No OTAs, no minicamps? This season could be ugly

by | CBSSports.com National Columnist
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It's October of 2011 and the first game of the NFL season is under way. It begins with the kicking team having too many men on the field.

When play begins, there are a series of false start penalties. Passes hit the dirt. Defenders arm tackle. There's confusion about the play calling and delay of game infractions are rampant throughout the day. A startling number of players pull their hamstrings. In some games, players are exhausted by halftime -- hands on their hips, gasping for air.

Sean Payton and the then-champion Saints were busy during OTAs last June 4. (US Presswire)  
Sean Payton and the then-champion Saints were busy during OTAs last June 4. (US Presswire)  
By the middle of the season, teams are on pace for a record number of holding penalties. Indeed, a record number of penalties, period.

You think this is crazy? You think this can't happen? Some NFL coaches and players have been privately discussing such a scenario for weeks. They see a lockout eliminated offseason leading to an NFL year that resembles a scene from a Jack Black movie.

They privately believe next season might be among the sloppiest NFL seasons in two decades, reminding some of the strike years from the 1980s, the replacement-player era. Yuck-y.

The reason is the loss of organized team activities (OTAs) and minicamps. Players despise both but the two are actually critical to why the sport of football has become much more elegant over the past decade or two. OTAs/minicamps set up training camp and training camp sets up the season. Remove one peg from that trifecta and you could have Necessary Roughness.

Many fans and media think football now is less fundamentally sound than football in the 1960s or '80s or '90s (especially the get-off-my-lawn old timers). I'd disagree, minus an exception or two like the Packers' or 49ers' dynasties. The sport overall now is as fluid and well-played as it's ever been, partly because the level of athleticism has increased, rules changes allow offenses to flourish and the OTA/minicamp system has become increasingly more regimented.

Indeed, OTAs have become a football industrial complex all to themselves. The offseason work allows coaches to drill their players year-round. This will be the first offseason in some time, during the hyper-modern era, without that work. It's silly to think the sport won't suffer and possibly suffer dramatically.

Some disagree. Atlanta coach Mike Smith, one of the smartest and most underrated coaches in the sport, believes players and coaches will be more than ready once the season comes. Whenever it comes. If it comes.

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"I believe all across the league everyone is doing their due diligence, coaches and players, to make sure they're ready" for when the season starts, Smith told me.

One thing that seems certain: teams are preparing for life without OTAs and camps this year. Only Bill Belichick is publicly admitting the labor strife likely has killed both.

"At one point, we had to prepare for the offseason program, and that's not really a part of it now," Belichick told the Boston Herald this week. "We talked about some kind of minicamp or [organized team activities], but now, we just turn our attention to training camp and get our teaching and organization straight there."

Amazingly, Belichick said that despite it being only May, because of the expected loss of OTAs and minicamps, he'll have to reduce offensive and defensive playbooks.

"Whatever the time frame is, if it's less than what we're used to having, which I agree it seems like it's going to be, [we'll adjust]," Belichick said. "We'll have to take the windows that we have to teach things and try to see how much we feel realistically we can get done. Something's going to have to go, I would think. The progression's got to stay the same, but the breadth of that amount of installation could be subject to being trimmed back, maybe drastically."

If Belichick is doing this, you can expect every team is doing this.

The conditioning will also be a huge factor. Players are working out on their own but it's not the same as being under the constant supervision of coaches and trainers. Because the speed and intensity of the sport has grown exponentially, training camps are no longer solely adequate to prepare players for the mental rigors and physical brutality of an NFL season.

If the lockout heads into July or longer this is what could happen: players could be out of shape, be armed with fewer offensive and defensive plays, resulting in one of the sloppier seasons in recent history.

Maybe 2011 will provide the comic relief that's been lacking during the lockout.

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