JC Tretter wasn’t always an established starter and one of the NFL’s best centers. He entered the league in 2013 as a fourth-round pick of the Packers, battled injuries early in his career and started only 10 games before signing with the Browns in 2017. He knows what it’s like to be on the roster bubble and the pressure that comes with trying not to pop it.
The history is important when listening to Tretter discuss his desire to eliminate the NFL’s offseason program. He used his platform as president of the NFL Players Association to bring up the topic in a column posted Dec. 31 and has defended the position since.
“We do not need to be brought in during April-June to practice against each other — it’s simply unnecessary,” he wrote.
The opinion isn’t new for Tretter, who said fellow players have talked about making changes to the offseason program “for a long time.” The 2020 season played during the coronavirus pandemic opened the door for a deeper discussion and the real chance for change.
Because of COVID-19, players weren’t allowed to report to team facilities until training camp in late July. Voluntary workouts and organized team activities in April and May and mandatory minicamp in June were canceled. Teams met virtually and players worked out on their own.
The NFL was still able to conduct a successful season, and Tretter points to an increase in scoring, a drop in penalties and no spike in missed tackles as proof the product didn’t suffer. More important are the health and safety benefits from a reduction in practice time.
“What this year showed was all the different ways that you can prepare and how important it is to prioritize having healthy players on the field,” Tretter said recently on an NFLPA Zoom call. “And that should always be a priority not just for the players, but for the coaches, for the GMs, for the executives, for the fans. Everybody should want healthy players playing as long as they can.”
The traditionalist in me — or perhaps it’s the contrarian — wants to counter that the offseason program is voluntary, and what’s the difference between a player training on his own and working out with teammates under the coaches’ supervision? This is where Tretter’s back story is relevant.
He understands the conflict between needing to recuperate after six months of “daily car accidents” and wanting to impress the coaches and personnel department by showing up in top shape in April, only about three months after the season ended.
“I believe after a sixish-month season of grinding your body, your body needs significant time off, your body needs to get away, to heal,” he said. “You put them in a position where they have to make decisions, not in the best interest of their health, but trying to stay alive and keep a job. Those decisions are made each time throughout the offseason.”
Tretter got an Ivy League education at Cornell and hasn’t missed a snap in four straight seasons, so he’s as qualified as anyone to address the issue. He likes to point out that the NFL doesn’t accept change easily, then uses the elimination of two-a-day practices in training camp in 2011 as proof the league didn’t crumble after a significant switch and the level of play remained impressive.
“It would be a shame to then just revert back to what we’ve always done just because we’ve always done it that way, and I believe there is a better way to do the offseason,” he said.
Tretter’s statement that the 2020 season proved the offseason program isn’t essential is hard to argue, but coaches won’t be quick to surrender. They believe the more time spent on the field or in the classroom the better and often cited the lack of an in-person offseason as a hurdle that needed to be overcome.
Coaches have always been desperate to get the players back in the building in the spring. They can keep better tabs on them while beginning work toward the season.
“Reflecting as a quarterback and a quarterback coach, that is valuable time that we missed in the spring of talking footwork, details, protections and adjustments and everything that comes with the mental aspect,” offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt said. “Obviously the health and safety of everybody is most important, but we as coaches would love to have them in because there is a lot of stuff that gets missed not going through the OTAs and seeing the looks and seeing the different issues that come up. All of that you put into that memory bank that you use during the season.”
Remote learning was a key to the Browns’ success starting in April and carrying through the season and could continue in a revamped offseason. Compromises about rookies and quarterbacks spending more time in person and having a single minicamp so training camp isn’t the first time the team’s on the field in seven months also make sense.
“This offseason proved that there are changes that we can live with,” special teams coordinator Mike Priefer said. “I would never eliminate it. I think it is extremely important to the development of our young players, especially our draft picks, our college free agents and really players who come from other teams to integrate them within our locker room and getting the players around each other.”
The standard offseason schedule remains in the collective bargaining agreement signed in March, days before the pandemic shut down the country and the NFL. Significant changes like getting rid of the offseason program would have to be agreed to by the union and league, and Tretter understands collaboration will be necessary.
The sides agreed to a new schedule last year, which included a longer acclimation period upon arrival for training camp, more days off and fewer padded practices. Tretter will continue to steer the conversation toward the injury data and player safety.
“I think we can rely on the same thing we did of working collaboratively to find a system in place that actually prioritizes preparedness, acclimation, loading of our tissues and muscles, and doing all the things that we talked about as we prepared for this season long term,” he said.
COVID-19 isn’t going to be gone by April when the offseason programs are supposed to start, and there’s no need to rush players back into team buildings. So Tretter and the union will likely get a second year of injury and performance data as they try to make a permanent change.
“There is always a balance between preparation and rest, and what we’re seeing more and more of the science is how important the rest is as you get your body right,” he said.