How 2020 Will Shape Future NFL Seasons
The NFL is not a business that is comfortable with sweeping changes; and when those changes happen, the hot takes come fast and furious. Free agency, for example, is something players spent years fighting for; and when we finally introduced it, the public response was that it would ruin football. Now of course, free agency is viewed universally as one of the things that makes our league - and our players - most successful.
The same goes for recent history. When the 2011 CBA got rid of two-a-day practices during training camp, coaches, executives and the public voiced concerns that players wouldn’t be prepared to perform when the season started. Players are not only safer than we were before 2011, but our game has gotten better since then. Beyond contributing to sustained performance, athletes who played before the transition away from two-a-days say they feel like their careers would have been extended if they hadn’t put their bodies through the unnecessarily grueling grind of training camp two-a-days.
The 2020 CBA made additional changes to our work rules, but no sooner was it ratified than the pandemic immediately forced us to redesign many aspects of professional football. The COVID CBA forced significant changes, and it has shown us another way players and teams can successfully prepare for and play in the NFL.This year has brought less time at practice than ever before. We had no offseason practices, fewer training camp practices and no preseason games. While some feared that those changes would lead to a sloppy 2020 NFL season, our collective level of play across the league has actually never been higher.
I believe the changes implemented this season have demonstrated that we can put an entertaining product out on the field while further reducing wear and tear on our players’ bodies. Sloppy play would usually be evident with low-scoring games, a high number of penalties and more missed tackles - all things that have historically been attributed to insufficient practice time to hone our fundamentals. But we have seen the exact opposite this year, with points per game at an all-time high, a decreased number of penalties and even fewer missed tackles compared to last year.
To prepare for this season, we relied on experts from both inside and outside the league to help develop a training camp that put a larger emphasis on the health and safety of our players. It led to a longer acclimation period before the pads came on and a gradual ramp-up of practice time to allow players to steadily load their tissue and muscles. This program increased the number of days off, decreased the time on the field and reduced the number of padded practices.
Our union cares about the quality of games, but we care more about health and safety. As we do every year, we will dive into the comprehensive injury data at the end of the season to review those indicators of success as well.
Another change that COVID-19 dictated was the elimination of offseason practices. After experiencing that change, there is no reason for us to ever return to the previous offseason program. We are the only major sports league with an offseason program. The most physically demanding sport is the only league that brings their players back for extra practices outside of the season. The argument in favor of these offseason practices is based on the assumption that players need reps during OTAs to develop and learn while teams need the practices to gel. Yet, the lack of OTAs this year demonstrated that those theories aren’t substantiated. New and first-year head coaches had success. Newly assembled teams had success. Rookies stepped in and played at a high level all across the league.
Why? Because our players are professionals. They understand what they need to do in order to be prepared. A lot of our guys train year round to be at their physical peak. They also study their playbooks in order to mentally prepare. We do not need to be brought in during April-June to practice against each other - it’s simply unnecessary.
The reason football is great is because it has continued to evolve despite those who resist change – thanks to improved equipment, updated rules and enhanced safety measures to keep the players healthy and on the field. We must carry this spirit forward and proactively identify areas of our game that can be adapted for a safer and, as a result, more entertaining product.
While it’s easy to be fearful of introducing change, the NFL has flourished time and time again when steps were taken to evolve the game. Football is at its best when we have healthy players playing at their best. To make that a reality, we will continue to challenge preconceived notions about how football must be run in order to optimize player health. When we hopefully complete the current season, we will have to take a hard look at what forced and temporary changes should be made permanent.