The NFL's version of spring football began this week. As usual, the news has centered on which players are not in attendance.
Is the significance surrounding these absences, from Albert Haynesworth in Washington and Patrick Crayton in Dallas to an entire subset of Cleveland Browns, completely media-driven or is there some validity to it? How much do players and coaches really care about the players who don't show up for the organized team activities (OTAs) that teams are allowed to hold in May and June? Let's dive right in:
• It's right there in black and white. What good is a contract if the contents therein are publicly ignored? The annual angst on the part of some fans upon learning the news that one or more of their players is absent from OTAs never ceases to amaze me. NFL players have a contract, and that contract dictates the days in which they are required to work. If they choose to show up and work some extra days that are not required of them, so be it. But they shouldn't be chastised for it if they don't. How many hourly employees do you know who work extra hours just for the heck of it, knowing full well they aren't going to get paid for them? Exactly.
• Don't believe everything you hear from coaches and management. This works both ways and is one of the more intriguing aspects of this cat-and-mouse game. Some team personnel will talk publicly about the fact that any absence is no big deal because it is completely voluntary, even though privately they may be fuming. Others are not so subtle about their feelings.
"We're all free to make choices. In the end, our choices lead to consequences. I'm not happy about it. He knows that," Jacksonville coach Jack Del Rio said recently when asked about the absence of cornerback Rashean Mathis.
Yeah, that totally makes it sound as if it is voluntary and no big deal that he is exercising his contractual right to not attend these practices. Make no mistake about it, coaches and general managers want their players participating in any and all offseason workouts. Some are just better than others at hiding their frustrations about it.
• If it is that important, put it in the contract. It really is that simple. Plenty of teams put offseason workout bonuses into a player's contract as part of his overall compensation structure. Those bonuses typically are achieved as soon as the player has hit a set amount of offseason workouts. New England is one of the teams that frequently takes advantage of the workout bonus provision and as such they tend to have extremely high participation numbers.
That's why a coach like Del Rio or owner like Washington's Daniel Snyder, who recently called Haynesworth's decision to stay away from offseason workouts "disappointing," is essentially crying over spilled milk. They had an opportunity when negotiating with players like Mathis and Haynesworth to both protect themselves and make it clear that offseason workouts were important to them, yet they failed to do so. Maybe they should spend more time thinking about how they want to structure future big-money contracts and less time criticizing players who choose not to attend voluntary workouts for any number of reasons.
• Why risk injury? This is especially noteworthy when considering the situation in Cleveland. Five Browns restricted free agents, including late-season sensation Jerome Harrison and stalwart linebacker D'Qwell Jackson, have elected to stay away from OTAs. Before you blame them, know the facts.
They are not under contract with the Browns, so they would have to sign an injury waiver in order to even participate. But that wouldn't make any sense. All of these players have been affected by the uncapped year and are unable to offer their services to other clubs on the open market as unrestricted free agents. The Browns gave them a restricted tender and that was that.
So these players will not be getting a long-term deal and instead will play under the relative insecurity of a one-year deal in which the compensation level is far below what they feel they're worth. On top of that, the Browns' organization and Cleveland fans want them to take the practice field and risk injury for a voluntary practice? Good luck. The one thing we know for sure is that over the course of the next three or four weeks, more than a couple of players will suffer some sort of season-ending injury. It is inevitable. Happens every year. Why would these Browns RFAs even consider taking that chance?
• Just make them mandatory. Maybe this is the answer. As it stands right now, NFL teams are really allowed to make only one minicamp mandatory for their veteran players. Everything else is optional from a contractual standpoint but that doesn't stop the players from being ridiculed or criticized, even at times by their own teammates, like Redskins defensive end Phillip Daniels did recently when asked about Haynesworth.
It's gotten to the point that the internal and public pressures have made it so that it sure feels mandatory, even if it isn't. Why not just eliminate the ambiguity and make attendance mandatory and end this charade? The NFL Players Association likely would be willing to discuss this possibility at the bargaining table for the new CBA. But in order to give that up it would have to get something in return, and the NFL owners would have to deem that clause to be worthy of a concession on their part.
Many NFL people consider that to be extremely unlikely because most of the owners only really care about the games and who does or does not perform in them. Besides, the public and peer pressure is already in their favor, doing their work for them. There is no pressing need to put it in writing.