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How free time is spent can make or break NFL players, plus reader mail


One of the best perks of being an NFL player -- aside from, you know, getting paid a lot of money to play a game -- is the amount of free time you have in the offseason.

It really comes in two batches.

The first is during the recovery period from the end of the season until spring workouts begin in mid-to-late March. The second stint is starting right about now and will last until training camps begin in five or six weeks. These breaks, however, are really polar opposites, even though the player is free to set his own schedule with no restrictions from the team for both.

The first one is strictly a time to rest, relax, and let one's body heal and recharge from the tremendous rigors of the season. The second is pretty much crunch time.

Take new Dolphins linebacker Cameron Wake, who's trying to make the most of his second chance at an NFL career after his dominance in the Canadian Football League led to a substantial contract offer from Miami. "This is the highest level of football. The margin of error is small," he said. "Every time you are sitting on the couch watching TV, somebody else is working out. This period right now is go time. When the coaches aren't looking, what are you doing to get better?"

Wake's right, and his point about working hard without supervision is a salient one in light of the trend of teams to draft or sign players that love football and have good character. Players with those intangibles are the ones who will not only stay out of trouble but also will also work out twice a day in the heat to acclimate themselves to the conditions they will face in August. Those lacking a passion for the game are more likely to sit around and work out just a couple of times a week in an air-conditioned environment, if ever.

The same holds true for the increasingly complicated mental aspect of the game. While most conscientious players study their notes throughout their vacation time to make sure they are mentally sharp once camp begins, new Seattle coach Jim Mora is taking the rare step of allowing the players to take their playbooks with them. Coaches are usually leery of doing so out of fear that the information could be compromised. The real question for Mora becomes how many Seahawks will look through the book to keep it fresh in their mind versus how many will never open the thing.

Teams try to legislate the player's workouts during this time by instituting conditioning tests and assigned weights upon their arrival to training camp. Inevitably there are players who will fail both. Those are the guys a team is trying to get rid of if they have a suitable alternative. It is all about maintaining or increasing the physical and mental gains that have taken place during the offseason conditioning program. The more players who feel that sense of urgency over the next month and a half, the better chance that team has of success in the fall.

Mail time ...

Most people in our Armed Forces are, as you say, "the most aggressive men, and women in our society" and they are trained to use deadly hand-to-hand fighting techniques and lethal weapons such as knives and just about anything handy. However, you don't read about them beating their girlfriends or wives (boyfriends or husbands) very often and there are certainly more of them than there are of pro football players or all pro athletes for that matter. Why is this, because military personnel know that if they do they will at the very least be booted out of their particular branch of service with an 'Other than Honorable or Dishonorable' discharge that will affect them for the rest of their lives. The Armed Services provide all the same kind of seminars and training that you mention but with this one major caveat -- if you cross the line you can never ever come back.--Paul C. Patrick, SMSgt, USAF, Retired; Vacaville, Calif.

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Well put, but I wonder if we don't hear about any incidents like this in the military is it because they are handled internally and never become front page news.

When Donovan McNabb wins three Super Bowls, I think he will get the same respect from the fans as Tom Brady would if he got hurt again. As what happens with most national media, you need to be here week in and week out to know that 80 percent of Eagles fans love the fact that Donovan McNabb is our quarterback. Focusing on the negative 20 percent is more convenient because it is a story you can write. Same as 'they boo, they threw snowballs at Santa, yada yada yada...' Come to Philly and do a poll of people walking the street and find out the facts before you write an article. Don't ask your family either; they must be nitwits not to like him too.--Craig Hanlon, Wayne, Pa.

Judging from my e-mails, it seems like it is more like 50/50 in terms of the Eagles fans and their feelings towards McNabb. I am from near Philadelphia and have a pretty good sense of the arguments both for and against McNabb, I just think the people that want to run him and Andy Reid should be careful what they wish for. And the people in my family actually like McNabb for the most part; it is my friends who dislike his "phony" (their word, not mine) personality and think he comes up small in the biggest games.

The answer to your question is easy. I will take one championship every 12 years and no wins all the other years vs. losing the NFC championship each year. McNabb creates his own problems by being an arrogant, conceited jerk.--Rod Speiss, Reading, Pa.

Yeah, that is what most people said, and I can imagine if you have never won one that would pretty much be the sentiment. But I'd like to talk with you at the end of those 12 years and see if you really felt that way. Ostensibly, that title would last forever but my guess is by midway through the next season it would be just a thing of the past.

Ross, great job. Keep doing what you're doing. I may be wrong, but I happen to think Alex Smith would have been stud on any other team (4 offensive coordinators in four years at SF) and JaMarcus Russell (he's got a great arm) will become a top 10 QB.--Jason, Phoenix

You're wrong. On both accounts.

As a former player, do you think Plaxico Burress deserves an opportunity to play in 2009?--David Peterson, Baltimore

Yes, but only after a sizable suspension, between 4-8 games. I understand that the legal process will likely not unfold until the end of the season, but the NFL has taken a very strong policy when it comes to guns. Roger Goodell cannot just allow a guy who discharged an unlicensed gun in a New York City night club to play without any punishment. It would set a horrible precedent.

Twitter question of the week: Who will be the best QB in the NFC North this year? I predict Rodgers.--@steffeck

I agree. I think Aaron Rodgers is poised to build on what he did last year and that he will play better than a receiver-less Jay Cutler and Old Man Favre, if he comes back.