Every year, there’s a discussion about the gamble NFL teams take with their September-through-January fortunes by putting players on the field April through June. With each so-called low-intensity, non-contact offseason practice, players chance blowing out a knee or breaking a bone or tearing a muscle, injuries that threaten seasons and even careers.
The subject has hit home particularly hard in recent days with the Washington Redskins, who lost linebacker Reuben Foster to a season-ending torn ACL on the first day of OTA drills, and the Atlanta Falcons, who lost Buffalo-born defensive end Steven Means to a season-ending ruptured Achilles tendon on the first day of their OTA workouts.
Then, there’s the Buffalo Bills. Coach Sean McDermott opened a grim news conference last Tuesday with word that tight end Tyler Kroft, a key free-agent signing, had suffered a broken foot during the first day of OTAs. McDermott wasn’t finished. We found out that center Mitch Morse, arguably the most important free-agent addition, and receiver Cole Beasley, another key pickup from the open market, are recovering from core-muscle surgeries they underwent a few weeks ago. For good measure, the coach shared that wide receiver David Sills, perhaps the most promising of the team’s undrafted free-agent acquisitions, had suffered a hamstring injury in rookie minicamp earlier in the month.
Other than that, it’s been a delightful offseason, folks.
McDermott and his coaching staff already faced a massive chore in trying to build cohesion with the many new faces who have joined the team since March. Much of that work is on the offensive line, which could have five new starters. Morse is supposed to be one of them, although he doesn’t know when he’ll be cleared to return.
Thus, the obvious dilemma. How do the Bills balance all that they need to do to prepare a largely remade roster for the season with the inherent risks that go with preparation?
“Well, that’s the question and it is that balance,” former Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick, an analyst for NFL Network, said by phone. “It’s like we used to say with players: If we didn’t have to, we wouldn’t practice. If we could be good without doing all these things, we wouldn’t because anytime you put a player on the field, in any capacity, or in a weight room or any kind of training, you run the risk of injury. But it’s like during the season. You can’t play afraid of getting hurt, even though that’s a very real possibility.
“Same way with practice in training camp. As the head coach, I felt my primary duty, on a day-to-day basis, was to watch my players to decide just how much hitting we could get away with at the end of the day. Because there comes a point where you have to get into cardiovascular shape, you have to get into football shape, but you also have to get into hitting shape. And you want to do that as little as possible.”
Although Billick never worked directly for Bill Walsh, he was part of his coaching tree as an assistant for Dennis Green at Stanford and with the Minnesota Vikings. Billick never forgot a standing order Walsh delivered to his assistants during his first meeting with them at the start of training camp. He and the many other branches from the Walsh tree quote it like a Bible verse.
“ 'Guys, remember, I’m holding you responsible to get our team, 53 players, whoever that may be, to the first game healthy and fresh. That’s Job One,' ” he recalled Walsh would say. “ 'Now, you’ve got to teach. You’ve got assignment, alignment, technique, all that stuff, done. But Job One is to get to Game One as healthy and fresh as we possibly can, given the other dictates.' ”
That was for training camp, when contact actually does take place, albeit on a far more limited basis today than when Walsh established his Hall-of-Fame credentials at the helm of the San Francisco 49ers from 1979 to 1988 or when Billick guided the Ravens from 1999 to 2007.
Offseason workouts aren’t approached the same way. For one thing, most are considered “voluntary,” even if they never truly feel that way. Some veterans, who are either making a statement about how dissatisfied they are with their contracts or simply being extra cautious so as to not jeopardize future earnings, stay away until minicamps in late June, when their attendance is mandatory. For high-profile players joining new teams – such as Le’Veon Bell with the New York Jets and Odell Beckham Jr. with the Cleveland Browns – those absences are seen as selfish.
Coaches also have different goals for the offseason. Chief among them usually is acclimating rookies to life in the NFL. There is a playbook to learn, as well as new practice and conditioning routines, which can change dramatically after a coaching transition. The idea is for players to have at least a rudimentary understanding of all concepts so that when they are reintroduced a little more than a month after the final offseason practice, the reaction isn’t one of surprise and confusion.
Despite the injuries, McDermott doesn’t sound apprehensive about finishing what he started with the offseason program.
“We always evaluate, and you hate to see guys get hurt,” he told reporters. “We just have to continue to work and build a mentally and physically tough football team, and sometimes you’re going to get some dings. … I would much rather develop a physically and mentally tough football team than go play golf every day and everyone’s healthy. There is a delicate balance there.”
Billick strove to put his Ravens teams through roughly 1,000 snaps of varying degrees of physical exertion through the offseason, because that’s how many each NFL club averages during the regular season. He would use the same formula during training camp and preseason (counting games and practices) so that “we could get three seasons of snaps, as much mental as physical, before the regular season started. Then, we were good to go.”
How “good to go” will the Bills be? At the very least, it’s something worth pondering, even with the regular season more than four months away.
Now is when Josh Allen was supposed to take the first critical steps toward developing a symbiotic relationship with Morse and the rest of the rebuilt line as well as with Beasley and Kroft.
“When you talk about availability, now when we’re not available, it’s not ideal,” McDermott said. “Is it going to stop us? No. We’re going to continue to work and that’s where the trust I have, (General Manager) Brandon (Beane), myself, and our medical staff, that’s what they’re here for, as well.”
Billick feels McDermott’s pain. He also knows that no one, outside of his family and closest friends, will give him an ounce of sympathy.
“We go 13-3 in 2006 and I’m a Super Bowl-winning coach,” Billick said. “The next year, in 2007, I lose three-fifths of my offensive line, including Jonathan Ogden; my starting quarterback, my backup quarterback, Ray Lewis, Ed Reed. I mean, the injuries were unbelievable. And you get to the end of the year, and it’s, ‘Yeah, a lot of injuries, Coach. That’s too bad, but we don’t care. You’re gone.’
“Sure, I empathize with Sean, but it doesn’t matter. He’s going to be held accountable either way.”