Up until a few years ago, offseason workouts would be starting right about now for most NFL teams. Coaches would be instructing players in classrooms; the conditioning staff would be working with the players; conditioning and on-field sessions would already be taking place; all of this would be happening nearly five months before training camps would open in late July.
But all of that changed with the 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement which placed many more restrictions on the "voluntary" offseason conditioning program than its previous iteration. With the new CBA, none of the described offseason activities happen before mid April, and players and teams can do very little until then. The teams can send their players a playbook. They can also let them watch film. But the coaches can’t go over the playbook or watch film together with the players.
Players are allowed to use the team’s strength and conditioning facility, but the new CBA only allows the strength coaches to "supervise use of the weight room to prevent injury and to correct misuse of equipment." Specific training tips, group workouts and any type of coaching is strictly prohibited.
Here is what the CBA allows:
Art 21, Sect. 2 (a): Clubs may schedule or conduct offseason workout programs for no more than nine consecutive total weeks, to be completed over a ten-week period
Art 21, Sect. 2 (c): Each year offseason workout programs cannot begin prior to the first Monday in April for Clubs that have hired a new head coach after the end of the prior regular season, and cannot begin prior to the third Monday in April for all other Clubs.
The nine week program is broken into three separate phases as follows:
Phase One: For the first two weeks, only strength and conditioning coaches are allowed to work with players on the field, and the activities are limited to "strength and conditioning" and "physical rehabilitation." All other coaches may not attend or observe in any way
The CBA prohibits the use of footballs during Phase One. The only exception allowed is for quarterbacks to throw to receivers, but defensive backs aren’t allowed to cover them, and coaches may not be present.
Phase Two: This is three weeks of individual and "perfect play" drills (no offense vs. defense), and all coaches are permitted on the field. The workouts may include individual player instructions and drills.
All of these drills are conducted without helmets. Contact work (e.g., "live" blocking, tackling, pass rushing, bump-and-run), is expressly prohibited.
Phase Three: Teams may conduct a total of 10 days of "Organized Team Activities" over a period of four weeks. The fourth week is usually reserved for a three-day mandatory mini-camp.
All coaches are allowed on the field, but no live contact is permitted in phase three. Helmets may be worn, but no other pads. No one-on-one offense vs. defense drills are permitted (i.e., no offensive linemen vs. defensive linemen pass rush or pass protection drills, no wide receivers vs. defensive backs bump-and-run drills, and no one-on-one special teams drills involving both offense and defense are permitted). Special teams drills (e.g., kicking team vs. return team) are permitted, provided no live contact occurs.
Based on the boundaries outlined above, here's what the start of the 2015 season will probably look like for the Cowboys:
Important upcoming dates for the Dallas Cowboys
- April 20: Teams like Dallas with returning head coaches may begin their offseason workout programs (teams with new head coaches can begin on April 6)
- April 30 - May 2: NFL Draft (Chicago)
- Early May: Teams may hold a three-day post-draft rookie minicamp from Friday through Sunday or Saturday through Monday on either the first or second weekend after the draft (Either May 8-11 or May 15-18).
- Week of May 26: Voluntary OTAs likely to begin (veterans and rookies). Phase three of the offseason program kicks off with four consecutive weeks of OTAs. Three sessions in week 1, four sessions in week 2, three sessions in week 3, followed by the mandatory minicamp in week 4
- June 16-18: Mandatory Minicamp likely to take place (veterans and rookies). Minicamp concludes the nine-week stretch of Phases 1-3 of the offseason program. If the Cowboys choose to have an off week somewhere within that period, the subsequent dates would all move back by one week.
- July 30 - Aug 1, Training camp opens (Oxnard, CA). The Cowboys will play their first preseason game of 2015 between August 15-17. Players report to a club’s preseason training camp no earlier than 15 days prior to the club’s first scheduled preseason game, which would put the first day of training camp between July 30 and August 1. The reporting period for quarterbacks and injured players begins five days earlier.
- August 15-17, Preseason opener against a yet to be determined opponent.
- September 13, Opening weekend of the 2015 NFL season.
- February 7, 2016, Super Bowl 50 at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, California
With the changes the NFL and NFLPA have made to the offseason schedule, the reality of the offseason is that it's less about getting physically ready for the regular season, and much more about installing the playbook in what amounts to an extended cram session. And that install kicks into hyperdrive when rookie minicamp starts.
OTA's and mini-camps are where 75-80% of the playbook is installed. The idea behind that is that the players arrive for training camp, all the basic schemes have already been installed, and the players can concentrate on competing. During camp, coordinators will look to install the remainder of the playbook and in the latter half of camp preparation for the opponent in the season opener will begin.
That’s why it’s so critical - especially for rookies - to participate in the offseason activities. Only if they have an understanding of the core schemes in the playbook can they go out and compete effectively with the veterans in training camp. An injury or academic requirements that keep a rookie out of this install period can leave a player trying to catch up the whole season. And in an environment where many players already have trouble keeping up with the pace of the install when they are fully healthy and full offseason participants, that's almost always going to be a problem.