- Ross Tucker, NFL
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With all due respect to singer Andy Williams, the holidays are not the "Most Wonderful Time of the Year" -- at least for NFL players. Not by a long shot. For NFL players, the best part of their job is right now.
My guess is that most fans won't want to hear that. They want their players to be foaming at the mouth and excited about the start of the season in September. Or as pumped up about making a playoff run in January as they are.
Understandable. And, in truth, there is a palpable sense of anticipation in the locker room as that season opener approaches and a recognition of the opportunity at hand whenever a team makes the postseason. But it still isn't as enjoyable as the offseason.
Think about it in the context of your job. What is the best part about it? For most people, I would guess the answer would be paid vacation. Well, it is no different for NFL players.
The time off the players receive from the end of their season to the beginning of the offseason conditioning programs that usually begin in mid-to-late March is the greatest perk of the job. In addition, of course, to the whole playing-football-for-a-lot-of-money thing.
There are many reasons this downtime is so valued by players. First and foremost, it allows their bodies to heal. Even if they didn't suffer an injury that prevented them from playing, pretty much all players have something that is bothering them physically. And if they don't, I'd have to wonder what exactly they were doing out there. Even the parts of their body that don't have a specific injury need a break from the constant wear and tear.
The offseason also allows players the freedom to come and go as they please. That's a real rarity for them, coming off a stretch from late July through early January in which they were essentially given a written itinerary of their schedule in increments that were sometimes as short as five minutes. That regimen exists seven days a week, although Tuesday being the "off day" allows for a bit of leeway in this regard. After a season, it's really nice to be able work out on your own, the way you want, when you want.
Lastly, players have an opportunity to spend quality time with their family and friends, a luxury that is often difficult when working in a different city. And on every weekend. But don't just take my word for it.
"I took a full month off to recover," said Detroit Lions right tackle Corey Hilliard, who helped the Lions win their final four games of the season, "and really just spent most of it with my wife and kids since we don't get to do that very much during the season."
The time off between the end of the offseason program in late June and training camp in July is nice, as well, but not nearly the same. With training camp right around the corner, it is really difficult to relax and enjoy yourself in that time.
Of course, the uncertainty brought about by the current collective bargaining agreement situation might be dampening the mood of some players in this year's offseason. Therein lies the irony. At some point, if there is a lockout, the players will grow so sick and tired of their beloved offseason that they will be champing at the bit to play football. After all, they all want to get paid.
Let's all hope this offseason isn't an extended one.
From the inbox
Q: Bill Cowher is a great football coach and would be an upgrade over a lot of current head coaches. However, he reached the big game twice, winning once and he did rack up losing seasons. With the current success of Mike Tomlin and the success of Chuck Noll, has Cowher's status come down a bit? He has turned down a lot of interviews in the past and this year he was not offered an interview. With his demands of wanting millions and complete control, as well as having a specific list of teams to coach, do you think he missed his chance to be a head coach again? Are owners and GMs now thinking his success came because of the Steelers' organization, not because of his coaching?
Sharell from Raleigh, N.C.
A: I don't think anyone can deny that Cowher is an outstanding coach. His track record speaks for itself. I agree with you, however, that the Steelers' success without him takes the shine off his résumé a little bit. I also believe, as is the case with Jon Gruden, that we have a tendency to overstate the performances of coaches who have dynamic personalities. Gruden and Cowher are huge names, but are they really that much better as coaches than Super Bowl-winning Brian Billick? Are they better at all? I still believe, however, that Cowher will get a coaching job next offseason. But he might have to lower his demands a bit because of some of the reasons you mentioned.
Q: I was wondering if the defensive line ever holds the offensive linemen in order to keep them from going to the next level on a run or from shifting off a double-team to a free pass-rusher? If this happens, is it ever called?
Nate from Ithaca, N.Y.
A: Yes, it is called defensive holding, and it does get called, but very infrequently. It got called even less this season as a result of the league's decision to move the umpires behind the offensive formation. That makes it significantly more difficult for them to truly identify whether the offensive linemen are being held by defenders. In fact, at one point midway through the season, I was told by an official that there had been only a handful of these calls made and that all of them had been called at the end of the first half and end of the game when the umpires moved back to their previous spot behind the defensive line. Logic tells you that means a bunch of fouls went uncalled. The most noteworthy defensive holding call this year went against Ravens rookie defensive tackle Terrence Cody at the end of the divisional playoff loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Q: Ross, how about a 17-game schedule with the extra game being played on a neutral field? It could grow the game by putting "mini schedules" in San Antonio, L.A., Europe, etc. Might soften the blow of a Jacksonville or Minnesota losing its team. I'm concerned that 18 will lead to a dull end of the season.
Scott from Fort Myers, Fla.
A: You are preaching to the choir, Scott. I've been touting and in favor of the exact model you just laid out for well more than a year. There would still be three preseason games, which I think is probably the right amount, and I believe an additional bye week for each team would be a must, as well. This way, the television networks would still have the 19 weeks of NFL inventory they are looking for, and everyone would benefit from the increased revenue this would bring, but we would be adding only one additional game for the players and their bodies. Plus, teams wouldn't lose a home game by playing in London or any other neutral location. It also would help to spread the game and interest in different locales. Conceivably, eight of such games could be played in a place such as Los Angeles to help better determine the viability of trying to place a franchise there again.
Q: What constitutes a "pick" on a passing play? I was at the Super Bowl and it was driving me nuts that the Steelers kept running quick passes, and I'm not sure how it came across on TV, but in person you could see that on almost all of the quick passes they ran there were DBs getting blocked by eligible receivers well before the ball got to its intended receiver. They were clearing running lanes for the receiver sometimes before the ball was even thrown. Maybe that's legal and I'm missing something. What's the rule on that?
Charlie from Green Bay, Wis.
A: Wide receivers have a right to run their pass patterns. If, in the course of running that pattern, they get in the way of a defensive back or he is unable to avoid them, so be it. Defenses will sometimes call that a pick, even though it is completely legal if the receiver does it correctly. Offenses prefer the term "rub." If the receiver deviates from his route, however, with the intention of trying to make contact or get in the way of the defensive back, that is offensive pass interference, and it seems as if it is getting noticed and called more and more each year.
Ross Tucker, who played on the offensive line for five teams in his seven-year NFL career, writes regularly for ESPN.com.
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