NFL's not-so-hidden secret: As Brady, Donald and even Beckham know, OTAs don't matter
Ultimately, OTAs are just fake football serving as a backdrop to real business
Can I let you in on a little secret? OK, cool, I'll whisper it so as not to anger the Football Gods. Hold your ear down to your laptop or move your phone up to the side of your head. Here goes:
Organized team activities -- OTAs -- don't matter.
They are largely irrelevant and are mere replications of a football practice, much less an actual game. They are a glorified babysitting service for teams to be able to keep an eye on young players, in particular, through a half-year offseason. They are a way to generate press coverage through the dog days of spring and create faux-drama and irrelevant plot lines that, nevertheless, feed the beast when it comes to NFL content. Organized team activities are, dare I say it, damn near fake news when it comes to the litany of factors that go into winning seasons and losing seasons and player development and everything else.
They are a great way to take attendance and build up quasi-narratives in terms of who is really bought in and all about their team this year, and who is not. If you want a completely un-nuanced portal into Team Guys vs. Me Guys, well, this will serve all superficial purposes at a time when the NBA and NHL finals are nearly upon us and it's finally starting to feel like baseball weather in most of the country and we're still a month away from MINICAMPS!!!, which are mandatory and allow teams to actually fine veterans for their absence, unlike these voluntary OTAs.
What they can serve as, however, is a barometer of a player's current measure of contentment with his contract, as, lest we forget, football is not just an entertainment product but a multibillion-dollar business. And at a time when, despite all the doom and gloom prophecies and issues with attendance and viewership and all the hand-wringing over a dozen or so players who might take a knee during the national anthem any given weekend, I dare say the business of football is quite robust. Fox just bought in massively on a "Thursday Night Football" brand that many have called for to be expunged. Verizon re-upped a five-year streaming deal worth $2 billion. And a dude just paid $2.2 billion, cash, for the right to buy the Carolina Panthers despite the stadium situation being less than ideal and at a time when the former owner was forced to sell quickly and under duress from an ugly sexual misconduct/racism scandal.
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So, yeah, feel free to surmise that Tom Brady and Aaron Donald want their cut of the pie -- hence their absence from these short practices -- which just the same explains the presence of Odell Beckham Jr. at Giants OTAs. All are making perfectly valid and rational business decisions -- just like all 32 teams do all the time -- based on their individual circumstances. That doesn't make them selfish. It doesn't make them bad teammates -- or, in the case of OBJ, now thrust him into some type of higher locker-room stratosphere -- and regardless of the position one plays, it isn't jeopardizing the Rams' or Patriots' chances of returning to the playoffs any more than Beckham catching some passes in front of his new coach this week will turn the Giants into Lombardi Trophy contenders.
It really doesn't matter one way or the other, in football terms, whatsoever. But if the NFL is going to operate with what amounts to an 11-month calendar, and there are clear delineations between what is required per a standard contract and what is not, then why the heck wouldn't the employees choose to follow those mandates as they see fit? Why would you not use it to send a bit of a passive-aggressive message to management in the case of Brady and Donald, or an olive branch in the case of Beckham (given his latest mini-scandal with the video and the pizza and the other stuff)? We are talking generational talents in these three, who bring it on game day like few others ever have and who aren't going to improve their craft all that much in May walkthroughs.
So, yeah, I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that Brady, who just won an MVP award at age 40, probably isn't doing cartwheels about an offseason in which his left tackle, starting running back and top wide receivers from 2017 are all gone (in fact, he might be jumping off cliffs, literally). He obviously watched the market for quarterbacks go bonkers again, with Brady's agent, Don Yee, landing a record contract for former backup Jimmy Garoppolo after just five starts for the 49ers and Kirk Cousins, who has never won a playoff game, get $90 million guaranteed from a team he has never thrown a pass for. I can guarantee you that Brady knows that his $15 million total compensation in 2018 is 18th among all quarterbacks and less than guys like Sam Bradford, Blake Bortles, Tyrod Taylor, Case Keenum and Ryan Tannehill.
Brady is probably not thrilled that the one healthy -- at least for now -- and dominant cog he has in the passing game, Rob Gronkowski, is still in need of a fair-market contract himself. And he fully understands that, had the Patriots defense been able to get a single stop in the Super Bowl outside of the one Eagles drive that ended on a somewhat fluky interception, he would be getting another Super Bowl ring this summer. So, no, Brady doesn't need to be leading drills and being the chief cheerleader at OTAs. And if OTAs really meant a damn thing, I can assure you that Robert Kraft would be trying to make right by Brady and Gronk right now rather than figuring all of that out later in the summer.
As for Donald, if anything he should have forced the Rams' hand more a year ago. Curtailing his holdout just before the season began was a risky maneuver at best and didn't really accomplish much. Had he sat out into October I can't help but wonder if he would already have his mega deal. But you would have to be nuts to think there is any chance he reports to training camp -- much less shows up for fake practices in the spring -- still absent landing the biggest contract in NFL history for a defensive player. He's going to get paid like an elite quarterback and it would be malpractice on his and his agent's part to provide any services that could cause an injury at this point.
That deal just simply has to get done before Week 1, it will get done before Week 1 and to imply that Donald's absence from spring work is any kind of a story whatsoever is ridiculous. This is how the dance is done. He knows it. The Rams get it. Nothing to see here.
And just the same, I wouldn't get giddy about OBJ hanging out with Eli Manning instead of being on a private island or at Cannes or whatever. This is part of the contract rumba as well. He's doing his part, after a rocky offseason in which ownership opined about trading him and has slow-played any contract talk (at least publicly), to put his best foot forward.
With the Giants hiring a new staff and installing a new offense, Beckham is extending every courtesy and, at a time when he is recovering from a season-ending injury, there isn't that much physical activity he's going to be undertaking anyway. The injury risk now, from his standpoint, is minimal, but it's a great PR move to be there and play well with management, fans and media alike.
But will it change anything, come September, after an offseason when marginal receivers were granted contracts far in excess of the $8.5 million Beckham is set to earn on his fifth-year option? Nope. I can't foresee him showing up to one real day of work this summer or fall -- no matter how great the joys were of those Pat Shurmur OTAs -- without a new contract somewhere in the range of $20 million per season. I see him taking the same approach to his contract that Duane Brown did with the Texans a year ago, essentially passing on the first half of the season.
Because at that point, for a player with Beckham's earning capacity off the field and for someone with so much on the line after having 2017 essentially wiped out by injury, the smart business decision is to let this 3-13 team, all-in on propping up an aging Manning, try to win some games without you. Let's see how that goes. Maybe Saquon Barkley rushes 55 times a game.
At that point in September and October, should we get there, good will and spring charm will have been exhausted, and those OTA practices will have been long forgotten. Because they didn't really mean anything in the first place beyond serving as a means to a contractual end. Fake football serving as the backdrop for real business that still must get done. That's May in the NFL. Their teammates understand, and their bosses aren't naïve. Actually, it's really not much of a secret at all.
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