some players grumble over off-season obligations


(June 3, 2004) — ORCHARD PARK — Bobby Shaw can’t wait for the NFL’s regular season to begin. In many ways, it will be easier than the nomadic lifestyle the Buffalo Bills veteran wide receiver is leading this off-season.

The Bills, who assemble at St. John Fisher College on July 31 for the start of training camp, are wrapping up their off-season work under new coach Mike Mularkey with 14 days of organized team activity at Ralph Wilson Stadium that began on May 24 and ends June 16.

These on-field practices, voluntary for veterans, follow a three-day mandatory mini-camp that was held in March and another voluntary three-day session held in late April, all part of a total off-season workout program of weight training and nutrition adherence that lasts 14 weeks.

For Shaw, it has meant traveling to Buffalo from his off-season home in the San Francisco Bay area.

”It’s quote, unquote ‘optional,’ that voluntary-mandatory thing,” Shaw said. “It makes it a little tougher for players to be motivated when you’re not able to spend more time with your family this time of year, but that’s the nature of the beast. You do it. You want to be good. You want to have a successful season and sacrificing some family time now comes into play. It’s a double-edged sword, I guess.”

Giving up more and more of their off-seasons is the tradeoff players made for getting unrestricted free agency 11 years ago. Before 1993 and the rise in multi-million dollar signing bonuses, a player’s commitment to his team in the off-season generally consisted of one spring mini-camp and a promise to stay in shape that not many kept.

Not any longer. Football has evolved into a 12-month job, bringing with it a litany of benefits and problems.

Unlike yesteryear, players come to camp in shape, their playbooks memorized, sporting a heightened level of camaraderie. Arguably, the extensive off-season practicing is necessary to ease the effect of roster movement and keep the level of NFL play at a point at which the public will keep paying big money to watch.

But with it has come complaints of mental and physical burnout, strained relationships between coaches and players and inside their families, and, in the most serious instances, action required by the players union.

Recently, the New York Giants were docked two days of voluntary workouts after it was deemed new coach Tom Coughlin violated off-season rules. Unidentified players complained to the National Football League Players Association about the length of Coughlin’s practices and meetings.

”He had a combination of a whole bunch of things, on the field, off the field,” said Bills free agent cornerback Troy Vincent, the newly elected president of the NFLPA and a member of the executive committee since 2000.

”He had his issues and we hope we at least got his attention. At the same time, the men there want to win. All we’re saying is let’s do it in a professional manner, where we all accept the same working conditions.”

According to the collective bargaining agreement, on-field work this time of year can’t last more than 90 minutes. In addition, Coughlin had sent letters out that made players feel his workouts were mandatory. That’s in direct violation of the CBA. Further violations could result in the Giants losing draft picks and Coughlin being fined.

Through the years, Vincent said other coaches have stretched the boundaries of off-season work, turning voluntary days into a “regular-season day of work. You start at 7 a.m., end at 4 p.m. It’s no different than what you see in August through December only it’s February, March and April.

”As soon as one coach hears something that another coach is doing, that’s when you start seeing individual teams take things into their own hands and we have problems.”

Vincent said some of the worst violators are head coaches who were once dues-paying players, their competitiveness perhaps clouding their perspective. He gives Mularkey, who played nine seasons at tight end for the Vikings and Steelers, high marks for creating a good working environment by communicating exactly what he expects.

As a new coach, Mularkey is allowed two additional voluntary mini-camps but he’s not using one of them.

”I still have one sitting there in my hip pocket so if they say, ‘I can’t believe I have to do this,’ I can say, ‘Well actually, you could be doing this,’” Mularkey said of his hole card. “But I just felt that after doing the entire off-season on paper, I thought it was plenty. I’ll give them their time away from here to be with their families but when they come in here, they know it’s down to business and we should get something done. I don’t like busywork, so when they’re in here, it all has something to do with winning football games.”

Mularkey won’t have every Bills veteran attend all 14 days of voluntary organized team activity, but it will be close. He noted that a player’s contract runs “from Feb. 1 to Feb. 1” and with today’s salaries, players should work at their craft year-round.

”But there is a happy medium,” he said.

Giants players felt Coughlin didn’t strike it. Would the Bills blow in Mularkey if they felt the need?

”I don’t know if I’d go to that extent and I don’t want to speak for the Giants, but at the same time, if we had won a Super Bowl, maybe you have something to gripe about. But we were 6-10 and their record was a little bit worse than ours,” veteran wide receiver Eric Moulds said.

”If you haven’t won a ring, gone to the playoffs or even had a winning season, I don’t think you have a right to gripe.”

Perhaps, but the CBA is in place to level the playing field and protect the players.

Vincent said the off-season workout program is absolutely necessary to keep the NFL’s product at a high level given the player movement created by free agency. As a free agent, he’s thankful for the opportunity to work with his new teammates before August arrives.

”With rosters flipping over, this mechanism has to be in place,” Vincent said. “But again, what’s too much? That’s where it’s continually evolving. As players and coaches, we sometimes forget we’re dealing with the human body. Just like a brick mason or a guy running the mail for Fed Ex, if you don’t take care of your body, it will break down.”

Beyond that, there’s a bigger price, Vincent said.

The more a player is committed to his team in the off-season, the less time he has available to take advantage of a myriad of player development programs the NFL has in place. They include finishing up work on a college degree or working a job internship in another field in preparation for life after football.

”We need life skills but it’s hard to develop a player off the field if he’s constantly developing his football skills,” Vincent said. “The off-season workout program is in conflict with developing the man side.”

He noted that the divorce rate is at an all-time high among current and former NFL players.

”Why? Because we never developed the man. He was married to the game. During the off-season, all he did was work out and during the season, all he did was play.”



NFL's off-season

What's allowed: Clubs may schedule no more than 14 total weeks and no more than four workouts per week, for individual players. During such programs, there can be no more than 14 days of organized team practice activity.

Mini-camp: One mandatory three-day camp for veterans is allowed. Teams with new coaches can hold two additional mini-camps on a voluntary basis. There are no limitations on the number of mini-camps for rookies.

Expenses: Players attending voluntary off-season workout program are paid $100 a day in 2004, along with travel, meal and housing costs for out-of-town players. Mini-camp participants earn a per diem payment based on the regular training cap rate ($1,000 a week for veterans in 2004, $750 for rookies).

Parameters: Full pads and contact are strictly prohibited. Also "no club official shall indicate to a player that the club's off-season workout program or classroom instruction is not voluntary (or that a player's failure to participate ... will result in the player's failure to make the club)."

Source: NFLPA.

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