I started working in the NFL in 1981 on a part-time basis for the Buffalo Bills. I became a full-time scout in 1984, and back then, there was no off-season program. In fact, many clubs didn't even have a weight room. Many players on clubs were on their own to prepare for the upcoming season.
In 1985 when I was with the Giants, they added a weight room for the first time adjacent to the training room and position meeting rooms under the stands at the old Giants Stadium.
There were no set rules with the NFLPA on paying the players to come in and work out, and though coaches encouraged players to participate, it was strictly voluntary, so those who wanted to participate did.
Within a few years, after finishing their weight workout, players would go out on the field and begin doing drills, but the coaches weren't really involved. Over the next few years, coaches became involved, and they started getting a head start in installing new concepts to the offense or defense, as well as doing some one-on-ones with receivers and defensive backs. Soon they grew to a full seven-on-seven period.
Word spread and teams copy one another, and by the late 1980s most clubs were doing this, so because of that, the League and the NFLPA began to regulate it. Even though it was "regulated" to some extent, the off-season program was much longer than it is today. Instead of starting in April, it started in March or even late February and lasted until late June.
As the NFLPA always does, they looked to control the amount of time players were in the facility during the off-season. Still, there were no "OTAs" as we know them today, and there was never any media present except for the one designated minicamp each team was allowed to hold.
The one thing that was obvious is that no one in the media cared who was present or was working out on their own. While the coaches "encouraged" players to participate, they didn't put that much pressure on them. The key was that when training camps opened in late July, the players were expected to be in top condition and ready to go.
Training camps back then were much more difficult than they are today. Two-a-day practices were four to five days a week with two hours of work per practice, and there was contact work at every practice. The result was once the season began, we saw good football, and it was more mistake-free than we see today.
It wasn't until the late 1990s that OTAs became an official part of the off-season program. There were also many more OTA's than there are today. If I remember correctly, we had about 15 OTA practices as well as a minicamp.
Again, the press wasn't that involved, and because there was no social media and the short minute-by-minute news cycle we have today, fans knew basically nothing about what was happening.
Today, it is much different, and because of social media (mainly Twitter), fans know just about everything that happens, and of course, they often overreact. What players are there, who isn't there, and how many incomplete passes did the quarterback throw? Who made a good catch or what DB got beat in coverage? Basically, the media treats OTAs like real practice and has a lot of meaning to what will happen when training camp opens next month.
Last night I saw a post on Twitter that Terrell Lewis, a fourth-year man added to the practice squad near the end of last season, "beat" CHicago Bears first-round pick Darnell Wright three times for "sacks." Since no contact is allowed in OTAs, it was impossible that Wright got "beat." But the damage and "drama" has been done, and there will be fans who actually believe that Wright got beat.
OTAs aren't real practice. As I said above, no contact is allowed. The real purpose of OTAs and the off-season program is to prepare players for camp. They get a jump on the playbook and terminology used. They get to work on timing and other things. OTAs benefit skill players much more than they benefit linemen. At least with the skill players, there can be 1-on-1s and 7-on-7s, which can be a great benefit.
Regardless of what happens or doesn't happen in these sessions, it doesn't have a lot of meaning as to who makes the 53-man roster. Why? This isn't real football. There is no contact, and players often go at half to three-quarter speed. It's more about the mental aspect of the game than anything else.
Yesterday in Buffalo, All-Pro wide receiver Stefon Diggs was a no-show for the first day of minicamp. It set off a national "drama" about how this could ruin the Bills' season. Nonsense! It's Day-1 of minicamp and nothing more. It has nothing to do with what will happen in August or September! [Editor: Diggs is at Buffalo's minicamp practice today.]
My point is that too much is made of what happens in what used to be a quiet part of the football year. It wasn't that long ago that we used to have as many as a dozen holdouts at training camps between rookies and veterans out of contract. They would often miss a few weeks of training camp but then "report" a few weeks before the regular season began. In most cases, it meant little to how the team performed once the regular season began.
Now, it's a different story. Any little thing that happens is reported on social media, and something meaningless is turned into a big story. It's all about clicks and getting "followers," but it has very little to do with what will be the product on the field in September. Having been around this great game my entire adult life, I know too much is made over the offseason program. Controversies that really aren't there all of a sudden are the talk of the town and talk radio. It's ridiculous!
Do yourself a favor, and don't put too much time or energy into what happens at minicamps and OTAs, as it has little bearing on what will happen come September. The national stories that are written in the offseason usually become about 10% accurate come September. It's ridiculous!