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NFL players need routine to thrive

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Brian Billick

Brian Billick served as head coach of the Baltimore Ravens from 1999-2007, winning Super Bowl XXXV. He has also authored books, including More Than A Game: The Glorious Present and Uncertain Future of the NFL. Follow him on Twitter.

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My life has the tendency to fall apart when I'm awake, you know? — Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway attributed much of his success to a regimented routine. When he was productive, he wrote at the same time every morning. However, it was the time away from the typewriter and the straying from that structure that yielded much of his aberrant behavior.

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He had money, fame, influence and hangers-on because of his writing. It was this success that also led to womanizing, drinking, fighting and failing health. Idle time and disposable income can be dangerous things.

Is it any surprise that we have seen a spate of new allegations and arrests of NFL players in the past two months? Since March 12 (the day the lockout began), 10 players have been arrested.

During the 2010 regular season, there were typically three or four NFL players per month having problems with Johnny Law. I'm no expert on deductive reasoning, but might there be a link between the cessation of communication between coach and player with an increase in player misbehavior? There is usually a spike in arrests during the offseason, but these current numbers project a disturbing escalation.

Wallet, phone, keys. This is the checklist I consider every day before leaving the house. Simple, important and very effective. If I was a player (or advising one), I would recommend an addendum to this quotidian reminder: stay healthy, in shape and out of trouble.

NFL LOCKUP

Which NFL players were arrested during the offseason?

Though U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson ordered an end to the lockout last week, an appeals court ruling allowed the lockout to be temporarily put back in place that Friday. There will be no practicing, no meeting with coaches or trainers, no contact between the teams and their players. Period.

This means there will be absolutely zero sense of normalcy for both veterans and rookies, drafted or not. So, what's a player to do? Stay healthy, in shape and out of trouble.

The majority of NFL players do not break the law. On the other hand, there are those who clearly struggle navigating the straight and narrow. Miranda ain't just a pretty name to these folks … it's a right. Outside of the lockout and the draft, recent NFL headlines have included the following charges: resisting arrest, aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, public intoxication and possession of a controlled substance with intent to distribute. Of course, these indiscretions make for much more interesting headlines than, say, “Stopped Completely at Stop Sign” or “Paid Taxes on Time”.

But it is important to reiterate, most NFL players are lawful and contributing members of society, so it is currently their responsibility to stay healthy and stay in shape. This is easier said than done.

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Building and conditioning one's body to perform at the level necessary to just survive in the NFL is a full-time job. This task is made all the more difficult without the benefit of the teams' strength and conditioning coaches. Right now, everything a player does is at his own peril.

The opportunities afforded to the likes of Chad Ochocinco and Tom Zbikowski (soccer and boxing) are rarities. In theory, the occasional pickup game of basketball could be seen as an activity increasing stamina and improving footwork. But if someone blows out a knee driving to the hoop, there is no one to blame but the player. Chad Pennington played some basketball recently and tore his ACL.

There will be players who do nothing during this period. There is something to be said about letting the body rest and rebuild on its own. I suppose it's like allowing a field to lie fallow.

Unfortunately, there will be individuals who will literally eat themselves out of the NFL. Most players, though, will be itching to get back on the field. Currently, seasoned veterans around the league are organizing and running player-only practices.

This looks great on paper, and I'm sure the fans love reading about their teams' dedicated athletes, but these players need to be extremely cautious given the uncertain circumstances.

And what about these newly drafted players? Up until this point, it's been a whirlwind of bowl games, pro days, NFL Scouting Combine workouts and team visits. The draft signifies a momentous opportunity and a watershed moment for these new professionals.

How unsettling it must feel to be drafted, introduced as a member of a new team and meeting your coaches only to be shown the door as the lockout was put back in place. These players legitimately have no idea what it takes to operate in the NFL, but it's now their responsibility to figure it out on their own.

This is where the vets need to step in. They need to explain to the rooks the expectations placed upon them and the different levels of conditioning they need to consider.

There are three types of shape in sports. There's cardiovascular shape, and most of the veterans and rookies who come in will certainly be in cardiovascular shape. Then there's football shape, which you can only get from playing and practicing. Lastly, there's hitting shape, which takes a while. You just don't show up and get into hitting shape.

This is where it's tough as a coach because when the lockout is once again lifted, you'll have players coming in out of shape. Does a coach scale back the workload to avoid injuries? Or do you accelerate the workload to make up for lost time?

We just don't know what's going to happen. But one thing's for sure, the longer this takes to get resolved, the longer it's going to take to get into hitting shape. If teams start missing organized team activities and minicamps, we are going to see a rash of injuries popping up around the league when the players finally do show up.

What comes in the next few weeks remains to be seen, but as of now the players are completely on their own. Wallet. Phone. Keys. Stay healthy. Stay out of trouble.

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