DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the NFL Players Association, understands that a large part of the narrative in the NFL is the salary cap.
But Smith has another “cap” he likes to talk about. It’s the “amnesia cap,” the one that enables so many to conveniently forget what the last year was like in our country and the National Football League.
While the fact remains that the 2020 season was able to play all 256 games, it’s not as if it easily happened.
So, now, as the NFLPA and NFL quarrel over what makes sense with offseason programs around the corner, Smith wants everyone to remember.
In 2020, there was no on-field offseason work, a shortened training camp with a two-week acclimation period, fewer players in camp and no preseason games. Injuries, including concussions, were reduced with 30 percent fewer head injuries, there was a 23 percent decrease in missed playing time related to injuries and 45 percent decrease in heat-related illness.
Further reality is that from the start of training camp, there were 542 instances of players being placed on reserve/COVID-19 (many because of high-risk contact and not a positive test) with a total of 5,528 missed days. That doesn’t include coaches and other staff that missed work.
Smith said last month, “You know what? I'm going to push those things because we did every last one of those things and we were literally week-to-week last year. Week-to-week. And again, I dig it. I love the culture that we're in, I think. But just because we are where we are now, everybody feels like we're at a different point in COVID. Statistically, that's not true.”
Smith reminds everyone about the mishaps, how in just one example. the Cleveland Browns were in a playoff game without head coach Kevin Stefanski and several other coaches.
Speaking of NFLPA president JC Tretter, who is Cleveland’s starting center, Smith said, “JC was breaking down blocking schemes on the sideline because he didn't have a coach. I mean, this actually happened, right? So I think that we need to every now and then take off the amnesia cap and actually remember what things were like. I'll never forget for the rest of my life, that what, we're in late March? Every major sport had shut down. That's where we were last year. And we have more cases of COVID per day now that are higher than what we did back then. That sounds bad to me.”
As Tretter noted, “I know I feel the best I've felt in probably five years at the end of the season. I feel healthier. Mentally, physically, I feel better. I know anecdotally, a lot of players agree with that, but ... anecdotes don't tell the whole story. You need the data.”
And the NFLPA has the data.
“If we’ve identified strategies for reducing concussions by 30 percent and it doesn’t involve modifying game rules, it would be reckless not to implement those changes,’' Tretter said.
Prior to the NFL setting the offseason program this week that includes 10 OTAs and a mandatory minicamp in the period from May 17-June 18, Tretter said, “Everything has to be collectively bargained. Last year, (everything) had to be collectively bargained, and now we see what those changes brought us. There’s really no denying it anymore. You can avoid soft tissue injuries. You can avoid concussions. You can avoid heat-related illness. You can avoid those things by following the science.’'
So, when talks failed to reach an agreement, the union suggested to players that they not participate in the voluntary portions of the offseason program and several teams announced that would happen just before the league unilaterally announced the offseason plan. A bizarre narrative then developed in which it was claimed players wanted no on-field offseason work so younger players wouldn’t have a as much of an opportunity to take their jobs.
That was fueled in part by Tampa Bay Buccaneeres head coach Bruce Arians, who recently said, “If we lose spring, (young players) are not getting developed. The veterans love that s–t, because that means they don’t get to take their jobs. So when you have the veterans voting on the rules. ... these young kids need practice. If the vets don’t want to come, they don’t have to come. It’s still voluntary. We need the preseason, we definitely need some preseason games.”
Well, they didn’t last year, the competition was good and young players still found their way to the field. In addition, what coach would award a job to a player based on offseason work in shorts? That stretches the bounds of credibility.
Former NFL head coach Jim Mora Jr. scoffed at the notion that players want to stay away in the offseason to keep their jobs.
He told AllCardinals, “I don't think that holds water at all. I think it's more that veteran players want to have flexibility to work out where they want to work out with who they want to work out with; the personal trainers. These guys know their bodies. They take care of their bodies. This is how they earn their living, it's their profession. I think the restrictions of having to come in in the offseason and do certain things can take a toll on these guys. We don't understand how brutal a sport this is, and how it's not just physically draining, it's emotionally draining and they need a chance to recover.”
While Mora said a minicamp and a couple OTAs might be worthwhile, he added, “I'm not sure how valuable that offseason is to the veterans. I think all of them; not all, but most of them, take care of themselves. And we've added a 17th game and the wear and tear on these guys; I mean, it's brutality.”
Mora realizes things have changed, and it started in earnest with the 2011 CBA when OTAs and contact in practice were scaled back. Now, the players are pushing for more.
“Look, it's a different world today, these players are gaining a little bit more power,” Mora said. “They're asserting themselves more, but I know this: They're going to be ready to go when the season starts. And if they feel fresh, and they feel revived, that's a good thing. If they feel worn out because they were forced to come into a facility, if you don’t want to go today, (if you don’t have the attitude of) I can't wait to be here, it's so exciting to be here, I don't know if it's a good thing.”
Aside from the injury factor, the reality, as Smith noted, is that despite the growing number of people being vaccinated, numbers are still higher now than they were last year and many refuse to be vaccinated.
“Right now, we are not normal,” Tretter said. “The NFL doesn't get to decide when the pandemic is over or when we get to stop caring about COVID. COVID is still out there. Our players do not want to catch it still. There are plenty of guys who have talked about issues that they felt for a long time after catching COVID. (Browns defensive end) Myles (Garrett) being one of them. He talked about it all year, about how he felt that it was still bothering him.
“So, guys don't want to catch something and make themselves vulnerable to that in the middle of unnecessary practices in the springtime that could impact them during games in the fall.”
Finally, in a piece posted on the NFLPA website, Tretter succinctly wrote about 2020: “The positive thing about this year was that we proved we can prioritize player health and safety while still putting out a top-notch product for our fans.
“The changes implemented as a result of the COVID-19 crisis proved that we can make the game safer for our players and the product will not suffer.”