There has been a certain giddiness among Dallas Cowboys fans over the first pictures of a normal looking Dak Prescott taking reps during the initial session of OTAs. The team is working hard as they welcome back Prescott and other players coming off injury, and of course Dan Quinn and his assistants are busy installing a new defense. This is the way it is for teams all across the league.
Well, it used to be. Of course, last year’s OTAs and the rest of the offseason program were cancelled during the growing pandemic. There were less injuries reported overall in the NFL last year, and that is being seen as one reason. Based on that, the NFLPA called for all voluntary activities to be cancelled or boycotted.
As a result, 22 of the 32 teams have reduced or modified their approach to OTAs. The Cowboys are having one less OTA practice, but Mike McCarthy has attributed that to playing in the Hall of Fame game with training camp therefore starting earlier. The most extreme response to the call from the NFLPA has been by the New Orleans Saints.
“I think it’s moved in a direction where we’re spending a lot more time with them in the weight room, running, conditioning, and I’m a fan of that,” (Saints head coach Sean) Payton said, via the team’s official website. “We’re going to kind of continue that pattern really all the way before the break this summer.
“We’re not going to have a formal practice setup. I really want them focusing more on the weights, and not just the rookies, all of those guys — really working on getting their body weights where they’re supposed to be, getting the conditioning level where it’s supposed to be, all those things that can help them when training camp starts.”
That puts the Cowboys and Saints at opposite ends of the spectrum, with the majority of teams somewhere in between. And this is an area of contention between the NFL and NFLPA that is probably not going to go away.
On the surface, this would seem to give teams like Dallas, who have chosen to be involved in activities that are more like they were in the past, some advantage. They will have a head start in integrating their rookies and new free agents into the system. Some part of the installation that happens every year for all teams will be more advanced when training camp rolls around than for a lot of their competitors.
But there’s a risk involved, which goes to the heart of the NFLPA’s argument. Injuries happen during offseason practices, as Sean Lee can attest to. He lost a full season due to a freak injury when he collided with Zack Martin on the first day of 2014’s OTAs. The union maintains that the lack of offseason work last year and the resultant dip in injuries are connected, and show that taking it easier in the spring pays off in the fall.
Of course, there is also a chance that players can be injured in private workouts, and under the CBA, that can void guarantees for injury, as has happened in the case of the Denver Broncos’ Ju’wuan James. He was cut after tearing his Achilles tendon in an off-site workout, and the team has the option of withholding $10 million in guaranteed money.
Those are important considerations, but the question remains of whether the team as a whole benefits from conducting “full” OTAs more than those who cut back significantly. It may depend more on the particular circumstances of each team.
While obviously some teams, including one from Florida with a new free agent quarterback, were able to handle the complete lack of offseason programs better than others, many have pointed to the lack of that as part of the problems the Cowboys had, particularly on defense where they were also trying to install a new scheme last year. However, there also seemed to be some intransigence by Mike Nolan in trying to teach his players his scheme, and reluctance to adjust things.
With the second new defensive coordinator in as many years, the Cowboys may be more in need of the extra work in the spring than most. Another factor is that they have eleven draftees, the most of any team. By contrast, the Saints only had six picks. Their system is also going to be the same on both sides of the ball. However, Drew Brees is now retired, so Payton may be taking quite a risk in assuming he can get things settled with Taysom Hill or Jameis Winston as his new quarterback.
This may be a case of Mike McCarthy and his staff bowing to need. There are a lot of new faces to incorporate on defense, and 80% of the projected starting offensive line are coming off season-ending injuries and can use some extra time to work on their coordination.
Perhaps this will not give Dallas an advantage as much as it will allow them to make up ground from the disaster of 2020. Teams that are coming off more successful years and with more stable rosters just might not need the extra work as much. The bet that they can get things up to speed just with training camp might not be foolish at all.
For the Cowboys, that would not be at all wise. The risk of injury appears to be outweighed by the many problems that the team has to overcome. Whether this will allow them to get to the start of the season with a bit of an edge over teams that did not have the kind of offseason work they did remains to be seen. But necessity, in this case, is the mother of getting their sweat on.