Niesen: 2011 lockouts hurt rookies in NFL, NBA

Niesen: 2011 lockouts hurt rookies in NFL, NBA

Published Jun. 5, 2012 5:00 a.m. ET

MINNEAPOLIS – Listen to Minnesota Vikings coach Leslie Frazier, and this sounds like a new concept, to be playing football in May and June. As he spoke last week after the team's OTAs, it was as if he'd been given a gift, this wonderful novelty of actually seeing the team he's paid millions of dollars to coach.

We're so lucky to have it. This is all going so well. The participation is great. We are just so happy to be here.

The man was practically gushing.  

All that about a system that's so integral to sports it's become a given. Every year, players train, a constant cycle of season, playoffs, preparation, preseason.

Season, playoffs, preparation, preseason. Season, playoffs, preparation, preseason. Season, playoffs, preparation, preseason.

It's something everyone takes for granted, but before calling Frazier crazy, think back to a year ago. Remember the year of the lockout, 2011, the spring and summer when professional sports turned into a litany of tedium that made the Vikings' stadium debates of April look like must-see TV. First came March 11, when the NFL lockout began. Then the NBA decided to make it a trend, declaring its own work stoppage on July 1. The lockouts overlapped for 25 days, until NFL owners and players came to a deal on July 25 to end the longest work stoppage in league history.

The NBA's saga dragged on longer, until Dec. 8, forcing the league to abbreviate training camp and cut the season from 82 to 66 games. When those final signatures appeared on the new NBA collective bargaining agreement on Dec. 8, things were finally back to the norm in pro sports after months of legal jargon and speeches and rich people complaining about how they need to get richer.

So much was lost over those nine months: free agency, workouts, meetings, pep rallies, even games. Teams were left without structure, but by virtue of the timing of each lockout – and a temporary stay in the NFL's stoppage – they did have one thing: a crop of rookies, many of whom had barely spoken with their future coaches and general managers.

And so the NFL rookies began their seasons without OTAs or minicamp and with only an abbreviated training camp. Some quarterbacks were fast enough to hop on flights across the country and nab playbooks during the four-day break in the lockout, but most rookies relied on little more than informal workouts with teammates (if that). In the NBA, rookies got even less time. There were just two weeks of training camp before the season started on Dec. 25.

Because this is Minnesota, and everything in sports seems just a bit tougher up here, the Vikings and Timberwolves each also had to integrate new coaches after the lockouts. Frazier had been an assistant and then the interim head coach, which made his task easier than Rick Adelman's, at least. Regardless, though, none of this was ideal.

So the teams were saddled with new leadership and high-profile rookies who would likely have an integral role on their teams going forward. Christian Ponder was the Vikings' quarterback of the future, and though the team signed Donovan McNabb in the offseason, the rookie still took over as a starter halfway through the season. Across town at the Target Center, Derrick Williams and Ricky Rubio were also poised to make their debuts with little more than a "Hi, how are you? Welcome to my complicated offense," from Adelman.

Neither the Vikings nor the Timberwolves, Ponder nor Williams performed as well as they could have in their post-lockout seasons. (Ignore Rubio and his success – he's been a pro since he was 14.) In any other year, they'd have gotten more flack than they did, and it wasn't just the fact that both seem like pretty nice guys that kept the quarterback and forward from being ripped to pieces. Each had a crutch, a magical excuse that could explain his lackluster performances: There was no offseason. It's not so much that they said it, but the circumstances were just too blatant not to wonder what could have been.

Ponder, in his rookie year, started the team's final 10 games and won just two. He completed 54.3 percent of his passes and failed to throw a touchdown pass in four of his 11 outings. Williams was similarly streaky, averaging 8.8 points and 4.7 rebounds, playing more like a late first-round pick than the second overall.

Williams and Ponder weren't the only two rookies who underperformed after the lockouts, and both deserve another chance to look like the great prospects people once imagined they'd be. The Vikings and Timberwolves have invested too much in them, both figuratively and literally: Ponder will make $836,759 next season, Williams $4.8 million. The teams have also seen too many flashes of promise to give up on them now, but anyone who's hoping for a miraculous change should look at the numbers, which put a crack in the post-lockout excuses.

The seven rookie quarterbacks in the NFL who attempted more than 10 passes averaged a completion rate of 56.6 percent last season. That's only marginally higher than Ponder's mark, and it's actually better than the numbers rookies posted in 2010. That's right – even with a full offseason, 2010's rookie quarterbacks completed just 56.1 percent of their passes. In 2009, it was even worse: The rookies completed 54.1 percent of passes.

In the NBA, the rookies of 2011-12 averaged a field goal percentage of .429. That was worse than rookies in 2010-11 (.452) and 2009-10 (.464) but not precipitously so. Of course, it's impossible to control for the talent of each year's rookie crop in both leagues, and there are more measures of production than just these two statistics, but this was not a drastic change in either sport. That could in part be due to an overall lower quality of play in both leagues after the lockouts, but it could just as much be proof that losing an offseason matters less anyone could have imagined.

Which brings us back to Frazier at that podium beside the Vikings' practice fields.

"That's the great thing about having an offseason, the fact that our players can now interact with our coaches," he said. "It's great to see Christian sitting in meetings and watching tape. Having the participation that we have, having probably 98 percent of our team here, just gets me excited, gets our coaching staff excited that we're able to work and work together."

There's no way Frazier hasn't heard the excuses, just as he's sure to know the numbers. His hopes in large part rest on Ponder's improvement and success, just as Adelman's job will be much easier if Williams can become an aggressive scoring threat.

That's why the Timberwolves were so specific with Williams' offseason plans, why he too was explicit about what he'd be doing and with whom he'd be training. It's why the team is so looking forward to a record 24 teams playing in Vegas Summer League (another lockout casualty) in July. It's why veteran players like Antoine Winfield, Kevin Williams and Percy Harvin are sweating it out in Eden Prairie instead of training elsewhere, like they have in the past.

"It's real important," Winfield, who admits he dislikes the workouts, said. "We have a lot of new faces, and I'm sure those guys want to see the veterans. Plus we didn't have the offseason last year, and guys haven't really been doing anything football-wise. It's good to get out here."

Both teams are young, more likely to see this once-mundane experience of offseason training as a luxury. The biggest thing the Vikings and Timberwolves have going for them right now is not the flawed concept of second chances but rather that enthusiasm about things that were once so normal.

This might all work if teams can keep pretending that this offseason is a novelty, the most important thing these young players have done in their careers. Perhaps then the changes and improvements, the so-called second chances, will actually become reality.

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