Lockout workouts can offer more than you'd believe

by | CBSSports.com Senior Writer
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The New York Jets just completed three days of workouts in New Jersey, with an estimated 40 players in attendance, and that's great. But what I'm wondering is what those 40 players accomplished.

You know what I mean. Without a defined structure, without helmets and pads and without coaches, what exactly did they gain from the experience?

"Camaraderie," said former defensive back Bruce Laird. "You can't simulate training camp or OTAs, but you are together."

Mark Sanchez did for the Jets what Dan Fouts did for the Chargers: keep them working and together. (Getty Images)  
Mark Sanchez did for the Jets what Dan Fouts did for the Chargers: keep them working and together. (Getty Images)  
Yeah, I know, it sounds corny, but Laird knows what he's talking about. As a member of the 1982 San Diego Chargers, he went through a similar experience as players today with, of course, with a couple of notable exceptions: 1) It was a strike, not a lockout, and 2) it occurred in the middle of the regular season, after two games had been played. That meant that, unlike today, playbooks were distributed, training camps were held and preseason and regular-season games were staged.

Nevertheless, it was a 57-day stalemate, with players wondering when ... or if ... they would play again, and tell me that doesn't sound familiar. So the San Diego Chargers did what they had to do, which was organize team practices at a local school, work out three times a week and try to stay ready, fit and, most important, together for the resumption of the season.

That sounds corny, too, only you can't undersell the value of unity in a team sport, and the San Diego Chargers insist they not only gained it during the strike but that it had an impact on what happened when the season resumed. And what happened is that they won five of their next six, including a marvelous 41-37 defeat of defending Super Bowl champion San Francisco, before beating four-time Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh in the opening round of the playoffs.

"What we got from that experience," special teams captain Hank Bauer said, "was a commitment to each other. We were in a unique situation where we didn't know if the strike was going to end the next hour or the next year. We knew we were a Super Bowl contender, and we knew that at any point that could be ended. So we wanted to have an advantage, and what we did was make a commitment to ourselves."

Like the Jets, the Chargers held informal workouts -- with players organizing them without the cooperation or influence of coaches. Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Fouts ran the offense, which was significant because he wasn't a union member or sympathizer. But Fouts was the team leader, and he understood the importance of his involvement.

"Everyone expects you to be there," he said.

And so he was, running teammates through 7-on-7 drills after individual workouts had ended and before players dispersed to lift weights. Fouts was the face of the franchise and the most important player on the club, but he was also a veteran who was acutely aware of his responsibility to his teammates, much, as it seems, quarterback Mark Sanchez does today with the Jets. It was Sanchez who helped organize those "Jets West" workouts, and it was Sanchez who helped put together the three-day practices this week in New Jersey.

What happened during those sessions isn't important because, let's be honest: What happened during those sessions wasn't much more than touch football ... or, as Laird so eloquently put it, "something like what you did after school when you were 12 years old." It didn't matter who ran the tightest patterns or made the most acrobatic catches or was the fastest. What mattered is that there were people who cared enough to show up, work together and forge a togetherness that can pull them through any adversity that awaits them.

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"That was a big thing," Fouts said, "because when you start playing again, you know who has your back and all those clichés. But that's what makes a team. People always ask me what do I miss most about playing, and I tell them 'the guys.' The biggest thing with those practices was that it got us together.

"As far as the workouts went, you got out of them what you put into them, and for me and the receivers and backs, playing 7-on-7 was great because we played catch. As far as the linemen are concerned, I'm not sure what they got out of them other than a lot of running and staying in shape that way. But for us, it was perfect because we were a passing offense."

Not only were they the game's most prolific passing offense, they were an offense built on timing -- with Fouts so accurate that Monday Night Football once blindfolded him during a practice, had him take a snap from center, then try to pass to wide receiver Charlie Joiner -- who had run a seven-yard square out on the right sideline. Fouts not only completed the pass, he hit Joiner just before he stepped out of bounds.

The Chargers offense was built on timing and rhythm, with Fouts serving as maestro to a precisely tuned orchestra. When the strike intervened, putting an end to practices that made them the league's most productive unit, Fouts and his receivers sharpened their skills at weekly workouts -- waiting on a strike that wouldn't end for nearly eight weeks.

Nevertheless, when it did, they were ready ... and now you know why.

"Those workouts definitely brought us together," Bauer said, "but they kept us in rhythm, too. Football games are played once a week, so you have to stay in shape mentally and physically. But when you stop for seven weeks and do nothing, you're in trouble, because you're out of rhythm, and injuries can take place.

"We were aware of that, which is why we did what we did. It's sort of like a golfer who takes two months off, then tries to return and play at a championship level. What do you think happens there? Oh, we already saw it in Tiger Woods. The emotional investment we made to each other proved out."

And it might to teams like the New York Jets. So nearly 30 years passed since the '82 strike. Big deal. The lessons are the same. And the lesson is as meaningful today as it was then.

"You can never quantify the value of camaraderie," said Bauer.

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