Back in January, when Matt Nagy was asked about Nick Foles’ struggles during the 2020 season, he offered up a fair, yet slightly surprising answer:
“You look at that we weren’t able to have that offseason, which I do believe would have helped in a lot of different ways for him because things are different. You just can’t connect Kansas City and Philadelphia and say it’s the same offense. You can’t do that. There’s a growing process there.”
The Bears traded a fourth-round draft pick for Foles in large part because of his familiarity not only with Nagy, but also offensive coordinator Bill Lazor and quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo. The offense wasn’t the same that Foles operated in Kansas City and Philadelphia, but it was similar. And in a pandemic year with no offseason workouts in sight, that familiarity was valuable as the Bears searched for a quarterback to compete with Mitchell Trubisky.
But as it turned out, the lack of an offseason program hurt Foles as the Bears significantly altered their offense to fit Trubisky’s strengths. Foles never looked comfortable in what turned out to be a significantly shortened training camp with no preseason games, and Trubisky won the starting job. When Foles eventually replaced Trubisky as the starter in Week 4, Nagy altered the offense back to concepts Foles was more comfortable with, but the entire unit struggled to get on the same page.
This is just one example and all 32 teams were dealing with the same limitations, but the impact of last year’s bizarre offseason impacted players on a case-by-case basis. Rookie wide receiver Darnell Mooney made the jump from Tulane with only a few weeks of practices and looked like he belonged right away. Yet veteran linebacker Danny Trevathan got off to a slow start – like, literally slow – and it was at least a month into the season before he started looking like himself. Free agent addition Robert Quinn was also negatively impacted, and it didn’t help that he suffered an injury in training camp.
Which brings us to this week’s contentious disagreement between the NFL and the NFLPA about this year’s offseason program. The NFLPA’s official stance is that it should be all virtual. The NFL, meanwhile, released its nine-week program Wednesday that includes three phases:
First phase: April 19-May 14, all virtual meetings with no on-field work
Second phase: May 17-May 21, virtual meetings with limited on-field work, rookie minicamp
Third phase: May 24-June 18, traditional OTAs (10 days) with in-person or virtual meetings, plus mandatory minicamp
As always, the entire program is voluntary except for mandatory minicamp, but it’s never that easy. Players rarely skip the voluntary portion of the offseason and when they do, it’s typically contract related.
Players from the Seahawks, Broncos, Buccaneers and Lions quickly released statements saying they would jointly skip voluntary workouts, but it's hard to imagine that all players from those teams are in agreement on that issue. For one, many players in the league have workout bonuses in their contracts that are tied to them attending voluntary workouts. And while some players may live hundreds or thousands of miles away from their team facility in the offseason and feel like they can stay in shape on their own, others stay in the city in which they play and want to be in the facility. Players rehabbing from injury can be in the facility even in the winter months and take advantage of it.
Plus, as is the case in most NFLPA negotiations, the majority of NFL players do not have large, comfortable contracts that give them security. Most of them are fighting for roster spots and will gladly show up in the offseason for more reps if the starters don’t want to be there.
While all of this is happening in the backdrop of a global pandemic that is far from over, it would be disingenuous of the NFLPA to claim their concerns are only COVID-19 related. The offseason program has been a hotly debated issue for a long time and many on the players’ side would like to see it be completely virtual in non-pandemic years too. That’s not to suggest some players don’t have legitimate safety concerns about being back in the building, but the league proved last year that it could stage a safe season successfully and that was before a vaccine was available.
Players will now have access to the vaccine during the offseason program.
At this point, it’s unclear how Bears players will respond, but like every other team, it’s unlikely it will be unanimous. Some will likely have legitimate and fair concerns about COVID-19. A few might not want to get vaccinated. Some will just want to stay in Florida or some other warm place. And others – perhaps most – will want to get back to work and improve.
The Bears can certainly use the work, especially on offense. And in a repeat of last offseason, they have a new quarterback coming in. The lack of an offseason cannot be an excuse again if Andy Dalton – already named the Bears’ starter – struggles this season.
The guess here is that the Bears will get on the field at Halas Hall for OTAs and mandatory minicamp, even if attendance is slightly lower than most years. Theoretically, any player who wants to be vaccinated should be by June’s mandatory minicamp, if not earlier.
And by late July, when training camp begins, all 32 teams should be full-go with a normal amount of practices and (now) three preseason games. That’s good news for the Bears, who need as normal an offseason as possible.