The cries across the NFL landscape were swift and clear. No sooner had word gotten out that owners and players had agreed in principle on a new 10-year labor agreement than coaches and personnel people began lamenting its potential impact on the game. "Every one of these owners has sold his soul for the golden parachute," one head coach says. "They're all going to be set for life, and the players are happy because most of them are at the ends of their careers and have been to the mountaintop. But it's clear you had everybody thinking about their own little agenda without coaches or personnel people having any say. I hope it doesn't ruin a game that is the best on the planet, but I believe the product is going to go downhill because of these changes."
The most notable on-field changes include the elimination of two-a-day padded practices in training camp, a reduction in team-sponsored off-season workouts and a total of only 14 padded practices during the regular season. "We've been trying to turn this league into flag football the last three to five years," says one general manager. "That's why you saw four quarterbacks in the top 12 picks this year. These work rules are just another example that the league is trying to go to scoring points, wide-open offenses and limited physical play. Touchdowns are what sell. It's a joke."
One coach with a run-heavy philosophy groused that limiting the number of padded practices might cause his players to have trouble developing the timing and mind-set that are necessary for a successful ground game. He claimed his players went to him last season and asked for more padded practices. Violations of the new policies will bring fines of $100,000 (coach) and $250,000 (team) for first-time offenses. "You hear this all the time: Protect the shield. Protect the integrity of the game," says another coach. "Well, these changes ain't about the game. They were about getting a deal done for the sake of economics. That's going to catch up to you at some point. You may not see the results of it for another three or four years, but the quality of the game is in jeopardy."
This isn't the first time that major changes brought about by labor negotiations have led to predictions of the game's demise. The late George Young, one of the game's most respected personnel men in the 1980s, was once asked what impact free agency would have. He said, "It will ruin football as we know it." He was wrong, of course, and at least one official thinks the sport will again survive a controversial change. "It's inevitable that there are going to be adjustments," says the G.M. "Things are changing, and we can bitch and moan about it, but there's no getting around it. So let's not waste our time and effort trying to [stop] what's inevitable. This is a league of adaptability, and if you can't adapt, you're going to get lost in the shuffle."