Schwartz: An Inside Look at the NFL Offseason Program
Very quietly, the offseason programs for some NFL teams with new head coaches have begun, two weeks ahead of the scheduled start time for teams with returning coaches. Teams with new head coaches, all seven of them, are allowed to begin their offseason programs two weeks early to account for an extra ‘voluntary’ minicamp.
Here are the ins and outs of the NFL offseason program, especially as it relates to the teams with new coaching staffs.
The NFL offseason program, commonly referred to as organized team activities (OTAs), is a nine-week program broken up into three phases that culminate with a mandatory veteran minicamp. The first phase is two weeks of four-hour days broken up into weight lifting and class room time. In the second phase (still with four-hour days) you’re allowed to be on the field with a coach, but you’re not allowed to do team drills. In fact, no one is allowed to be lined up across from you. Trash cans are used for an offense or defense. The third phase of the offseason program is what’s referred to as OTAs. They are six-hour days with a practice. No live contact is permitted, but 7-on-7, 9-on-7, and 11-on-11 drills are permitted. Phase three ends with a mandatory minicamp that is two-and-a-half days. It’s a tight nine-week program.
When you have a new head coach, your offseason program is ten weeks, which allows for an extra minicamp before the NFL draft. These phases generally run the same, whether or not you have a returning coach. However, when you have a new coach, things start slowwwww.
Phase 1: Classroom and Weight Room
With a new head coach, the first week of the first phase has a general introduction type of atmosphere. In the classroom, it’s just a basic introduction to the philosophy of the new head coach, coordinators and position coaches. Remember, contact between players and coaches is limited between the end of the season and the beginning of the offseason program. Each coach will relay how he wants the team, his side of the ball, or his position to run. Since I played offense line, my OL coach would tell us what he wanted to emphasize and what drills he wanted us to run. With a returning team, this is just a refresher course, and then you go right into the playbook. With a new staff, it takes longer for the introduction.
In the weight room, there’s a getting-to-know-each-other period. What does the strength coach expect from the player and vice versa? Does that strength coach prefer Olympic lifts or machine lifts? Will there be an extensive amount of running, or does the strength coach build in conditioning with drills? What are the limitations of the athlete? Some older guys don’t squat or power clean anymore: What changes can be made for that? The first week is all about figuring out how to work together, both in the weight room and in the classroom.
One you get into week two (still in the first phase), you get to dig into the playbook fully. It’s a slow process. For offensive linemen, it’s learning the philosophy of the run game and what techniques we should use. We watch a ton of film from the previous offensive lines the coaches have had. For the passing game, it’s not so much about learning techniques but more about learning protections and adjustments. In the skill position meetings, which are most often held together, quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, and tight ends learn formations from the ground up starting at the tail end of Week 1 and continuing into Week 2.
Phase 2: The Field
After the first two weeks, you’re allowed to step onto the field to walk through formations and plays. This is when the coaches can start to teach the particulars of plays. If you’re with a new coach, it starts from the beginning, literally learning exactly where to line up in each specific formation and all the different snap counts. With a returning coach, the same things are worked on, but since there’s continuity you can move into the next phases of the process faster. And this continues for the rest of the offseason program.
Teams with new coaches have to move at a slower pace to make sure the players understand everything. The playbook gets installed a total of four times throughout the offseason: The first five weeks, then OTAs, then minicamp, and lastly training camp. Eventually it all becomes ingrained in the players, but it I contend it really takes 8-10 regular season weeks to get an offense going.
Phase 3: OTAs
The last phase of the offseason is the OTAs, when you have actual practice. It’s the first time for 11-on-11 work, in helmets, running plays against an offense or defense. The first few sessions are kind of disasters, since the players and coaches are figuring out the practice schedule and the speed of practice. These do vary from team to team. Typically, the pace of play is SUPER fast with new coaches, as everyone is trying to impress the new staff. Again, the No. 1 focus of this time period is learning, especially when a new scheme is being installed. Even in the weight room, there’s still a focus on mastering the new program, especially since results can’t be compared to those from previous seasons.
Within the coming weeks, you’re going to read a lot about offseason programs, new installations, OTAs and more. When you’re consuming this information, be sure to keep in mind that every team runs its offseason program differently and what holds for one team might not for another.
And that’s especially the case for the teams with new coaches. For these franchises, this offseason is all about learning.
Pictured above: Raiders head coach Jon Gruden