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Point, counterpoint: Are OTAs necessary?

Posted May 8, 2012

Mike SpoffordPackers.com Staff Writer Mike Spofford says yes.

Necessary is an awfully definitive word, especially in an era when everybody from the fans to the commissioner is questioning whether four preseason games are really necessary. So, it’s a strong term to attach to OTAs.

But I do believe they’re a needed introduction to the league, to their teams, and to the new season for a roster’s youngest players.

Have you seen the actual size of an NFL playbook? Whether for the offense or defense, it’s immense, and I can’t imagine trying to learn all of that at the start of training camp, as last year’s rookies had to do.

Many were successful doing so, as the record number of rookie starts in 2011 would seem to indicate, but something else may have been at work there. Without OTAs, and with the rookies swimming in their playbooks throughout training camp and the preseason, the normal progression of evaluation was changed, and that might have led to more rookie playing time.

If that sounds backwards, let me explain. Teams weren’t as quick to cast aside rookies last year because they didn’t have as much time as usual to evaluate them, so they played them to see what they had. No one wants to cut that sixth-round pick who might be the next Tom Brady or Terrell Davis, without at least having sufficient information.

The lack of OTAs and the subsequent rush to install schemes in training camp hurt the evaluation process. Teams likely didn’t have the optimum 53-man roster they would have assembled in normal years because they needed a more complete evaluation of their young players.

Any coach or personnel guy is going to say they’re necessary for that reason. They can only help the players and, therefore, they help the team.

Look at the Packers last year. They wanted to see if first-round draft pick Derek Sherrod, a left tackle in college, could play left guard, and they put him No. 1 on the depth chart there for the first training camp practice.

Sherrod didn’t have OTAs to get used to his new position, though, and he was clearly beaten out by T.J. Lang. The Packers had no qualms with Lang winning the job, but the lack of OTAs ruined a first-round pick’s best chance to play right away.

Second-rounder Randall Cobb’s contributions probably weren’t maximized, either. Cobb had a tremendous rookie season, but had the Packers known before training camp what Cobb really brought to the table, he might have played an even bigger role.

As soon as Greg Jennings missed a game due to injury last year (Kansas City), the offense had its worst game and the team lost for the first time, which many saw as no coincidence. Jennings returned for the playoff game but got hurt again, and the season abruptly ended with another poor offensive showing.

Do those late-season, Jennings-less scenarios play out differently if Cobb is a more known quantity to his coaches and teammates early on? Perhaps.

We’ll never know, of course, but rest assured that this year, come training camp, the Packers will know a lot more about the players they drafted to help fix the defense. They must know what Nick Perry, Jerel Worthy, Casey Hayward and the others can do, sooner rather than later. That’s as necessary as it gets.

Vic KetchmanPackers.com Editor Vic Ketchman says no.

Here’s a fact: In 2011, rookies accumulated a league-record 870 starts.

Here’s another fact: In 2011, the rookies that accumulated more starts than in any other year in league history, had not a minute of spring practice, nothing until training camp.

Judge, based on the information I’ve just presented, I request that all charges claiming that OTAs are necessary be dropped.

Hey, it is what it is. I mean, I know there isn’t a coach alive that wouldn't agree that OTAs aren’t only necessary but vital to the development and use of young football talent, but the numbers don’t lie. With nothing more behind them than one of the most watered-down training camps in NFL history, league coaches last season found more reason to use rookies than at any time previous in the history of the league.

An especially good draft class?

Maybe.

Especially good coaches?

Absolutely.

The coaching mechanism of today employs a level of sophistication the game has never seen, and the profession takes itself to a higher level every year. Today’s coaches are masters of identifying what a player can do and finding ways to plug him into the scheme.

Something else is at work in all of this, too: the salary cap. When you pay a high draft pick a contract that represents a significant portion of your team’s salary cap, you are at a terrible disadvantage if that money spends the season on the bench. Coaches are being saddled with the expectation of getting that kid and the money he represents onto the field as quickly as possible.

Practice is always better than no practice, but nothing beats raw ability. Randall Cobb didn’t require a lot of training to know what to do on his record-breaking 108-yard kickoff return in his first-ever pro game. Cobb knew exactly what to do: run fast.

I could write a book about players I like to refer to as “Underwear League” All-Pros. Some like to refer to them as the “Boys of Spring.” They often vanish when the pads go on in the summer.

There was a kid who caught everything thrown his way. He appeared to be the real deal, but he disappeared in the preseason. Why? He couldn’t get off the jam. You see, there are no jams in the “Underwear League.”

One of my favorites is from Mike Tomlin’s OTAs-ending press conference a few years ago. A reporter asked Tomlin if any jobs were won. Tomlin looked at the reporter and laughed. “In OTAs?” Tomlin said.

OTAs are good for installing the playbook, but is that a good thing? Is more better than less, or is less more? The lack of installation time sure didn’t hurt the Packers offense last season.

Yeah, but what about that terrible tackling? It’s a leaguewide problem. Grab, grab, grab! Everybody’s grabbing out there.

So, OTAs are going to improve tackling? Hey, it’s the “Underwear League.” Tackling isn’t allowed.

I admit to having a personal dislike of OTAs. I don’t like them because fans ask, “How does so and so look?” What can I tell them? It’s gym class. One guy threw it and another guy caught it without any fear of getting hit. It sure wasn’t like that in the Giants game.

Nonetheless, I had come to accept that OTAs were a necessary function in today’s game, because they were all about practicing the scheme and scheme is mostly about offense and the league wants the game to be mostly about offense, but then came last year’s lockout and the loss of spring practices, except for the all-important players-only workouts to which Aaron Rodgers sarcastically referred, and what followed was the greatest explosion of offense I have ever witnessed.

OK, I know we’re going to have them, and I’m OK with that, but please don’t tell me OTAs are necessary. Helpful? Yes. Necessary? They weren’t last year.

Cast your vote in the poll on the right, and if you leave a comment below, it might be used in an “After Further Review" video segment later this week.

 
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