With the doors to NFL facilities closed for the past four months, players had to find other places—and ways—to work out. For some that meant throwing footballs in an alley behind a glorified strip mall, dabbling in professional boxing, working out at local gyms by themselves or with personal trainers, or enrolling at a performance training center. Others did virtually nothing, for fear that a significant injury sustained away from the team facility would result in a loss of wages.
Now that the lockout is over, the biggest question voiced around the league is whether the players will be in shape when they report to training camp. One hundred and fourteen NFL players went through the IMG Academies performance center in Bradenton, Fla., during the lockout, according to the center's director, Trevor Moawad. His recommendation to teams: Proceed with caution.
"I do anticipate more injuries because of the lack of consistency in many players' preparation," Moawad says. "I don't think a lot of players were in a structure that would allow them to maximize their overall fitness level. Guys did things, but let's be honest: We had 114 guys out of a league of 1,900 players come through our place. That number wasn't significantly higher at other centers. From what I can gather, you did not have more than 15 to 20 percent of the players at the top training facilities in the country. That, to me, was surprising."
Teams' initial expectation was that agents would place their players in facilities that could replicate what NFL clubs offer, but the cost (on average $600 a week or $2,000 a month) was too high for many. So if a player did not have the savings to pick up the tab, he was out of luck. For every Larry Fitzgerald—the highly paid Cardinals receiver, who brought in his own trainer and hired a former NFL wideouts coach and a former offensive coordinator to run on-field workouts—there were dozens of players who made do with unsupervised trips to the local gym.
Wide receiver Michael Clayton, a 2004 first-round draft choice of the Bucs who is now with the Giants, saw both sides of the situation. He spent most of the off-season training at IMG, but he also participated in passing camps with teammates at a high school in Hoboken, N.J. "The two [methods] work hand in hand," Clayton says. "In terms of knocking the rust off, getting the body in gear, IMG provides that. Out here [with the Giants] we're basically running routes. No real training, just practicing our craft, repping every route multiple times. There are no ice tubs, no training rooms, no doctors, no nutritionists—we're raw. [It's] backyard football pretty much, trying to do our best to be prepared."
A handful of coaches told SI that they will adjust their training camp schedules according to players' conditioning levels. Dolphins quarterback Chad Pennington and Bengals wideout Terrell Owens sustained knee injuries in the off-season, and several coaches say they've heard through the grapevine that players have picked up strained muscles. "I'm going into training mode during camp," says one coach. "The physical element is going to be more important to me than the mental. There's no way to simulate what we do in the off-season. So my mode is going to be cautious until my strength and training guys say we're in great shape."
The shortened camps will also affect how rosters are put together. "In a normal year we would have gone away from restricted free agents who we felt had reached their potential and filled those spots with rookies," says another coach. "But now we're saying, Hold on. Rookies are going to be so far behind and it's going to take so much time to bring them up to speed that you can't go into the year counting on them."
Veteran teams such as the Chargers, Colts, Steelers, Giants and Cowboys might have an easier time getting off to a fast start because they won't have to spend as many days tinkering with their rosters or installing their systems. "Unquestionably teams are going to need to factor in a number of different contingencies because there is going to be a wide variance in fitness levels," the first coach says. "Guys are going to be motivated and excited to be back out there. But if the car's been parked in the garage for four months and hasn't been driven much, you need to factor that in. Otherwise it could break down on you."