Ok. Let me start by saying that I do not, in any way, think the lockout is a good thing. If there is no football this year, I will smash my TV, go insane and move to Tortola. I will slowly deteriorate throughout the winter into a savage alcoholic, wondering from bar to bar in a bathrobe telling bartenders to put on the NFL Network and asking total strangers what the Eagles score is. If clearing my savings account and buying off an 8th Circuit judge could possibly open the doors for free agency, I’d have done it two months ago. My point, with this column, is not that the lockout out is good. I’m just trying to find a silver lining. A shred of optimism. A reason not to break out the bath robe just yet.
Right now, in a normal NFL season, we’d be about a week past the rookie camps and OTAs would be officially underway. It’s the time of year when a team first comes together, when rookies meet veterans and linebackers meet defensive backs, the coach establishes his authority and the seeds of group identity take root within the players. Competitions begin during OTAs; long careers begin to end. Stars are born, and leaders separate themselves from the pack. Social developments like these are not just the most important effect of OTAs, they are the reason for OTAs. By the time you get to training camp, you want your team to know who’s in charge, who to call on when they need help, who can be trusted to make a split-second coverage change on 3rd and 4 with two minutes left in the 4th quarter when you’re down by two in the playoffs. OTAs, in other words, are the clay. Training camp is the oven.
So this year, as we march further into Spring with no end to the lockout in sight, players have had to fulfill this requirement on their own. Coaches, of course, are prohibited from any form of contact with the players and team facilities are off-limits. But recently a number of team leaders – like Matt Ryan, Brian Dawkins, and Drew Brees – have taken it upon themselves to organize “unofficial” team workouts, sometimes drawing as many as 30 or 40 players to work on passing routes, defensive drills, and non-contact 7-on-7s. Michael Vick, solidifying his hard-earned leadership role for the Eagles, sponsored a receivers and running backs workout back in April, and announced last night a more substantial team practice is scheduled for Monday.
Speaking to reporters at a benefit for Desean Jackson’s pancreatic cancer foundation last night, Vick said:
“This is an opportunity for us to come together and kind of put the plan together on how we’re going to approach the season. We’re all excited, we’re all confident.”
And here’s where I see the upside. While players are assuredly going to miss out on some vital weeks of conditioning and physical preparation without OTAs and a full training camp, teams may ultimately benefit from an unprecedented level of freedom and camaraderie in the offseason. By being forced to work together – to find and agree on a practice field, set times and dates, coordinate with other players, organize the drills/workouts/activities, help teammates with their technique or route-running – players now have the opportunity to organize a team the way they want to, to put their own stamp on the offense or defense. Without coaches, team leaders become more important than ever, deciding everything from how long the practices will run to what they eat for dinner. It is a unique moment in the history of the NFL, and the teams who succeed when the lockout finally ends will be the ones who made the most of this opportunity when they had it.
The Eagles are young right now, on both sides of the ball. Every true leader we ever had is gone, and our sense of identity in recent seasons has suffered because of it. Are we a hard-hitting, smashmouth defense, or a small, fast, playmaking defense? Are we a west coast, dink-and-dunk, mobile quarterback offense, or are we an air-it-out, bombs over Baghdad make it rain offense? These questions are usually answered by the coaches, after they understand the quality and character of the playmakers and leaders they have on their team. You don’t take Brian Dawkins because you want to play smashmouth football, you play smashmouth football because you have Brian Dawkins.
But this year there are no coaches. All of these decisions will be made, early on, by the team itself. The players that show up and define themselves as leaders will be able, if they so choose, to build up something new from scratch. They can tweak plays and adjust schemes based on their particular skills or preferences, in a way their coaches might not even consider normally. By being forced to rely on themselves – to band together and trudge through one of the most trying and uncertain times in their professional careers – they can develop a team identity and a group mentality that might never have arisen from the competitiveness and frustrated exhaustion of training camp. For a young team still trying to put together the pieces, these “new OTAs” may lead to a new level of unity, a stronger sense of responsibility for Vick, and the rise of new leaders on defense and offense. It could lead to an attitude, a fire, that our young team might not have found otherwise.
Or, to put it the way Vick did last night: “This time, we can do it our way.”