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With the Broncos first through the wall, here's what matters about the NFLPA's work to change the offseason

Andrew Mason Avatar
April 14, 2021

If you listen to our DNVR Broncos podcasts, you might hear us talk about our sponsors — and, often, how their businesses and methods of reaching customers has changed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

When our society emerges into a “new normal,” things won’t be the same. Even more of our purchases will come straight to our doorsteps. For some, remote “virtual” work is here to stay.

This is the direction in which the NFL Players Association wants to take the offseason.

Tuesday, through the NFLPA’s social-media channels, the Broncos, Seahawks and Buccaneers players announced that they would not take part in organized team activities as currently structured. COVID-19 concerns were cited as a reason.

But one need only look back to the words of NFLPA president J.C. Tretter three months ago to understand that there is something deeper.

The pandemic has changed how we go about our day-to-day lives — in some ways, for the better. Tretter and the NFLPA believe that there is a better offseason protocol, one that doesn’t involve nine weeks of work at team headquarters between April and June and more closely resembles the “virtual offseason” of 2020.

“I believe the changes implemented this season have demonstrated that we can put an entertaining product out on the field while further reducing wear and tear on our players’ bodies,” Tretter wrote in a January piece on the NFLPA’s website.

“Sloppy play would usually be evident with low-scoring games, a high number of penalties and more missed tackles – all things that have historically been attributed to insufficient practice time to hone our fundamentals.

“But we have seen the exact opposite this year, with points per game at an all-time high, a decreased number of penalties and even fewer missed tackles compared to last year.”

Missed tackles did indeed drop last year. According to the data compiled by Pro Football Focus, the missed-tackle rate dropped from one every 8.17 opportunities in 2019 to one every 8.35.

Another measure not mentioned by Tretter — but still relevant — is perhaps the most unforced of errors in football: drops.

Last year’s league-wide drop percentage was 6.89, the second-lowest in the past 15 years, per data compiled by Pro Football Focus. That represented an improvement of 0.23 percentage points from the 2019 season and was the second-best figure of the past 15 years.

YEAR-BY-YEAR DROP PERCENTAGES

  • 2006: 8.25
  • 2007: 8.73
  • 2008: 10.07
  • 2009: 8.45
  • 2010: 9.05
  • 2011: 9.00
  • 2012: 9.53
  • 2013: 7.81
  • 2014: 7.75
  • 2015: 8.12
  • 2016: 7.42
  • 2017: 7.84
  • 2018: 6.43
  • 2019: 7.12
  • 2020: 6.89

But there are counterpoints worth noting.

First of all, points on the board is a poor indicator of the quality of the game. Perhaps in terms of pure entertainment value for a casual fan, an exploding scoreboard is the be-all, end-all. But some of the finest games in which the Broncos have been involved in the last decade included pedestrian shorelines of 20-18, 16-13 and 19-13. (Although we can all agree that the 7-3 loss to the Chiefs on Jan. 1, 2012 was a game that left onlookers wanting to gouge out their eyeballs.)

Second, the decrease in penalties can be as simple as a change of emphasis.

Last year, the number of total penalties called per game — including penalties that were declined or offsetting — was 13.0 per game, per data compiled by NFLPenalties.com, which has tracked penalty data since 2009. That was a drop of 3.0 penalties per game from 2019, and 2.8 penalties fewer per game than the five-season period from 2015-19.

The 18.9-percent drop in penalties last year was the biggest one-year shift in the last decade. In nine of the previous 10 years, the year-to-year change was under 5 percent.

An outsized share of the change came from the plummeting rate of offensive holding penalties. In 2019, officials called offensive holding 3.4 times per game. In the pandemic-altered 2020 season, that rate plunged to 2.1 per game — as staggering 38.2-percent drop.

Then there were injuries. According to a piece on Sportico.com, the injury rate rose from under 1.5 injuries per 100 plays in 2019 to 1.73 injuries per 100 plays in 2020. Although there was not a spate of injuries early in the season on a league-wide basis, the Broncos suffered more than most teams, losing starters at quarterback, wide receiver, edge rusher and cornerback to injuries before halftime of their second game.

Some may argue that the vague “eye test” revealed a decline in the quality of play. But there is no hard evidence to support that assertion. And while penalty rates don’t have much value, drop rates and missed-tackle data does.

This is the NFLPA’s case.

Young teams like the Broncos who need the extra work will pay the price in the short term. But if the future includes fewer in-person offseason practices, the players and the game will adapt.

They’ll have no choice, not if the NFLPA can transform the structure and nature of the offseason.

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