Detroit players joined a coordinated effort by the NFLPA to say they were going to stay away from the team’s voluntary offseason program before most of them showed up for practices.
Conversations with first-year coach Dan Campbell found enough middle ground for some players to think twice about skipping. Around the league, mandatory minicamps starting next week are going on mostly as planned.
Emphasis on “mandatory,” which means players can be fined for no-showing.
“I personally don’t have the funds to hand back to the organization, so I will 100% be here,” Miami tight end Mike Gesicki said.
“They also give out free food in the facility, so I’ll be coming for breakfast, lunch, dinner,” Gesicki said, prompting laughter from reporters. “It’s really a special place. We’ve got waters and Gatorade in the fridge, snacks in the weight room. It’s a nice place to be. Happy to be here.”
Joking aside, a brewing standoff between players and coaches or their bosses seems to have faded, and there is a sense around the league that conversations could lead to foundational changes in the structure of the offseason.
Players are seeking those changes because they believe the quality of play in 2020 was as good as ever despite no in-person work last offseason because of the pandemic.
“I think teams have done a good job of working it out between coaches and players,” agent Ron Slavin said.
Case in point, the Lions.
They were among roughly two-thirds of NFL teams to issue statements through the union in April saying they planned to skip in-person work during formal offseason practices known as organized team activities.
By the time those dates arrived in late May, most players were attending. In other cities, the issue of staying away wasn’t even a dominant part of virtual interviews with players and reporters.
Campbell said he was talking to players about the offseason program before the coordinated effort by the union, and he wanted the conversation to be about the needs of players — and coaches.
“All I can say is this is the first step,” Campbell said last month as offseason practices were starting. “These guys were willing to take the first step, and to me, that speaks volumes. So, this leadership and these players, they wanted to do this. They wanted to be here and they’re here.”
Sure, there are some big names staying away from offseason work at team facilities, Tampa Bay’s Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers of Green Bay among them. But some, like Rodgers and his showdown with the front office, are unrelated to issues of offseason requirements.
Contracts are also playing a role in whether players show up. The union didn’t ask members to stay away if they had workout bonuses, or provisions for reduced pay if they don’t show up in the offseason, known as de-escalators.
Dallas tight end Dalton Schultz, the team’s player representative, said at least 20 veterans on his team have contracts with compensation tied to offseason work with the Cowboys.
“I think a lot of guys were in that mindset anyway of, ‘I’m going in to save the money that’s in my contract,’” Schultz said. “It started there and once we realized there’s going to be a lot of guys there, I don’t think there was any hesitation about going in, at least from a personal perspective. If there’s going to be 20 guys, it’s like, ‘I’m going to be there too.’”
Something else was at work as well.
Star quarterback Dak Prescott missed the rest of the 2020 season after his horrific ankle injury in Week 5. He’s gearing up for a return after signing a $160 million, four-year contract, and the Cowboys believed the virtual-only offseason was a huge issue that sidetracked coach Mike McCarthy’s first season.
“Believe it or not there wasn’t many conversations about not showing up,” Prescott said. “Coming from me and coming from the guys and a lot of leaders, I mean obviously we talked to some of the NFLPA reps just on what those meetings are about. But as far as these guys and this locker room, didn’t really have much conversations about guys not showing up.”
Washington was among a few teams that shortened the schedule for voluntary workouts and moved up minicamp. There were plenty of teams that didn’t use all available practice dates, and some that said the schedule was flexible.
Indianapolis made a dramatic change, scrapping minicamp after two weeks of light, voluntary works followed by a two-month break before training camp. The traditional amount of time off is about six weeks.
“We’re all pros and I think the coaches, they put the trust in you to during offseason to put the work in, whether it’s at the facility or not,” New England running back James White said. “It’s up to you to put the work in and make sure you’re prepared. Taking care of your body. So I think that’s what’s most important.”
Like most teams, the two-time defending AFC champion Kansas City Chiefs planned no changes to their minicamp schedule, and the biggest name among them participated in earlier offseason work.
“I think the biggest thing is you get to experiment a little bit more,” quarterback Patrick Mahomes said. “I know they’re voluntary, but we’re able to experiment and not go extremely hard and still get some good work in, get the guys together and build that chemistry, be a part of the team.”