OTA sanctions against teams expose larger league-wide issues

Ultimately, the NFL abruptly shut down four teams' offseason workouts this month because they were in violation of the league's collective bargaining agreement with the NFL Players Association.

But there also are underlying factors to consider with the sanctions against the Baltimore Ravens, Detroit Lions, Jacksonville Jaguars, and Oakland Raiders.

One is the strained labor relations between the league and the NFLPA. More than a few people around the NFL suspect that by informing the league that their teams were overdoing it with the intensity of practices (i.e. contact when there's supposed to be none) or the length of workouts and meetings, the whistle-blowing players were firing a shot across the owners' bow.

For the players, it was an opportunity to wage a negative public-relations campaign that delivers the following message: "If teams can't be trusted to follow the rules for offseason workouts, how can they be trusted in negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement?"

And the whistle-blowers, according to an NFL source, can function in anonymity because posted in the dressing room at the training facility of each of the 32 teams is a toll-free telephone number that a player can call to report offseason-workout violations without his employer ever knowing he has done so.

Another factor in the NFL's punishment of the Ravens, Lions, Jaguars, and Raiders is the league's desire to expand the regular season from 16 to 18 games while cutting the preseason from four to two games. The topic was discussed during a bargaining session last week, and the NFLPA was quick to publicly call it a bad idea because of the increased injury risk posed by playing two additional late-season games. One way the NFL would try to reduce that risk is to reduce the amount of offseason time players spend in minicamps and other organized team activity. The unprecedented move to take offseason workout and meeting time away from four teams that broke the rules makes a strong statement that the NFL can, through stricter enforcement, do its part to help make an expanded regular season work for both sides.

There is plenty of talk around the league that coaches are unhappy about the spike in the number of teams punished by the NFL for violating offseason-workout procedures -- and not just those with the four teams involved. Coaches see every on- and off-field session as extremely valuable because that's when they install the material from their playbook. That is particularly helpful to new coaches introducing new offensive and/or defensive systems. Minus the daily grind and revved-up competitiveness that stems from full-contact drills in training camp, the atmosphere during OTAs tends to be more conducive to teaching and learning.

For years, it was generally understood by players that the time and effort spent in the offseason would typically result in a lighter work load during training camp. They would still have padded, full-contact practices, but in limited doses and with limited intensity.

However, in light of the sanctions, there has been speculation that some coaches might seek a measure of retaliation by running tougher training camps, which aren't governed by the same restrictions that apply to the offseason. It would seem foolish to enhance the possibility of losing players to injury -- not to mention the likelihood of only worsening an acrimonious labor-relations climate -- just for the sake of realizing some sort of vengeance.

Coach Mike Singletary is on record as saying that the San Francisco 49ers will employ the "nutcracker" drill at their training camp. The drill has long been viewed as more of a survival-of-the-fittest test than a true teaching exercise, with two players pitted in a confined space in a violent struggle to determine which one can push the other backward or, preferably, on his back side. The fact that several 49ers players were injured in the "nutcracker" last summer apparently isn't enough to dissuade Singletary, although he did tell reporters that he had his assistant coaches studying ways to modify the drill so that "instead of just one guy getting on one side and the other guy getting on the other side and just knocking the crap out of each other, we're trying to get more out of it."

Although three teams (the Jaguars, Ravens, and Raiders) had run afoul of CBA rules for offseason workouts at that point, Singletary made no mention of them and there was no suggestion that he would employ the "nutcracker" for any reason other than he believes it's a good idea. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that at least one coach is willing to turn up the heat in training camp just because he can.

Redskins getting some 'attitude'

So much of the recent offseason talk about the Washington Redskins has been decidedly negative.

Since a series of positive developments -- the hiring of a highly accomplished head coach (Mike Shanahan) and general manager (Bruce Allen), the acquisition of a top-flight quarterback (Donovan McNabb), and the extreme trust that owner Daniel Snyder has displayed in his new football decision-makers through his willingness to fade into the background -- everything emanating from Redskins Park has focused on disgruntled Albert Haynesworth.

Finally, there was at least a temporary shift in the discussion. The Redskins made what is widely seen as another strong acquisition by trading for New Orleans Saints offensive tackle Jammal Brown.

"One thing he's going to bring to Washington is attitude, nastiness, and toughness," Saints safety Roman Harper said. "He's going to help secure that offensive line. He was, by far, one of our best offensive linemen and he always protected Drew (Brees') back side.

"They're bringing in some pieces and nice things to help (McNabb) out and help get them started up there in Washington. I think Mr. Snyder is doing a good job trying to bring some guys in to help and get a winning team going up there."

Observation points

» I'm guessing a lot of us are rethinking our choice of the San Diego Chargers being a solid Super Bowl contender. Very little encouraging news has come out of Chargers Park during the offseason. And it seems to only get worse. The Chargers have the most unsigned restricted free agents: wide receiver Vincent Jackson, offensive tackle Marcus McNeill, and outside linebacker Shawne Merriman. They released troubled safety Kevin Ellison. And now tight end Antonio Gates is unsure whether he'll recover from plantar fasciitis in time to participate in training camp.

» Linebacker Bobby Carpenter has the right frame of mind for handling the dramatic cultural change of going from the glitz and glamour of the Dallas Cowboys to the bottom-dwelling St. Louis Rams. As a young NFL fan, he can recall the 1999 Rams finishing 13-3 on their way to a Super Bowl XXXIV victory, while the Cowboys were 8-8 and on their way to three consecutive 5-11 seasons and four losing campaigns in five years. "That can change in a hurry," Carpenter said of the Rams' current struggles. "That stuff flips over quickly."

» There is growing speculation around the league that free-agent quarterback Marc Bulger will likely sign with a team in the next few weeks to serve a backup role. The most likely landing spot is Chicago, where he would be reunited with his former coach in St. Louis, Mark Martz, the Bears' news offensive coordinator. Jay Cutler seemingly would benefit from the presence of an experienced player who knows Martz's scheme well. Another possible team often mentioned in connection with Bulger is the Arizona Cardinals because their starting job is in the shaky hands of Matt Leinart, and Bulger could very well end up in the No. 1 spot.

» It makes sense for Buffalo Bills coach Chan Gailey to establish what he called a "pecking order" at quarterback by the time his team opens training camp. However, the fact he has yet to say who is at the top of that list (a.k.a. the starter) is a pretty good indication that Gailey doesn't find any particular comfort with having Trent Edwards, Ryan Fitzpatrick or Brian Brohm behind center. Still, it's risky to go this far without giving the rest of the offense, or the team for that matter, the man they're supposed to follow at the most natural leadership position. The vote here is for Edwards, who, despite so far mostly showing he doesn't have what it takes to be a successful NFL starter, can at least have a chance to prove that all he's needed is the better coaching Gailey was hired to supply.

» Roman Harper on the Super Bowl ring that he and his Saints teammates received during a recent ceremony in New Orleans: "It looks so much bigger in person than you'd ever imagine."

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