What a mess.
There’s just no other way to describe what’s going on between the NFL and the NFL Players Association.
The union is telling players to skip voluntary offseason workouts, ostensibly because of concern over COVID-19 protocols. On Wednesday, Lions players were the fourth among a growing list of NFL teams that said they will skip voluntary offseason workouts.
I have no doubt players are still concerned about health and safety measures as the country, and especially Michigan, continue to struggle with the pandemic. But this isn’t about workouts and COVID. This is about a struggle between labor and management over money and power.
And here’s the bottom line as it concerns Lions fans: Your team will probably be worse because players are skipping workouts.
There are two reasons for this. The first is the lack of on-field work for a rebuilding team like the Lions, which will have many new players, coaches, plays and schemes. The Lions need every advantage they can get, which is precisely why the NFL normally allows teams with new head coaches an early start to offseason workouts. The league acknowledges new coaches and regimes are at an inherent disadvantage.
But it’s not just about the coaches. In the Lions’ case, veterans staying away from in-person workouts will compromise one of general manager Brad Holmes’ touted strengths of finding good players in the mid to late rounds and identifying good undrafted free agents. But without vets around, young players’ ability to compete and develop will be impacted.
The second reason is the strength and conditioning program, which is less about getting stronger and more about taking care of players’ bodies so they can avoid injury and stay on the field. Teams spend massive amounts of money and resources on this part of their operations to ensure their players are available.
I think many, if not most, players will be diligent about maintaining their bodies. But some won’t and it will cost them and the team. A notable example was Damon Harrison, who had a terrible 2019 season with the Lions because he was out of shape in training camp.
In fact, coach Dan Campbell admitted in March that this would be his main worry if teams lost any part of in-person workouts.
“If there was a concern, it would be strength and conditioning, that part of it, and your guys working together a little bit,” he said. “But if that’s the case, you give them a plan and you keep tabs on them, make sure they’re staying on top of what they got to do.”
Keeping on top of players virtually is significantly more difficult, even though teams had to do that last year. It’s hard to say how many players will actually skip in-person workouts. Some Lions players have been rehabbing at the Allen Park facility this offseason and some players around the league likely will go against their teammates’ vote and work out at their team facilities. In fact, players from some teams that have voted to skip workouts have admitted there hasn’t been unanimity in their voting by stating that “many of us” or “the majority” will skip the workouts.
I am not blaming the players for this. I’m not even blaming owners. This is simply a function of labor-management negotiations that were affected by the pandemic, which led to teams going from $16 billion in revenue in 2019 to $12 billion in 2020.
That shortfall led to teams cutting salaries this year by releasing high-priced veterans and signing more players to one-year deals. As the league faces more financial uncertainty because of COVID, teams will probably continue that trend and cut more higher-priced vets, which the NFLPA can help thwart by keeping veterans away during workouts.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians, speaking a little too much truth, laid out this exact strategy.
“If we lose spring, (young players) are not getting developed,” he told the Athletic via Pro Football Talk. “The veterans love that (stuff), because that means they don’t get to take their jobs.”
On top of this, some players were unhappy with the union agreeing to add a 17th game this season, which means you’ve got the potential for more strife as we get closer to the season.
Now that the weight gloves are off, I don’t know what the next step will be. Will the union take another stand during the one mandatory minicamp between May 24 and June 18? Will something happen during training camp, preseason games or Week 1? What are owners prepared to do?
The only thing I can tell you about all of this is that the Lions will likely suffer for it. Because if you subscribe to the sports axiom that every day you’re either getting better or you’re getting worse, it’s impossible to see how this makes the Lions better.
And for that, I’m sorry. Because I was wrong. It’s not a mess. It’s a damn mess.
Contact Carlos Monarrez at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @cmonarrez.