It's hard to work around offseason contact
Consider that rules regarding offseason workouts have been negotiated between the players association and league. Even though, except for one mandatory minicamp, the workouts are voluntary for veterans, there are strict guidelines. Teams can only have 14 days of Organized Team Activities (OTAs), and there are also other restrictions, including one that limits the number of hours players can be "required" to be on the field or at the team facility. The 49ers are at the end of their OTA schedule, which will be completed with final practices on Wednesday and Thursday at team headquarters in Santa Clara. The 49ers opted to conduct only 12 sessions of OTAs this year because coach Mike Nolan was pleased with what the team got accomplished earlier in the spring. Though they cannot exactly be attributed to contact, the 49ers lost two players to season-ending injuries during the first two weeks of OTAs. Defensive end Melvin Oliver - who started 14 games last year as a rookie - tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee while backpedaling in a drill and veteran cornerback tore a pectoral muscle last week in drills. Most contact in these OTAs generally is prohibited, but the rules specify that there can be no practicing of the bump-and-run or contact between offensive and defensive linemen. Players can wear only helmets and some shoulder protection, but no regular pads. In past years, there have often been a few violations each offseason, which result in a club losing some OTA days. For a team to be called on the carpet, usually a player is the one to blow the whistle on his team. When that happens, the NFLPA requests practice tape, after which the penalties can occur. The union could also investigate if it sees media reports of contact. A few years ago, then-Arizona guard Pete Kendall was released just before training camp started with the belief it happened because then-Cardinals coach Dennis Green thought it was Kendall who reported the team to the union, resulting in a loss of offseason practice time. This year, however, things were quiet on the violation front until last week, when suddenly the Raiders were slapped with a one-week penalty. It is not yet known if a player was the culprit. But there are also suspicions that the union acted, just to make it seem they are paying attention. The ban means little since the Raiders had already concluded their on-field work. In reality, that is often the case. Even though teams are permitted to have those 14 OTAs over five weeks, most teams - like the 49ers - don't use them all anyway. So, losing the final week, which is often the discipline, amounts to a slap on the wrist. After being notified of the decision, a statement from Raiders coach Lane Kiffin said, "I was notified that the players union believes our total commitment to improving our football team has resulted in some violations of rules regarding practice standards. The union has complained about the high level of intensity, player aggressiveness and fast pace of our practices and, as a result, has taken away the final week of our offseason program." One player didn't seem to mind. Said linebacker Kirk Morrison, "We just play with a fast tempo, and whatever happens with a fast tempo happens. We're running around, we're practicing, finishing our technique. It's so fast-paced, it's hard to stop. You get guys running at full speed, and guys are going to put a hand on you." Kiffin at one point recently said tackle Robert Gallery was participating with a "nasty demeanor" and had been successful getting "guys on the ground." The Raiders weren't alone. A recent story in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer had the headline: "Seahawks Work on Bump-and-Run in Minicamp." Items from the story said, "Marcus Trufant used his right forearm to jostle D.J. Hackett as he broke off the line of scrimmage, disrupting Hackett's route and depriving quarterback Matt Hasselbeck of his primary receiver. A few plays later, Pete Hunter missed his jam on Deion Branch, allowing Branch to run past him and take a deep pass from Seneca Wallace." Want more? Giants fullback Jim Finn was placed on injured reserve recently because of a torn labrum in his shoulder. The Newark Star-Ledger reported that, "According to someone familiar with Jim Finn's shoulder injury, the seven-year veteran was injured late last month in one of the team's first OTA workouts. The person said Finn delivered a block and immediately felt a pop in his shoulder." In another incident involving the Giants, Jason Cole of Yahoo! Sports reported last week that during practice, defensive tackle Jay Alford went to the ground courtesy of center Shaun O'Hara "during a blocking drill that had grown increasingly rugged." Giants coach Tom Coughlin told Cole, "That's an example of when it gets a little out of control and we talked to (O'Hara) about it. You don't want players getting hurt. That's the last thing we want." Cole also wrote, "Coughlin's public sentiment has been echoed by many coaches and players around the league. Most Giants players said the contact was little more than a natural part of practice that got a little out of hand." Giants tackle Kareem McKenzie told Cole, "In our situation, we have a new offensive coordinator and a new defensive coordinator and they're installing new things to our system. As players, we're trying to be sharp and execute to the best of our ability. When you're trying to do that, your tempo is going to be faster, more intense and that's where you start to get what you're talking about. "It's not what any of us want at this time of the year. But this is football. It's a physical sport. This is what we're trained to do." Finally, during a recent Browns practice, rookie tackle Joe Thomas was involved in a fight with rookie defensive end Chase Pittman. When Thomas was told by a reporter that contact is not supposed to happen, he said, "I think we hit more probably now than we did with pads at Wisconsin during the season." While the 49ers conduct there workouts with an up-tempo intensity, they attempt to minimize any situations involving contact that could result in injury, and there have been few - if any - complaints that the team is pushing players too hard or being to aggressive with its format for the spring workouts. There are those who say the union should be more vigilant in enforcing the rules, while there are others who believe the bans on contact are unrealistic. As McKenzie said, "This is football." It's also the dawn of a new day in the NFL. Teams spend more time in meeting rooms than on the field. The days of training camp two-a-days in full pads have gone the way of the dinosaur. Many teams have an alternating schedule of two practices one day and just one the next, with one or at most two in full pads. Players seem to accept that their training camp days will be a lot more bearable because of the amount of work accomplished in the offseason. That's why the solution is a relaxing of the restrictions on contact as opposed to stricter enforcement of rules that few seem to care about.
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