Players are eager to play ball again

BY Alex Marvez • July 26, 2011

The NFL lockout had officially ended just one minute earlier and Matt Ryan was already raring to go.

“I’ve gotta run,” said the Pro Bowl quarterback, pointing to a clock proclaiming it was 10:01 a.m. ET after he had just entered the Atlanta Falcons locker room. “I’m already late for a meeting.”

Having spent four-plus months barred from any such contact, Ryan and Falcons head coach Mike Smith didn’t want to wait another second to start preparing for the 2011 season.

They weren’t the only ones who felt that way.

Club headquarters around the NFL sprung to life Tuesday. For the first time since mid-March, players were permitted to report thanks to Monday’s completion of the NFL’s new collective bargaining agreement. The first team practices will begin later this week when training camps open.

In the half-hour after Ryan’s arrival, about 20 other Falcons had entered the building through the team’s cafeteria. They were greeted by caterer Susan Haynes, who was eagerly awaiting their return.

“The players are the life of this building,” Haynes said between hugs. “When they’re not here, it’s just really quiet.”

The silence was mandated by the labor dispute. Players were prohibited from stepping foot inside team headquarters or having any contact with club employees.

Mind you, the NFL did grant some exceptions for charity events. It also would be naïve to think there was complete radio silence between players and coaches.

But from the conversation and interaction players had with staff inside Falcons HQ, it was clear a large number of players had followed the rules while waiting for normal operations to resume.

“It feels good being back in the building,” said Falcons cornerback Dunta Robinson, who was among the first players to report Tuesday. “You’re seeing all the guys again and the coaches walking around. It lets you know that you’re getting closer to what you love to do.”

The NFL, though, isn’t close to resuming business as usual.

While considered a formality for official CBA approval, a majority of NFL players must vote to reform as a union after the NFLPA decertified in mid-March. The Falcons will conduct their vote Thursday.

Franchises are prohibited from opening their weight rooms or conducting physicals until later in the week. The same goes for on-field workouts. Contact also is barred league-wide for the first two days of training-camp practices and further restricted during the preseason and regular season compared to the previous CBA.

Players and coaches aren’t the only ones who must play catchup after losing an entire offseason of workouts and classroom study.

Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff is dealing with an unprecedented personnel frenzy. Like those around the league, Dimitroff’s staff is being stretched to quickly sign drafted and undrafted rookies for Friday’s training-camp opening while also competing with other teams for free agents, including the ones on Atlanta’s roster that are set to hit the market.

Dimitroff, though, isn’t being caught flat-footed. Although the NFL changed its rules for contacting undrafted rookies with only two hours notice late Monday afternoon, Atlanta finished the night with oral agreements from 18 of the 22 players it plans to sign.

“We have always felt we were going to be ready when the lockout was lifted,” Dimitroff said. “That’s a testament to Mike Smith and his coaches, the personnel department and the entire football operations. Though there is so much discussion about how we’re going to keep our heads above water in this angst-ridden time, there has always been an element of calmness in our building that I’m very proud of.

“We weren’t going to get knocked around like crazy. We were truly going to be able to focus on the task at hand.”

Smith is doing the same while putting the finishing the touches on the steps he believes Atlanta must take to improve on a 13-3 season that ended with a surprisingly lopsided home loss to eventual Super Bowl XLV champion Green Bay. Smith, though, said the new rules and scheduling changes from the new CBA have placed his training-camp schedule in flux.

“The toughest part is we’re all creatures of habit,” Smith told Tuesday after a coaching staff meeting. “That time frame got disrupted. We’re still working through that even today. Everything was based upon what we’ve done in the past. We couldn’t do a whole lot in terms of our planning because we didn’t have a concrete answer as to what the playing rules were going to be when we started our offseason.

“It’s a challenge, but everyone is going through the same thing. That’s the one thing about coaches and players – we’re all very good at adjusting to different situations. I feel very comfortable with the work our staff and players have put in. I’m very confident that when we begin our journey on Friday that we’ll be ready to go.”

Atlanta’s training-camp preparation is just as feverish behind the scenes for others. The medical staff must consult with any players who had offseason surgeries and rehabilitation. Equipment manager Brian Boigner must outfit almost 30 rookies whose padding dimensions couldn’t be taken during minicamp as usual. Kevin Winston, the Falcons’ senior director of player development, will be offering expanded instruction and advice for those same newcomers since the NFL’s annual rookie symposium was canceled because of the lockout. Haynes has to reopen her cafeteria after it was closed during the work stoppage.

Media relations chief Reggie Roberts was receiving an average of 10-12 work emails every morning during the lockout. He was hit with more than 150 in that same span Tuesday.

“It’s like going from zero to 1,000 (mph) in about five seconds,” Roberts said.

Atlanta’s marketing and ticket departments are also zooming into high gear. Single-game tickets for three home contests (Philadelphia, Green Bay and New Orleans) sold out Tuesday shortly after going on sale.

On the marketing end, the club will try to condense four months of offseason work with business partners and advertisers into a three-week window. That includes trying to help players score endorsement deals with sponsors, a gesture prohibited by the lockout.

Jim Smith, the Falcons’ vice president/chief marketing officer, said the team already noticed an uptick in traffic on its website Tuesday and more reader comments about the upcoming season than labor strife.

“The discussion has changed from, ‘When is this thing going to end?’ to ‘What are going to be our (personnel) moves?’ ” Smith said.

Falcons employees who were furloughed during the lockout received notice of upcoming compensatory checks Tuesday from team owner Arthur Blank. Many of those staffers made good use of their lockout downtime. For example, Haynes said the cafeteria underwent minor repairs and a deep cleaning. Boigner and his staff cleared extra equipment storage space.

“It was a great time to spend on offseason projects you normally wouldn’t,” Boigner said.

Those days have ended. It’s now time for the Falcons and every other team to resume focus on what matters most – football.

“It’s been stressful,” Falcons linebacker and team NFLPA representative Coy Wire said. “We’re so used to having a regimented schedule. You know for certain what you’re going to do and when you’re going to do it. That uncertainty was unsettling throughout the offseason.

“It was a long progress. Now that we’re back, you can already sense that sense of structure. We’re really excited to be back to normalcy.”