New England's offseason workout program, which was slated to begin this coming Monday, will almost certainly still take place, albeit at a slightly later start date and with newly enacted parameters.
This past Monday night, the league and the union representing its players agreed on a revised format for offseason training amid the ongoing global shutdown brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Club facilities remain shuttered around the NFL as a result of stay-at-home orders in most states, but under the updated guidelines, teams can begin conducting workouts, providing classroom instruction, and hosting non-football education programs on a virtual basis.
Teams with new head coaches, which were supposed to start their annual programs on April 6, will now begin on April 20, this coming Monday. Teams like the Patriots who have returning head coaches were originally scheduled to commence on that same date, but can now kick their programs off a week later, on Monday, April 27, two days after the conclusion of this year's NFL Draft.
Normally, NFL teams begin their three-stage offseason workout programs in early-to mid-April, ramping up from non-padded light workouts at the outset and winding down in June with on-field practice sessions in limited padding – a subject detailed extensively here on patriots.com last year at this time.
Several new rules apply to the 2020 program schedule, including:
- This year's Phase One/Virtual Period will occur on-line and from afar, as players and coaches respect the social distancing restrictions now commonplace throughout societies worldwide;
- If any team elects not to begin its virtual offseason program on the aforementioned dates, it will not be allowed to take part in remaining phases, even if in-person, on-field activities are permitted by that time;
- Phase One/Virtual Period is voluntary for players, but participants are eligible for daily stipends, plus any offseason workout bonuses specified in their respective contracts;
- Teams can outfit players with as much as $1,500 worth of equipment for virtual workouts;
- Phase One/Virtual Period will consist of up to four hours of virtual training per day, four days each week (two hours in classroom study, the other two devoted to strength and conditioning);
- On May 15, the end of this new Phase One/Virtual Period, the league will determine if, based on societal conditions at the time, teams can re-open their facilities;
- To maintain competitive fairness, no team will be allowed to re-open its facilities until all 32 teams are able to do so in their respective communities;
- Remaining phases would begin on May 18, either on a continued virtual basis or in person, if club facilities have re-opened;
- All teams must conclude spring workouts by June 26.
These guidelines came to light hours after Patriots head coach Bill Belichick conducted a media conference call Monday afternoon, April 13. During that Q&A with reporters, Belichick was asked about the challenges he and other coaches face in evaluating players at this time of year under these unusual working conditions. In his response, he made reference to the last time there was limited contact between players and coaches, back during the labor lockout of 2011.
"The answer for us," Belichick began, "is how to maximize the opportunity we have. If you compare this to the lockout, everybody had a lot of facilities available and they could work out wherever they wanted. That's more limited this time, but we weren't allowed to have any contact with the players. We couldn't talk to the veteran players, we couldn't talk to the first-year players, and in fact we couldn't even sign the players that weren't drafted until right before training camp. So, the opportunity to communicate and teach was very, very limited then.
"Now… the opportunity to train for some players may be more limited, but our opportunity to communicate with them and teach them, even though it's remote, is infinitely better than what it was during the lockout. So, from a teaching standpoint, we can get a lot of teaching done that we weren't able to do nine, 10 years ago in a similar but different situation."
Belichick expressed optimism that his team can still operate under the unorthodox conditions, but acknowledged that some aspects won't be quite as optimal as if this were a normal spring workout period.
"You just don't have that good base to fall back on that we've been used to in the spring," he added. "At least, it doesn't appear that way now. Maybe that will change."
At this point, NFL training camps are still scheduled to open in late July, as usual. That, of course, is subject to change depending on how the coronavirus situation continues to unfold.