Reward Outweighs Risk in Offseason Workouts


Yesterday, Mike Vick organized an unofficial team workout at an undisclosed location in South Jersey, drawing the likes of Jeremy Maclin, Jason Avant, Brent Celek and 11 other players from around the NFL. Like every other workout so far this offseason, the Eagles-sponsored session was devoid of pads or heavy contact, ultimately concluding without incident or injury. But like all things Philadelphia, the workout has become a hot topic of debate and criticism anyway.

A number of reports – including one from our friends at Section 215 – discussed the “enormous personal risk” both Vick and his teammates were taking by running drills and 7-on-7s alongside more than a dozen 200-pound men without the security and protection of a team contract. Which is true. These workouts are risky. As the practices are not – can not – be sponsored by the Team, they are legally considered “personal time” for players. And nearly every NFL contract has a clause which permits coaches to bench without pay or even flat-out cut a player who injures himself in his “personal time.” If Vick or Maclin were to tear an ACL or break their ankle during an unofficial workout, their best-case scenario would be missing an entire year’s salary. Worst case, they lose their job. To Mike Kafka.

But we here at ITI respectfully disagree with the idea that it’s a dumb risk. When stacked up against the potential benefits, the dangers of the practices seem relatively benign.

For starters, the workouts are totally non-contact. Even with 15 players, there’s simply not enough man-power on the field to conduct a full scrimmage or even a prolonged 7-on-7. Most of the work is just strength and conditioning: squats, sprints, weights, jumping jacks – regular OTA stuff. The rest is usually backyard-style passing and catching, timing patters and basic routes. The odds of getting injured during these – as anyone who’s thrown around a football can tell you – may be higher than sitting at home with a ShakeWeight, but they’re relatively similar to the dangers of lifting weights, running on uneven ground, or any of the other offseason workout strategies a player might follow to stay in shape during the lockout. And they’re a hell of a lot safer than Chad Johnson‘s training program.

Injuries are a part of the human condition, and they can strike anyone, anytime and anywhere. A few years ago, if I’m not mistaken, Brandon Marshall ended up taking stitches in his arm during the offseason after “slipping on a McDonald’s wrapper” and putting his arm through a T.V. screen. (Turns out, “slipping on a McDonald’s wrapper” is slang for getting into a fight with your wife). Then there was Stewart Bradley’s season ending knee injury in 2009, which occurred not in an unsupervised, improvised workout, but under the watchful gaze of coaches, trainers and fans at Eagles Flight Night. Last year, Giants free safety Chad Jones broke his leg in an offseason car accident, the Broncos’ Ryan Clady tore his patella tendon playing basketball, and Carolina’s Steve Smith broke his arm playing flag football. Some analysts may view all these incidents as proof that even benign activities, like playing horse or ignoring your girlfriend while you eat a Big Mac, can lead to serious, season-ending injury; all the more reason why offseason workouts should be stopped immediately.

But I see it differently. All of these injuries, whether they happened on a field or in a living room, are proof that injuries just happen. Period. Last year I successfully tore my ACL by first drinking bourbon at a party (a lot of bourbon, admittedly) and then being attacked from behind by a total stranger who later told me, as I sat writhing in bed, that he “just wanted to wrestle someone.” People screw up their backs and tear muscles in their shoulder all the time, playing ultimate frisbee or driving to the supermarket. The only surefire way to lessen the chance of serious muscle injury – aside from taking up permanent residence in a hermetically-sealed Volvo – is exercise. Strength. Flexibility. Conditioning.

NFL players who go this whole offseason without any more training than a few weeks in the weight room are going to be more at risk for injury when play finally resumes. By working out alongside teammates – and maybe a few rivals – players are going to push themselves harder than they ever would on their own. To quote Texans tackle Eric Winston: “I think [the practices are] more about getting more out of it if you work out with somebody than if you work alone.”

And, of course, there’s the intangible stuff too. Camaraderie, trust, leadership, etc. By setting up and controlling the practices themselves, players can develop a sense of ownership and responsibility for the team that otherwise might be overshadowed by the dictatorial presence of a coach.

No, these practices probably won’t be the difference between greatness and disaster (Though they didn’t hurt the 82 and 87 Redskins, eh?) But they will give players a leg up on training camp, if and when we have one. They’ll be the difference between going from 0 to 60 or 25 to 60. I guarantee you, the teams who avoid offseason workouts now are going to have less productive – and likely more injury-prone – training camps than the teams who took the time to shake the rust off when the had the chance. I for one am glad Vick, Maclin and the rest are the kind of players who strive to get better, stronger, faster each and every day, regardless of whether or not they stand to lose a paycheck. Champions aren’t afraid of a little risk. They challenge themselves; they push limits; they do everything in their power to be better than the other guy. No matter what the cost.