Are OTAs Really Necessary?

Just in case you didn't know, "OTA" stands for "Organized Team Activities" — which are practice sessions held during the offseason, at which contact is supposed to be sharply curtailed, if not nonexistent altogether. Though attendance at some is conceptually mandatory, players often skip them, especially if they have a money beef with the owner, either in an attempt to get their current contacts extended, or (heaven forbid!) have an existing contract "renegotiated" — the bete noire of a certain breed of owner.

Well, three head coaches — Ron Rivera of the Commanders (them again!), Mike McCarthy of the Cowboys, and Matt Eberflus of the Bears, were disciplined for letting their players get too physical, with all due apologies to Olivia Newton-John — with Rivera getting fined $100,000 — the same amount as his defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio was fined for exercising his right to free speech under the First Amendment — and getting stripped of two OTAs next year, while McCarthy was also fined $100,000 but stripped of only one OTA in 2023, while Eberflus was not fined, but did lose one OTA (and not for nothing, but would these docked OTAs be restored to those respective teams if one or more of these head coaches get fired either during the upcoming regular season, or very soon thereafter? Inquiring minds want to know!).

But are these OTAs even necessary?

One thing we do know about OTA's is that they do not promote competitive balance. Quite the contrary: since OTAs became reasonably universal at the beginning of this century, we have seen one NFL team finish 16-0 (the Patriots in 2007, even though they didn't win the Super Bowl), while two teams have finished 0-16 (the 2008 Lions and 2016 Browns).

Not only that, but despite the ostensible ban on contact at OTAs, every year numerous players suffer injuries therein, some of which have aborted the entire season, or very close to it, of players sustaining such injuries. For example, in 2013 alone, Arian Foster, D.J. Hayden, Frank Gore, Joe Staley, and Michael Crabtree all suffered serious injuries during OTAs, Crabtree tearing his Achilles tendon, costing him 11 games in the ensuing regular season.

(Since Gore, Staley, and Crabtree were all members of the 49ers, who had lost Super Bowl XLVII to the Ravens the year before, some would chalk up their injuries to the dreaded Super Bowl Runner-Up Jinx).

So much for the league's concern about player safety.

And this is not the only NFL policy that makes the careers of players more arduous than they need to be: Supposedly, the owners' holy grail is to hold the Super Bowl on the Presidents' Day weekend, making "Super Bowl Monday" a national holiday without having to add a new national holiday, as has just been done with Juneteenth.

If the owners give each team a second bye week (they actually did that in 1993), as the CFL has done continuously since 1996 (and each CFL team had three bye weeks in 2021), and as three-time Pro Bowl tight end George Kittle of the 49ers has just suggested, the Super Bowl would be pushed back one week, to the desired weekend; and if this is done, all teams playing a Thursday game (whether it is a Thursday night game or a Thanksgiving Day game) can be given an automatic bye the week before, satisfying the totally justifiable complaints of such as Ben Roethlisberger, one of the NFL's ultimate warriors, who retired five months ago.

Furthermore, the second bye week would get the Super Bowl to the Presidents' Day weekend without adding an 18th game to the regular season, something the NFLPA, which at times is admittedly so toothless that it never even proposed that an "innocent until proven guilty" clause be included in the collective bargaining agreement that was signed two years ago — an omission that could cost Deshaun Watson his entire 2022 season — would have to agree to unilaterally. But it is highly likely that the union would instead tear a page from The Who's sheet music and sing, in near-unison, We Won't Get Fooled Again.

And the fines meted out to Rivera and McCarthy (and Del Rio) are clearly excessive: coaches — even head coaches — don't make a great deal of money. Indeed, on a typical team, at least a dozen of the players have higher salaries than the head coach.

This story points up a lot of what is wrong with today's NFL — and what needs to be changed.

But some things need to go back to the way they were. Everything was fine when the offseason was just that — the offseason, a basic truth confirmed by the "new" USFL's, to put it charitably, dismal Nielsen ratings.

As the fishermen in New England say, there is a day to cast your nets and a day to dry your nets.

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