As we pointed out in today's patriots.com News Blitz, media reports are suggesting that Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski likely won't be at Gillette Stadium this week for organized team activity practices (OTAs). If that winds up being true, just how big a deal is this for the Patriots? First, let's take a look at what OTAs are.
When NFL teams gather in April for the start of their offseason programs, players are limited to weight training, speed, and conditioning exercises under the guidance of their in-house strength coaches – what's commonly known as "Phase 1" of the offseason program. Phase 2, which, for the Patriots, concluded last week, allows for players to spend a limited amount of time on the practice field with coaches, but players are not in pads and the offense and defense cannot face off against one another yet.
Phase 3, beginning today for New England, takes that next step with OTA practices. Players can wear helmets on the field and line up opposite their teammates on the other side of the ball, but contact is still not allowed during these OTA sessions. The Patriots have 10 OTA practices that they can schedule during May and June, plus three mini-camp practices. These are essentially held under the same conditions at OTAs, with one significant difference: mini-camp is mandatory.
Phases 1, 2, and the OTA portion of 3 are technically considered voluntary, per the NFL's collective bargaining agreement with its players. It's rare, however, for players not to attend any portion of the offseason program. When they choose to sit out for an extended period, it's usually because they're angling for a pay raise and are using their presence or absence as a bargaining tool.
Thus far, neither Brady nor Gronkowski has taken part in New England's 2018 offseason program, and neither has yet said specifically why. Both players are typically present throughout the entire program, although Brady has chosen at times in his career not to be here right at the start for Phases 1 and/or 2.
Those media reports we referenced off the top have also suggested that Brady and Gronkowski are planning to rejoin the club for the three mandatory mini-camp sessions. Players can be subject to fines and other discipline by their clubs if they don't take part. It's entirely possible, of course, that the initial reports are inaccurate and that one or both men will be on the field as early as today or this Tuesday when media are granted their first viewing session of this springtime practice season.
Assuming the reports are true and both Brady and Gronkowski are absent tomorrow, this shouldn't have a significant impact on either player's individual preparations for the 2018 season. Both players are well-established veterans, presumably in excellent physical condition, and have enough familiarity with New England's offensive playbook that they should have no trouble knowing and learning their assignments.
Both players have expressed a general desire this offseason to spend more personal time away from the office, and, given their extensive history of contributions to the success of this organization, have probably earned that right. After all, as already noted, these practices are voluntary anyway up until mini-camp.
Where their absence might prove more consequential is with the offense as a whole. Players routinely emphasize how important springtime is for establishing a foundation for the advanced training camp work in the summer and the success a team might then enjoy as a result in the autumn and winter.
Brady and Gronkowski have an on-field chemistry that can quickly be reestablished whenever they suit up together. But the QB doesn't have that luxury with the many new members of the offense, particularly the skill position players at wide receiver, tight end, and running back. Thirteen practices is not a lot of time to prepare and get familiar with new teammates, especially for a quarterback who has often seemed to decide pretty quickly whether or not he is comfortable throwing to a newcomer. In theory, the more time he has to work with them, the better.
If Brady is only on the field for three practices this spring, will that be enough to get on the same page with his new teammates? Maybe, but it's far from ideal, from a football perspective. Furthermore, both Brady and Gronkowski are returning captains, and in that leadership role, how will their notable absences to this point be perceived by returning teammates and new ones alike? That answer is, of course, much more difficult to quantify, but nonetheless worth considering.
Another factor is how the spring practices are scheduled. It is entirely up to the teams' discretion how they space out their OTAs and mini-camps. In the past, New England would hold all its voluntary OTAs first, then finish the spring with mini-camp. In recent years, though, the Patriots have elected to hold a half-dozen or so OTAs, then mini-camp, before returning to the voluntary OTAs for a few days afterward.
So, if Brady and/or Gronk return for this year's mini-camp – June 5-7 – and not before, would they stick around for the following week's four scheduled OTAs as well, or only attend the mandatory sessions? The media is scheduled to have just one day of viewing during that final week of Patriots spring practice (June 11-15), but the presence or absence of Brady and Gronkowski will certainly be a major story line as the Patriots then take their mandatory six-week summer break before training camp opens in late July.
Meantime, our patriots.com is ready to go for Tuesday's first media viewing at OTAs. Our coverage plan will be similar to our camp offerings, complete with our unique "blogservations" and news recap postings. You'll also be able to hear us discuss everything we saw during a special 1-3 p.m. broadcast of PFW in Progress on patriots.com radio (available thereafter in podcast form). Unlike training camp, these springtime practices are not open to the general public, so, you'll have to rely on us as your eyes and ears. Whatever develops tomorrow with Brady, Gronkowski, and the rest of the team, we'll be there to provide all the necessary observations and analysis. Regardless of what happens, it's sure to be interesting.