LAKE FOREST – On April 15, the National Football League Players Association issued the following statement on behalf of its Chicago Bears membership.
“COVID-19 remains a risk both to our team, our families and our fellow NFL players,” the statement read. “We also saw the health and safety benefits of a fully virtual offseason, as injuries across the NFL were down last year.
“Players remain unclear about the protocols and protections, and rules remain inconsistent despite the last minute communication by the NFL yesterday. It is for these reasons that the majority of our locker room are choosing to exercise our right and not participate in in-person voluntary workouts in order to stay as safe as possible.”
But when we got our first glimpse of the Bears offseason workouts Wednesday it became clear the statement was far from accurate.
By my count 72 of the 90 players currently under contract, or just drafted and negotiating their first deals, were on the field.
There is nuance here as head coach Matt Nagy tried to make clear when asked Wednesday about those players not present.
“Obviously, everyone on this call, and including myself, is aware that this is voluntary,” Nagy said. “With that said, I’m really appreciative of all the guys that are here and the guys that are out here doing their thing, but at the same time we all do have to keep in mind that it is voluntary.”
When it was pointed out to Nagy that OTAs always have been voluntary, and the Bears have never had so many absences, he countered.
“I would say a few things, they have been voluntary every year, and I think we could probably all agree that this year for a lot of different reasons is a little different – not just with the Chicago Bears but with a lot of teams across the league,” Nagy said.
“That said, I also want to make it loud and clear that the on-the-field part of it that you’re seeing is one part of it, and in the classroom is the other part, and we have all of those guys that you’re not seeing here physically, they’re all here in meetings, and they’re a part of everything. And they have phenomenal attitudes.”
I am not trying to take Nagy or anyone else to task over this.
My guess is privately Nagy is less happy about this than anyone.
What was most interesting Wednesday was who the Bears’ 18 absentees were. They included 16 defensive players and every starter but linebacker Roquan Smith, wider receiver Allen Robinson and quarterback Nick Foles.
Still Nagy did the only thing he really can, try and put a positive spin on it.
“For Sean, for coach Desai, you know we can only control what we can control with who’s here because of it being voluntary,” Nagy said. “So, for the guys that are here, what an awesome opportunity for them to be able to come in here and get great valuable reps.”
One guy who was on the field was new starting quarterback Andy Dalton, and as a wizened old vet I asked him why so many of his new teammates were absent.
“Everybody has to make a decision of what’s best for them and what’s best for their family and what’s best for their career,” Dalton said. “At the end of the day, that’s what guys are doing.”
Is Dalton right?
By nearly every measure I can find injuries were in fact up in the NFL last season, particularly over the first half of the season following no offseason programs.
There are few workplaces in the world with the stringent COVID-19 prevention protocols to guard against the virus or that have been as successful as the NFL teams have been.
Players may be unclear about teams protocols and protections, but they’ve been explained awfully clearly to me.
At the end of the day, the players may very well be putting themselves at greater risk of injury and COVID-19 by not participating, and they could be working toward the same sloppy start to a season this year as we saw last year.
Yes, voluntary is voluntary, but this isn’t about that.
It’s about a players association that badly disappointed it’s membership with the past two collective bargaining agreements it negotiated and is constantly trying to reposition itself as the players’ best defense when in fact is has caused most of their current disappointments.