Over the past two-plus decades, it has become NFL conventional wisdom that the 1982 and 1987 Washington Redskins shrewdly laid the groundwork for their eventual Super Bowl championships by taking the critical step of working out together while those seasons were interrupted by mid-season player strikes.
But is there any correlation to be found between those close-knit Redskins of yesteryear and this spring's collection of players-only workouts that have sprung up in recent weeks around the league, as the lockout and labor stalemate enters its third month? It's worth noting that Washington stayed together as a team when the players walked off the job in September and October of 1982 and 1987, during the season. Is there the same potential edge to be earned in mid-May for a team like the Saints, who have had as many as 37 players show up at Tulane University in New Orleans for a recent Drew Brees-organized workout?
It doesn't seem likely. Reaching out to sources around the NFL this week, I got a mixed review of the potential value of the players-only practices that have been held this month, with teams like the Jets, Saints, Giants, Browns, 49ers">49ers, Cowboys, Texans, Bucs, Falcons and Patriots all reportedly conducting organized workouts of various sizes.
In theory, players working on their offseason conditioning together while keeping their skills sharp and their sense of team camaraderie alive and well sounds like a win-win situation. And there are advantages that can be maximized by certain players at certain positions in these otherwise football-less days. Quarterbacks working with young receivers to gain more familiarity with one another. Defensive backs honing their timing and coverage technique against the challenge of an NFL-caliber passing arm.
But the impact of these sessions may be limited and rather selective. For instance, it's not likely to be quite as beneficial to a team's offensive or defensive linemen, who can tackle their lifting and conditioning programs together, but have little to offer in terms of team drills. More than anything, the workouts serve as a way to pass the time and keep the structure of a team together for players who are thoroughly out of their element in this most unusual of NFL offseasons.
"I don't know if it's (about camaraderie),'' said Houston offensive tackle Eric Winston, his team's player rep and one of about 15 or so Texans who live in Houston year-round and have been doing three days of workouts together at Rice University. "I think it's more about getting more out of it if you work out with somebody than if you work alone. Guys are in shape, the guys I've seen. They're being professional about it. I've never thought guys wouldn't take care to stay in shape.''
Several players I contacted declined to discuss their team's players-only workouts, not wanting to add any more debate to the issue of the lockout or the league's ongoing labor fight. But Saints middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma said he saw no downside to the sessions, which he has attended in New Orleans. Vilma said players see the work as adding to their conditioning, team morale and the ability to stay sharp and be ready to resume playing whenever the lockout ends.
"That is part of how we view it, with all those as benefits,'' Vilma said. "But we're trying to stay out of the media as much as possible until this lockout gets resolved. I just hate seeing little snippets here and there from people -- I'll just say teammates and/or other guys that play football -- saying something about the owners that is not necessary or saying something about the lockout that is not necessary.''
Vilma's thinly-veiled shot at lockout-loving Saints running back Reggie Bush aside -- Bush recently took to Twitter to say he appreciates the time off the lockout has provided -- the Brees-led Saints have set the standard for organization amid the confusion of recent weeks. Their workouts routinely have been well-attended. But whether or not that translates into any real advantage once football resumes remains to be seen.
The risk of injury that could come out of these unsupervised workouts looms large in the mind of an NFL general manager I talked to, as well as two veteran players agents who echoed his concerns. Neither agent said he had more than one or two clients taking part in any player-organized workouts.
"Quite honestly, I'm waiting for the first ACL tear that happens and then we'll see if anyone talks about how great this whole workout program is for these young guys,'' the GM said. "Every club in a way wishes they were like the old Redskins and had all 80 guys out there working together, but as soon as a prominent player pops an ACL in some high school gym or at some college, what's going to be the reaction? If someone breaks a leg, who's there to help? As a GM, the thing that makes me nervous is the what-ifs that could happen without supervision, specifically from a training standpoint.
"I just think the potential downside outweighs the benefit. I know that's probably not conventional thinking, considering the Redskins won two championships off this kind of thing. But the athletes today, with the conditioning they have, it's not like it used to be when players had to come to training camp to get into shape. So to sit here and think it's going to give someone an edge, I don't know. Let someone lose their quarterback for eight months because he slipped and hurt something, be it a Drew Brees, a Tom Brady or a Peyton Manning, then we'll see how fast these camps continue.''
One agent said he has counseled his clients to continue working out throughout the lockout, but not necessarily in conjunction with his teammates in an informal practice setting. The risks of injury are simply too great, with not enough reward offsetting them.
"People should realize that if players get hurt now, on their own time, that's a non-football injury and they don't have to be paid or have their contracts honored after that,'' the agent said. "I tell my guys to work out, but under supervision that is professional and to be careful. They have to stay in shape from a cardiovascular and strength standpoint, but other than that I don't know how important it is to go out and play touch football.
"I don't think there's a lot of complicated stuff going on at these informal practices. There's no playbook. There's no helmets. There's no coaches, no film, none of that. So I can't believe it would come even close to simulating what you do in an offseason program.''
In most cases, players practicing by themselves can't do much more than passing drills. Even conducting a glorified seven-on-seven drill is probably beyond their capability from a manpower standpoint the majority of the time.
"To be honest, I don't think I'd even want that, a seven-on-seven,'' the NFL GM said. "I don't want my defensive backs out there challenging my receivers off the line of scrimmage. Someone runs the wrong route or does something wrong and now they're learning bad habits on things we wanted to work on this offseason. And those can be just as dangerous as the injury risk for me.''
While the Jets have had their media-friendly "Jets West'' camp organized by quarterback Mark Sanchez in California, Giants quarterback Eli Manning has led workouts the past couple weeks at a high school in Hoboken, N.J. But at one recent session, there were more reporters in attendance than the nine Giants players who showed up to work out.
"There's certainly an element of it being a dog and pony show to some extent,'' another veteran agent said. "But for some young players, it can be valuable. A young receiver can benefit from time working with his quarterbacks. And it can give a young player a semblance of a team structure. For some quarterbacks who may be closer to some of the coaches than some of the other players, there may actually be a little reconnaissance going on, keeping track of which guys are staying in or out of shape.''
While some of the player-only practices have been well attended, it'll be interesting to see if they have staying power if the lockout drags on into June. The NFL general manager I spoke with predicted that the sessions will start to wind down as the hotter summer weather sets in around the country, and one agent said he thought players would peel off once their traditional vacation periods arrive in the second half of June and early July.
"In some ways it's fantastic to have that many players out there for the Saints,'' the NFL GM said. "It's a good sign. But I don't know at the end of the day what it's really going to mean. Let's say Matt Ryan is out there and he's running his team's camp. He probably hasn't spent much time with the coaching staff this year, and he hasn't done much of the film study yet.
"Therefore everything they're working on is probably stuff from last year, which may be obsolete. They might be getting some precision and timing down, but I think Matt Ryan already had precision and timing down with Tony Gonzalez, Michael Turner and Roddy White. To be thinking that things will be a lot different because they spent weeks out on the practice field together, I don't know. I guess we'll see how much it's worth.''