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Teams turn to contingency plans during offseason uncertainty

  • By Vic Carucci
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The loss of most, or even all, of the offseason to a lockout won't have much impact on most NFL fans.

Organized team activities and other non-contact workouts are something fans read about or glance at when they show up in video highlights.

The draft, always the highlight of the offseason, is expected to be held as scheduled next month, so that will provide a sense of normalcy. So, too, will the continuation of public access to places such as Green Bay's Lambeau Field, with popular year-round attractions such as the Atrium, the Packers Pro Shop, Curly's Pub, and the Packers Hall of Fame.

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It will be quite a different offseason, however, for coaches and general managers.

They'll likely find dealing with the lockout to, at the very least, be tricky, and at the very most, potentially damaging to their chances for success if/when games are played during the 2011 regular season.

A lockout means coaches have no contact with their players, so new offensive and defensive systems won't be implemented and old ones won't be reviewed (or introduced to new players) and tweaked. It means no veterans will be added via free agency or trade, leaving the draft as the only avenue to address needs.

All clubs will face some level of difficulty, but some presumably will have a tougher time coping than others. The teams that figure to have the greatest vulnerability in a lockout are the ones with new coaches or coaches beginning their first full season after being interims (Carolina, Cleveland, Dallas, Denver, Minnesota, Oakland, San Francisco, and Tennessee).

Jim Harbaugh of the 49ers could very well have been speaking for all rookie coaches when he said, "You could say that maybe it's a disadvantage for us. We haven't given our players any type of a playbook and they don't know what our schemes are. But it's up to us to adjust, to overcome any and all obstacles that are out there. And we'll think through it and come up with a plan."

That plan, like the plans of the league's other head coaches, will include assembling schemes and preparing for the draft. The awkward -- but necessary -- part will be studying players that aren't available during the normal free-agent signing and trade period, and putting together practice schedules for workouts that might not be conducted during the offseason or even training camp. Conducting the draft before free agency is also a bit unsettling for teams that haven't invested in their bigger needs before figuring out what holes can be patched with college talent.

Yet, as every coach and general manager will tell you, it is important to stick with typical offseason duties during abnormal times so that they'll be ready when things do return to normal.

"You have to have a plan for free agency, you have to have a trade plan, you have to have a plan for the draft," 49ers GM Trent Baalke said. "Obviously, if it was a traditional order, it would make it easier for us to make decisions, but you've got to be prepared. I think it alters your strategy, but you have to be prepared for any scenario that comes up right now, because there are a lot of unknowns."

NFL rules prohibited teams from having any contact with players before the normal offseason workout period, which was to have begun this month, so there was no chance for coaches to get any sort of head start to help make up for the time missed working together.

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That should make things especially difficult for new coaches and even more challenging for first-year coaches with unsettled quarterback situations: Mike Munchak, Titans (they're supposed to move on without Vince Young and Kerry Collins); Ron Rivera, Panthers (Jimmy Clausen struggled as a rookie last year and they have the top overall pick of the draft), and Harbaugh (Alex Smith has yet to come close to living up to his status as the No. 1 overall draft choice). With no ability to acquire quarterbacks through free agency or trade, they'll be forced to either stick with what they have or entrust the starting job to a rookie.

Denver coach John Fox is new, but experienced. Still, he too might be struggling with a quarterback dilemma (is Kyle Orton really his choice to be a starter or is there a chance Tim Tebow will get the job?), while also replacing a 3-4 defense with a 4-3 scheme.

Joining him in that same boat of quarterback uncertainty are Arizona's Ken Whisenhunt (still looking to replace Kurt Warner), Cincinnati's Marvin Lewis (what's he to do about Carson Palmer wanting out of town?), Miami's Tony Sparano (what's he to do about Chad Henne's disappointing season last year?), Minnesota's Leslie Frazier (can he really trust Joe Webb with the starting job?), Seattle's Pete Carroll (will the Seahawks be able to hang onto Matt Hasselbeck?), and Washington's Mike Shanahan (he knows he can't stick with Donovan McNabb, but is Rex Grossman really the answer?).

St. Louis has 2010 Rookie of the Year Sam Bradford under center, but he has a new offensive coordinator, Josh McDaniels, who took over for new Browns coach Pat Shurmur. McDaniels is replacing the West Coast offense with a spread-style passing attack and, for now, will have no time to help get Bradford familiar with it.

Wade Phillips was hired as Houston's new defensive coordinator is going to replace the Texans' 4-3 defense with a 3-4 scheme. But when does he actually get to install it? Weeks, maybe even days, before the start of the regular season?

In general, teams could have a hard time getting immediate production from draft picks, because they can't be signed and, like veterans, won't be allowed to work out at team facilities during the offseason.

"I think any time any player misses, when you have a new head coach and new assistant coaches, it can be tough," new Raiders coach Hue Jackson said. "(But) a guy who can play can play, and our job as coaches is to put them in positions so they can play.

"Obviously, guys have to get used to certain things -- the speed of the game, the environment, and those things -- and those are some factors that go into it. But some guys, you'll be surprised, they can really rise to the challenge, and when you put them in tough situations, they rise up. That's what the real players do."

It will probably be that kind of season, where traditional thinking will give way to doing whatever necessity dictates. Coaches will depend on any player, no matter how young, that is able to overcome the many obstacles that the lockout creates.

"No one has ever been down this road before so that's kind of out of our hands as coaches," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "You have a lot of contingency plans and we'll see what happens."

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