I don't know about you, but I have always wondered just how important the NFL's off season team activities actually are. Mind you, I am not suggesting they have no value, but do the benefits outweigh the risks? The risks being injuries, and unnecessary drama in some cases.
This new normal of an off season, where we adhere to social distancing restrictions while trying to survive during a pandemic, has the potential to reveal just how valuable off season team building activities really are. It very well may alter the competitive landscape of the NFL. Teams with superior leadership and familiarity playing together will have a greater competitive advantage than usually enjoyed during a normal season.
OTAs are often mandatory, with a few exceptions. The more experienced and valuable the player, the more leeway that player has to be missing in action, excused or not. Most team executives and coaches seem perfectly fine with the occasional absentee, especially when the player is an established veteran. Soon to be Hall of Famer Troy Polamalu had his own off season training regimen on the west coast, and was often a no-show at off season activities.
The Steelers stayed in touch, and seemed fine with Troy's absence, seeing how he always showed up at training camp in excellent condition. Although the Steelers themselves had no problem with this arrangement, not everybody approved actually. A certain segment of the Pittsburgh media thought Polamalu should have been required to attend.
Reminiscent of the obsessed principal from Ferris Bueller's Day Off, some members of the local media couldn't accept that Troy didn't have to follow the same schedule as his fellow teammates. This resulted in the annual off season articles questioning the effectiveness of his personal training routines, especially if he suffered a soft tissue injury during any part of the season.
The same writers also questioned his commitment to the team and his leadership skills. They surmised that he was missing opportunities to help teach his younger teammates valuable lessons, both verbal and by example. Mind you, this was concerns voiced by the media, not the Steelers brass.
A quiet man of great character, Troy handled the criticism like he handled every situation, with decorum and class. However, Troy didn't appreciate the unnecessary drama. So much so, Troy regularly attended OTAs toward the latter part of his career, probably to avoid the headache. Not sure if Troy's presence made that big a difference, but it definitely gave the media one less thing to harp on.
There was no discernible difference in Troy's on the field performance, nor increase in the probability of injury, based solely on his OTA participation. Only the young men blessed to learn valuable lessons in the presence of a all time great truly know the full impact of his attendance, both in their careers and personal lives.
Most off season activities are glorified walk throughs/meet and greets. They hold precious little value to the experienced players, especially those returning individuals familiar with the playbook and teammates. However, they are essential for any newcomer or draftee.
The newcomers familiarize themselves with their teammates, coaches, and playbooks. The coaches instruct them on what they need to work on till training camp, then send them on their merry way.
Social distancing mandates may very well impact or eliminate OTAs for every team this year. That is valuable instructional time lost for newcomers with coaches, who always feel they never have enough already.
One would have to believe this seemingly inevitable development will tilt the competitive playing field of the NFL in favor of the more experienced teams. It would stand to reason that rosters composed mainly of individuals that have competed together for multiple seasons would have a easier time incorporating newcomers into the fold, resulting in a distinct advantage for those franchises.
The Pittsburgh Steelers have a impressive mix of experience and youth returning this season. They have experienced some turnover in personnel, but nothing unexpected. The free agent signings have been classic Steelers, solid additions on team friendly deals. Another influx of talent is on the horizon with the NFL Draft, where hopefully the Steelers bring home another nice haul.
The Steelers enjoy experienced veteran leadership on both sides of the ball, coupled with an established coaching staff. They have a winning culture already in place, respect earned by being one of the NFL's most successful franchises.
The Pittsburgh Steelers have long valued loyalty from their players, and acted in kind by taking care of their own whenever possible. See Ryan Shazier for reference.
I believe the way the Steelers have chosen to conduct their business over the years offers them a distinct advantage as we proceed into this off season of uncertainty.