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NFL players, coaches violate lockout by staying in touch

by | CBSSports.com National Columnist
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The workout ended and a small group of players from one NFL team left a practice field, drove to a nearby house of a teammate and went inside. Once there, one of the players put his phone, near the kitchen, on speaker.

A few rings and then a familiar voice answered. It was one of the offensive assistant coaches. "How did practice go?" the assistant asked and a relaxed, 20-minute conversation between coach and players ensued.

It's a normally unremarkable scene except for one problem: it's not supposed to happen.

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Over a two-week period, I spoke with a half-dozen players and handful of assistant coaches from both conferences. The picture that emerges is one where coaches and players, despite rules against it, stay in almost weekly contact with one another using a variety of technologies.

While lockout rules are supposed to prevent contact between players and coaches, when it comes to the team workouts, both sides are utilizing Skype, e-mail, text-messaging and good, old-fashioned phone calls to update coaches on the progress of group workouts, what players are doing to stay in shape and even personal issues.

Sometimes, they simply gossip or talk about the lockout. Think of the irony of talking about the lockout when they're not supposed to be talking during the lockout. It's like talking about Fight Club during a fight.

Players privately acknowledge that by engaging with coaches during the lockout they are in a way undermining their own trade association. The players' greatest leverage during the lockout is their particular and unmatched skill set, and if they secretly work with their teams the players are undercutting their own power.

They don't seem to care. What was stated repeatedly in interviews is that whichever team stays the most cohesive during this highly divisive fight with owners will have the biggest advantage once the lockout ends.

"Eventually we'll have football again," one high-profile offensive player said. "All that matters to me is who is ready and who isn't."

Players also say that while they see owners as the enemy, they don't view assistant coaches the same way.

Several players estimated 25 percent of the league's players are in regular contact with assistant coaches. However not one player said he had spoken to a head coach. It seems the head coaches, while aware of the contact, are keeping their distance and allowing subordinates to speak with players on their behalf, several sources stated. Plausible deniability, said one assistant. Any team caught communicating with players is subject to punishment from the league office. Superficially, the league is inactive but underneath there are a great many things happening. After I first reported teams were illicitly contacting undrafted free agents, for example. Pro Football Weekly later stated that six NFL agents had been contacted by clubs about those players, a violation of lockout rules. The Columbia (Mo.) Tribune reported that undrafted center Tim Barnes was contacted by Baltimore, Miami and Cincinnati. An NFL spokesman said such contact would amount to tampering.

As for the workouts themselves, some players believe in them, while others aren't so sure of their effectiveness. Green Bay linebacker A.J. Hawk told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel the Super Bowl defending champions are staying in shape without the group sessions.

"The most the defense can do when we get together is seven-on-seven," Hawk said. "I can understand quarterbacks throwing to receivers and stuff like that. I think it's more of a camaraderie thing. I've heard that different guys' workouts from different teams have just been a disaster. They're working out at bad high school fields and equipment and all that kind of stuff."

Hawk seems to be in the minority, however. Most players interviewed seemed to suggest the workouts are a tremendous help. New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees recently organized almost 40 Saints players for group sessions at Tulane.

"We would all be working out somewhere anyway, so why not do it together and why not do it in an organized fashion where it's very football-related?" Brees asked. "It's preparing us to have a championship season, and I feel like it's putting us way ahead of other teams around the league, just by the fact that we’re so organized."

The New York Jets, Giants, Denver, Cleveland, Miami, and Atlanta, among other teams, have held team workouts. Interestingly, players interviewed declined to say if their team was in contact with coaches but did speak about other teams.

Some coaches, players said, have joined players at their home to watch game film and discuss how to better structure the workouts. Coaches are also updated on injuries and how players are recovering from offseason surgeries, players said.

Players and coaches use the Internet phone system Skype. Players describe scenes where coaches first fax copies of certain plays and then players and coaches go over those plays using Skype. Later, players run those plays.

I've heard of conversations between coaches and players using the private direct message function on Twitter as well. Totally untraceable by the NFL.

My guess? This type of contact will continue and no one will ever get caught.

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