ASHBURN — Washington Football Team players had been having discussions and group text chats about whether to attend the voluntary practices that began Tuesday. After all, other NFL players were opting out, and the union was urging everyone to skip.
That advice didn’t get much traction in Washington.
“It was a no-brainer,” cornerback William Jackson III said. “We knew we were coming.”
At practice Tuesday, Washington had 85 of its 89 players in attendance — becoming the latest team to shrug off a push from the players’ union to take a stand against the NFL’s offseason workout program, known as “OTAs.”
In April, reportedly less than half of the league’s players showed up for the first portion of workouts, work that consisted largely of strength and conditioning. But now a month later — when teams can actually hold 11-on-11 drills — players are back in uniform.
Players from 21 teams previously announced they would not participate in offseason workouts. That, however, hasn’t held up.
The Denver Broncos, for instance, had only nine absences on Monday’s practice, despite an earlier pledge. The same goes for the Los Angeles Chargers (68 out of 82 in attendance) and the New York Giants (75 out of 90). The Atlanta Falcons, Pittsburgh Steelers, Miami Dolphins and Minnesota Vikings — whose players put out statements — all reportedly had the majority of their rosters show up.
Washington’s players were one of the 11 teams not to make a statement. And on Tuesday, only Chase Young, Montez Sweat, Steven Sims and Charles Leno Jr. were no shows.
“Everybody in the room is mostly new,” Jackson said. “And so we needed to build that chemistry, build trust. So everybody decided to be here in this moment. We’re excited and we’re building.”
Jackson inadvertently hit on the reason most players faced why players didn’t back the charge to pull out: Players are eager to improve and build toward the next season. So many of them, too, need to make an impression on coaches and OTAs are a way to get noticed. Skipping workouts, in theory, would especially hurt the rookies and the bottom-of-the-rooster types who need every chance they can get.
In Washington’s case, the team is looking to build upon a successful Year 1 that resulted in a playoff berth. Washington’s front office was busy in the offseason, overhauling the offense and bringing in new pieces on defense. Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick said developing chemistry takes time, adding it was “important to be here” to start the process.
Coach Ron Rivera appreciated the turnout.
“I really do because this is voluntary,” Rivera said. “Our guys understand that we’re a fairly new team with a lot of new faces from last year. To get together, to work together, to develop, I think our guys have seen the importance and significance of it.”
The union’s efforts haven’t been a total bust, though. Several teams reached agreements to cut back on the usual workload. The Arizona Cardinals, for example, went from 10 OTA sessions to just three. The Los Angeles Rams will conduct light walkthroughs and stick to virtual meetings. The Colts trimmed their nine-week program to two weeks.
NFLPA president J.C. Tretter said in April that last year’s offseason — when OTAs were scrapped because of the pandemic — showed that football can still be played at a high level when not adhering to the normal setup, which was collectively bargained. He argued that the lesser workload contributed to a 23% decrease in missed-time, in-season injuries and a 30% drop in concussions.
Injuries, however, actually might have contributed to the players returning to their team facilities.
On May 4, former Broncos tackle Ja’Wuan James suffered a season-ending Achilles injury while working out on his own — giving Denver the freedom to void the $10 million owed to James this season because he was hurt away from the team’s facility.
Denver then exercised the clause and cut the 30-year-old, who was unhappy with the loophole — and the union.
“if your [sic] gonna advise all of us we need you to have our backs on the other end of this,” James tweeted at the NFLPA’s Twitter account.
James has the option to file a grievance against the Broncos, but there’s no guarantee he’ll get back his salary.
In response to James’ injury, the NFL advised teams in a memo that they have “no contractual obligation” to pay players who suffer a non-football injury, which includes injuries sustained away from the facility.
Washington safety Landon Collins said James’ injury did not give him any pause when it comes to his own injury. Coming back from a torn Achilles, Collins has worked out in Ashburn, Louisiana and Miami this offseason — consulting his own team of doctors who are advising him during his rehab. So if he gets hurt again outside of Washington’s facility, he faces the same risk that James did.
Still, Collins was there on Tuesday. Just as most of Washington’s players were.
“We let everybody know that it was mandatory but optional to be here,” Jackson said. “We kind of put it that way.”