By Ross Tucker
March 19, 2008

Preparation for the 2008 season begins in earnest this week for most NFL players as teams kick off their offseason conditioning programs. While that won't come close to rivaling the headlines devoted to free agency and the draft, the foundation of success for 2008 is being poured in the weight room, on the field and in the classroom over the next three months.

There are a number of realities regarding offseason programs that fans and members of the media alike should know. Here are five noteworthy ones:

• There's not much of an "off" season anymore. Once upon a time, former Giants center Bart Oates used the offseason to pursue a law degree, attending classes full-time at Seton Hall during the second semester. Up until the late 1980s and early 90s, this was more than possible as teams asked players to report to only one mandatory mini-camp between the completion of their season and the start of training camp in July.

Times have changed.

Though some players are still able to secure part-time internships or work towards a degree by taking classes at night or online (like Vince Young is doing at Texas), the reality of the current NFL calendar dictates that football is basically a year-round job. Players are generally free of any team obligation and are able to work out on their own from the completion of their season to mid-March. They are also typically given another three or four weeks between the culmination of their offseason program in late June and the start of training camp in late July.

Though that is certainly ample free-time when compared to a typical desk job, keep in mind there are virtually no days off for an NFL player from July through January. They work on the weekends and the "off" day they are given on Tuesday usually consists of simply a shorter work day.

• The level of emphasis differs from team to team. When I played for the Redskins in 2002, Steve Spurrier did not place a strong emphasis on attending the offseason workouts. For that reason, attendance waned. Conversely, when I was with the Cowboys in 2003, Bill Parcells made it extremely clear to us how vital the offseason program was. Not only did he virtually demand that every player get a minimum of 40 workouts in at Valley Ranch in the offseason and pass his vaunted 300-yard shuttle conditioning test, but also he made his presence felt by spending time in the weight room on a daily basis, an uncommon move among head coaches. For that reason, attendance was nearly 100 percent.

There are numerous other examples of the disparity between attendance and emphasis among certain organizations. One player who spent offseasons in both New England and Buffalo said, "The Patriots offseason program is just part of the deal of being on that team and every veteran is there. Tom Brady is there. Richard Seymour is there. The only guys that were really up there in Buffalo in the offseason were the young guys trying to make the team. Their best players were nowhere to be found. That was one huge difference between those two organizations and I think it really sets the tone about what they are all about."

• Different philosophies can affect free-agent decisions. With millions of dollars at stake, players look for any edge to prolong their careers. For this reason, free agents have been known to sign with the team with the less-taxing offseason program if the financial offers are similar between two clubs.

Parcells, for example, favors timed squats and hang cleans, which many players feel leads to additional wear and tear on their joints and serves to shorten their career. The emphasis of Parcells and his disciples on increasing strength and explosion may reap short-term benefits but cause long-term harm.

Other strength coaches, like the Bears' Rusty Jones, place a premium on injury prevention, thus heavily emphasizing stretching, nutrition and body composition. This often enables players to feel their best and prepares them for the pounding their body will have to endure. Any NFL player will tell you they would rather feel completely healthy than make any type of strength gains as they head into training camp. Jones' presence and reputation around the league offers the Bears a leg-up as free agents make their decisions.

• The offseason is the most likely time to take a PED. Though I'm on record saying I don't think there is a large segment of NFL players taking performance-enhancing drugs, my hunch is the offseason would be the most likely time a player would choose to pharmaceutically enhance his natural ability.

The NFL has a system in place in which players are tested during the offseason, regardless of whether or not they are working out in their respective NFL cities. The reality is the testing is much less frequent in the offseason than it is during the regular season, primarily due to logistics. Because it would require significant resources and effort to reach a player and find an adequate testing location for him while he is away from his NFL facility, this testing is not nearly as feasible as the regular testing during mandatory mini-camps, training camp and the regular season.

The logical conclusion is if players are taking HGH or anabolic steroids of any kind, they are likely doing it during the offseason, especially if they are working out somewhere other than their respective NFL city.

• Don't believe the hype. I've heard it. You've read it. Now, I'm typing it. "I'm really impressed with the dedication of the guys to the workout program," the coach said. "This has been the best offseason since I've been here."

Throwing out false participation and attendance numbers and proclaiming a successful offseason conditioning program has become an annual rite of passage among NFL teams. Some coaches seem to indicate this on a yearly basis. They will then proceed to talk about how this supposed increase in participation from previous seasons is a harbinger of success and will serve as a springboard into training camp and the 2008 season.

Take all these proclamations with a grain of salt and save these quotes to see if the coach says the same thing next year. That is, if that coach is still around to discuss the offseason program.

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