With NFL teams wrapping up their voluntary virtual offseason training programs in two weeks and the COVID-19 crisis still a concern, the league is now focusing on how best to conduct training camps in a safe and efficient manner that ensures an uninterrupted start to the regular season.
Making sure both objectives can be achieved is the challenge. Or, as a high-ranking NFL official put it: “There’s still a lot of fires to put out.”
That effort has the NFL and its players contemplating various scenarios, perhaps even tweaking the normal four-game preseason schedule and creating a one- or two-week run-up to training camp to help ease players into a camp environment.
All of which has to be agreed upon by the owners and players union. Those talks are ongoing, and no matter what the two sides decide, don’t expect business as usual this summer.
“Teams will certainly approach camps differently this year,” said a high-ranking team official. As of now, the Raiders are scheduled to begin camp July 28.
As of now, 28 teams are scheduled to begin camp on July 28, or 47 or 48 days before their season openers.
The four teams that will open camp earlier are the Kansas City Chiefs, Houston Texans, Dallas Cowboys and Pittsburgh Steelers. The Chiefs and Texans will report on July 25 because their season openers are on Thursday, Sept. 10. And with the Cowboys and Steelers slated to play in the Hall of Fame preseason game on Aug 6th — a week earlier than everyone else — they will report to camp on July 22.
All teams will conduct training camp at their individual facilities or their home stadiums. That is a major change from normal procedure as a handful of teams typically hold training camps at off-site locations.
Use pencil, not pen
All teams will conduct training camp at their individual facilities or their home stadiums. That is a major change as a handful of teams typically hold training camps at off-site locations.
The Raiders, who were scheduled to have training camp at their longtime summer home in Napa, California, will now have camp at their new team headquarters in Henderson.
However, it’s advisable not to write any of those dates in pen.
With COVID-19 sabotaging the NFL’s normal offseason training schedule and denying players the chance to work out at team facilities individually and as full teams, it means the first time they’ll gather on a field together for supervised and intense work is on the first day of training camp.
That is a daunting proposition, and not just due to the underlying concern and precautions that will be in place to make sure players, coaches and staff members are as safe as possible from the spread of the coronavirus.
The challenge of shielding team members and staff from COVID-19 runs parallel to another formidable objective: ensuring players are not in harm’s way by being dropped into an intense training camp environment without the benefit of a supervised offseason conditioning program.
While a normal OTA program is designed to provide players the chance to marry important classroom work with on-field application, it is also a chance to build and condition their bodies to be better prepared for the rigors of training camp and a full season. In fact, the first phase of the offseason program is dedicated to strength and conditioning.
COVID-19 wiped all of that out, with players and coaches only able to conduct virtual meetings through social communication apps Zoom and Skype.
While some Raiders players residing in the Las Vegas area have been gathering in small groups for weightlifting sessions and on-field workouts, plenty of their teammates spread across the country have been on their own.
Player protection key
The lack of consistent supervision has left some in the NFL concerned that a regularly scheduled and conducted training camp could be problematic. To offset that, there has been talk of making some major changes to better protect the players.
One idea is cutting down the preseason from four games to as few as one or two. The intent would be to give players two or three extra weeks to condition their bodies before taking the field for an actual game.
That makes sense in theory, but given how so many key players sit out either all or the majority of the preseason games, the benefit of eliminating two or three of them is negligible.
Or, as an NFL team executive said: “Here is how low on the priority list preseason games are for our head coach: We sometimes have to remind him we have to get on a plane the next day to go play an exhibition game. He is so laser-focused on installs and preparation and practice, the preseason games are barely on his radar.”
While the preseason games might be of little use for established players, they are often the stages that aspiring players use to fortify their chances of earning a spot on the roster. In the case of the Raiders, who are playing their first season in Las Vegas, losing out on one or two dress-rehearsal opportunities to break in Allegiant Stadium, their new home, isn’t ideal.
Another idea being considered is a one- or two-week acclimation period leading up to camp to give players a chance to ease into things. If so, it might be possible to bake in a two- or three-day rookies-only period to help the first-year players get their legs under them.
Remember, the rookie minicamp was wiped out this year due to COVID-19, so this would give those players a chance to recoup that valuable time.
In that scenario, veterans would report shortly after to enable the entire team to get a structured, supervised walk-up to camp in which classroom work, conditioning and unpadded on-field walkthroughs would be emphasized.
Again, though, any report-date adjustment would have to be mutually agreed upon by the owners and players union. Those discussions are ongoing, and with a little over a month before training camp officially starts, time is of the essence.