Coaches, play­ers make best of NFL’s 1st vir­tual off­sea­son

Orlando Sentinel - - Sports - By Teresa M. Walker

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Turns out there’s only so much that can be done vir­tu­ally.

Six teams de­cided to end their off­sea­son pro­grams even with the NFL al­low­ing two more weeks to keep work­ing: the Bears, Ti­tans, Rams, Tex­ans, Car­di­nals and Red­skins.

With coaches and play­ers scat­tered and team fa­cil­i­ties shut by the NFL be­cause of the COVID-19 pan­demic, video meet­ings helped the league act as if busi­ness was con­tin­u­ing as usual. Some coaches de­cided their teams had done ev­ery­thing pos­si­ble un­til play­ers are al­lowed to join them in­side team head­quar­ters and on the prac­tice fields.

That won’t hap­pen un­til July at the ear­li­est when train­ing camps are set to open, with coach­ing staffs try­ing to make up for lost time. Rook­ies face the big­gest chal­lenge hav­ing missed an es­ti­mated 400 rep­e­ti­tions on the field dur­ing a nor­mal off­sea­son.

“Walk­ing through and prac­tic­ing is the best way to teach,” Buc­ca­neers coach Bruce Ari­ans said. “So those are valu­able reps missed. I don’t know how we’ll make them up. Hope­fully we’ll get some ex­tra time in prac­tice in camp; a few ex­tra days would help.”

Play­ers have been work­ing out — yes, in­clud­ing that new guy in Tampa, Tom Brady. With so many states re­open­ing, quar­ter­backs are get­ting team­mates to­gether for work­outs at a time they might’ve been in a fi­nal mini­camp to cap the off­sea­son pro­gram.

This very dif­fer­ent off­sea­son has al­lowed play­ers to slow down a bit, fo­cus on com­mu­ni­ca­tion, and learn more than when ev­ery­one is to­gether in per­son.

“It ac­tu­ally prob­a­bly has pro­vided a bet­ter op­por­tu­nity to kind of share your in­put of ‘this is why I did this’ or ‘maybe on this route, do this,’ or ‘this is what you’re try­ing to make this look like.’ Things like that,” Vik­ings wide re­ceiver Adam Thie­len said.

Nin­ers cor­ner­back Richard Sher­man has seen a ton of growth out of his team.

“This time ev­ery­body has to step back in and slow it down and take their time,” he said. “Guys are learn­ing more and un­der­stand­ing more than they ever have.”

The last time the NFL had a dis­rupted off­sea­son was 2011 when clubs locked out play­ers dur­ing la­bor ne­go­ti­a­tions. Play­ers didn’t have ac­cess to coaches or play­books then, though they could work out to­gether.

Now play­ers have ac­cess to coaches thanks to tech­nol­ogy. But work­out op­tions are so lim­ited for some play­ers that Bills spe­cial teams co­or­di­na­tor Heath Far­well said he was dis­ap­pointed when he saw a video of what wide re­ceiver/re­turner An­dre Roberts lifted in place of weights.

“What is he a 10-plus year vet­eran and doesn’t have work­out equip­ment?” Far­well said. “He’s lit­er­ally lift­ing a couch. It’s crazy to me. But that’s find­ing a way to do it.”

Five NFL teams have had to be very cre­ative with new coaches. Imag­ine hav­ing a new team and noth­ing on tape with their new play­ers. Red­skins coach Ron Rivera cred­its his as­sis­tants with find­ing clips and cut-ups of video show­ing their style of play to help in­stall his own of­fen­sive and de­fen­sive schemes.

Rivera had hoped to be in the sec­ond or third phase with play­ers on the field by

June. It never hap­pened.

“The hard part, too, is we’re get­ting a lit­tle bit repet­i­tive, a lit­tle re­dun­dant,” Rivera said. “It’s been al­most to a point where we’re go­ing to over-sat­u­rate these guys. We have to be care­ful with that.”

Video chats don’t quite re­place be­ing able to pull a coach aside for an ex­tra 15 min­utes af­ter a meet­ing. To Red­skins quar­ter­back Dwayne Hask­ins, that’s been the big­gest chal­lenge while pre­par­ing for his sec­ond NFL sea­son, this one with a new coach.

“I’ve been able to do my own type of rou­tine to get ready for the sea­son,” Hask­ins said. “It’s not al­ways on the time that we’re do­ing (to­gether) be­cause, we do things as a team and I need things dif­fer­ently for my­self, so, this vir­tual off­sea­son I feel ac­tu­ally has helped me tremen­dously.”

Bills of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Brian Daboll likes Face­Time, which al­lows him to see his play­ers.

“You have to think out­side the box to ini­ti­ate con­ver­sa­tion, to teach new meth­ods, to learn new test­ing sys­tems with what we have,” Daboll said. “And you know, we have to do the best that we can do with the tech­nol­ogy that we have, and we have. Again, how that trans­lates we’ll find out. This is a unique sit­u­a­tion for all of us.”

Tech­nol­ogy also has let coaches test rook­ies and free agent signees. The Ti­tans used a study tool and flash­card app called Qui­zlet.

“You go on there, you press in their code and then all of a sud­den ev­ery­body is on there,” Vra­bel said. “They’re go­ing against each other and you get points for time and get­ting it cor­rect. We do a great job of be­ing cre­ative and test­ing the play­ers each week.”

Video also helps make up for not meet­ing in per­son. Those video meet­ings are recorded, which doesn’t hap­pen in a nor­mal off­sea­son.

“Now, it is in a li­brary,” Browns of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Alex Van Pelt said. “You can al­ways go back to in­stall three. You can pull up the record­ings again and re­fresh your­self. There are some ben­e­fits to it, but it has been dif­fer­ent and unique. I think we are get­ting the most out of it that we can.”

How all this worked will be tested once teams re­port for train­ing camp. Coaches hope for ex­tra time, which must be agreed upon by both the NFL and the play­ers as­so­ci­a­tion. Cur­rently, most teams are al­lowed to re­port 47 days be­fore their sea­son opener.

“It’s crazy how I al­most feel like 2020 just started, but we’re al­most right to that time where we’re a month from camp,” Nin­ers coach Kyle Shana­han said. “It’s been weird just be­ing stuck in here, but I know our guys are as ready as they can ever be men­tally and we’ll see how they are when they show up at camp.”

“It’s been al­most to a point where we’re go­ing to over-sat­u­rate these guys. We have to be care­ful with that.”

— Red­skins coach Ron Rivera

AP’s Dave Camp­bell, Josh Dubow, John Wawrow, Steve Me­gargee, Fred Goodall, Andrew Selig­man, Tom Withers and Stephen Whyno con­trib­uted.

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