With the prospect of the owner's lockout extending into early June, fears about the lack of self-discipline among NFL players bubbles up. In early April, Bengals tackle Andrew Whitworth expressed concern that without the strict regimen imposed upon them by coaches and trainers during a traditional offseason, players might be inclined to let themselves go during the lockout, becoming unmotivated and using their hiatus to let time and gravity take control of their bodies.
You will get a lot of guys who will say, 'We're not even going to play. I'm not going to work hard all the time.' You're going to ruin the chance for quality football. There will be more injuries and things that affect the game. Period.
When Whitworth made these comments, I thought they were provocative, but a bit hyperbolic. These guys have on training programs for years, so shouldn't they be behaviorally conditioned by now to continue on their own? Or at the very least, shouldn't they see the greenback at the end of every dumbbell kickback?
I guess it's not that simple, since Whitworth's fears have been gaining traction as the lockout lags on, to the point where former Baltimore Ravens head coach Brian Billick (1999-2007), who has an article up over on Fox Sports, echoes Whit's sentiments:
Building and conditioning one's body to perform at the level necessary to just survive in the NFL is a full-time job. This task is made all the more difficult without the benefit of the teams' strength and conditioning coaches. Right now, everything a player does is at his own peril.
Billick is quick to stress that not all NFL players are incapable of policing their behavior. We've already heard a number of stories about players trying hard to keep themselves active, from the more sensational endeavors, like Ravens safety Tom Zbikowski's amateur boxing, to Bears TE Greg Olsen's ill-fated attempt to get some work in at a local high school. From a hometown perspective, we've also heard about a number of Bengals players taking responsibility for their own training. Once-and future backup QB Jordan Palmer has been leading some workouts out West with some of the Bengals receivers. Safety Reggie Nelson is grinding it out in Florida. And soon-to-be-former Bengal Chad Ochocinco worked out with MLS team Sporting Kansas City and is now training at Marist High School in Atlanta (as noted on his Twitter feed).
But these acts of personal responsibility have been taking a backseat to the more heavily-reported stories of player waywardness. As Billick and many have noted, since the beginning of the lockout 10 players have been arrested, a huge increase in traditional player unlawfulness.
During the 2010 regular season, there were typically three or four NFL players per month having problems with Johnny Law. I'm no expert on deductive reasoning, but might there be a link between the cessation of communication between coach and player with an increase in player misbehavior? There is usually a spike in arrests during the offseason, but these current numbers project a disturbing escalation.
Player arrests are an obvious issue of concern, but that's almost to be expected to some degree. In general, NFL players aren't known for their high-level of maturity, especially younger players (we just had a lot of talk about "character" during the draft process), so an increase in aberrant behavior shouldn't be that shocking. The more insidious results of the lockout may be the toll it takes on player conditioning and, consequently, the quality of the game when it does resume. Reiterating Whitworth's comments, Billick suggests that some players may use the lockout as a time to simply do nothing and that "there will be individuals who will literally eat themselves out of the NFL" (alright comment board, let's hear your best Andre Smith jab, like "Andre, what would do for a Klondike Bar? A push-up?"). There is also the obvious problem of what's going to happen with the newly drafted players.
How unsettling it must feel to be drafted, introduced as a member of a new team and meeting your coaches only to be shown the door as the lockout was put back in place. These players legitimately have no idea what it takes to operate in the NFL, but it's now their responsibility to figure it out on their own.
Billick believes it's up to the veteran players to explain to these rookies that:
There are three types of shape in sports. There's cardiovascular shape, and most of the veterans and rookies who come in will certainly be in cardiovascular shape. Then there's football shape, which you can only get from playing and practicing. Lastly, there's hitting shape, which takes a while. You just don't show up and get into hitting shape.
There's an interesting distinction being made here, and one that doesn't just apply to rookies. Veteran players can take it upon themselves to box or run or lift weights, but that's only one part of their normal seasonal preparation. Without OTAs and training camp, which the lockout is threatening to delay and truncate, players can get in the best physical shape of their lives, but that means little if they're not prepared to get walloped over the middle.
We just don't know what's going to happen. But one thing's for sure, the longer this takes to get resolved, the longer it's going to take to get into hitting shape. If teams start missing organized team activities and minicamps, we are going to see a rash of injuries popping up around the league when the players finally do show up.
And that could make for some some pretty ugly football, with lots of backups and practice squaders on the field as fill-ins for injured starters. The quality of the product is at risk here. One would think that would be of utmost importance, especially since the league is trying to expand its international appeal.
To that end, I guess there's always the Dhani Jones method of offseason training.