The NFL Players Association wants it known that its movement to get veteran players to skip Organized Team Activities is not a boycott.
That’s because, as collectively bargained, OTAs are strictly voluntary, and you can’t boycott what you’re not required to participate in.
However, in past incarnations of NFL offseasons, pre-Covid, OTAs have been voluntary in the same sense that attendance at your anniversary dinner is voluntary: Stay away at your own peril. And the less stature you had in the league, the more peril was involved in skipping any chance to impress the powers that be. Marshawn Lynch or Michael Bennett could stay away without a second thought, but the second-stringer fighting for a roster spot could be excused for reading “voluntary” as “mandatory if I don’t want to get cut.”
The problem with the NFLPA’s hard-line stance this year — which was ostensibly Covid-based — is that it never had unanimity within the 32 clubs. That was evident when just 21 of the teams — including the Seahawks — issued statements through the NFLPA in April saying they planned to sit out the voluntary on-field portion of the OTAs.
Which means 11 teams — roughly 33% of the league — didn’t say a word. When the MLBPA was in its heyday as the most powerful labor union of them all, Marvin Miller or Donald Fehr would never have allowed such a thing. It was one for all, all for one.
Then, when Phase 3 of the OTAs began this week, which allows for seven-on-seven, nine-on-nine, and 11-on-11 drills with no contact, there appeared to be cracks in the resolve of even the 21 that had issued the statements. There have been reports around the league of veterans showing up for their team’s OTAs and participating in workouts.
Which brings us to the Seahawks, who by all accounts are sticking to their guns. The team started Phase 3 on Monday and will continue with workouts on Wednesday and Thursday. Though there might well be veteran players in the building, it doesn’t appear they are planning on taking the field. That will apparently be the province of the same mixture of 2021 draftees and undrafted free agents from 2020 and 2021 (plus 2020 second-rounder Darrell Taylor, who missed all of last year with an injury) that participated in the recent rookie minicamp.
I’ve heard some trepidation from fans that the Seahawks could be risking a competitive disadvantage, as it appears that veterans from their division foes — the 49ers, Rams and Cardinals — will be participating in OTAs to a greater extent than Seattle.
I’d say, don’t fret too much about that. While it would indeed be nice to give the new offense of Shane Waldron a real-life test run, I don’t think a handful of unpadded workouts in May is going to swing the balance of power in any meaningful way. Especially since the players have been partaking of virtual meetings all along.
“We’re going two hours a day with our guys,’’ coach Pete Carroll said during the rookie minicamp. “We’re deep into football already, very much like it was last year. And we’re better at it than we were last year. The communication and the exchange of information is really at a high level. We’re doing great, so know that our guys are working out all over the country, and they’re still making progress toward putting together a great season.”
As long as the bulk of the Seahawks’ veterans are on hand for mandatory minicamp in June — and the belief is, they will be — then I feel pretty strongly that this will all become irrelevant when training camp starts in earnest in late July.
Of course, the union’s official stance is that all offseason workouts should be done virtually, and that mandatory minicamps should be eliminated, too. Their case is that because of COVID, all of the offseason preparation for last season was done virtually, which proved that in-person workouts aren’t necessary.
Indeed, Seahawks union rep Tyler Lockett said last month that he agreed with the union that the quality of play last season wasn’t affected by the absence of on-field workouts during the offseason.
“When we went back into (training) camp, things were amazing,” Lockett told reporters in April. “Like everybody was flying around like you would have thought, ‘Yeah, we never missed a practice, we never missed the OTAs.’’’
One huge blow to players’ solidarity occurred when Broncos’ tackle Ja’Wuan James suffered a season-ending Achilles injury while he was working out away from the team facility last month. The NFL seized upon that to send teams a memo (conveniently leaked) reminding them that players injured away from the team facility can be placed on the non-football injury list, meaning they don’t have to pay their salary. That’s exactly what Denver did with James, who now stands to forfeit his 2021 salary of nearly $10 million.
It would stand to reason that incident scared a few players back to the practice field. And it’s simply hard to keep players away when they believe their livelihood might depend on letting coaches get eyes on them. Some may even view it as an opportunity to be seized if they’re practicing and a potential competitor for a job is not.
In this light, if the Seahawks can maintain their relative unanimity of players (other than rookies and the handful of undrafted free agents) holding firm to their stance of no on-field practicing, the gain in team unity might well supersede whatever minimal benefit accrues from running through drills in shorts and T-shirts.