Like most of us, Lions general manager Bob Quinn had developed a new routine over the last month or so, working from home amid the coronavirus lockdown.
“I got used to waking up, getting some coffee, walking down to my home office and just going to work on the draft,” Quinn said Saturday night, after wrapping up a three-day NFL event that was a bit surreal and, at times, sublime, putting a human face on a league that usually hides it behind a shield.
“Now, it’s going to be like, OK, I’m going to wake up and get some coffee, I’m going to come in here,” Quinn said on a Zoom video conference call from his makeshift “war room” at home, “and it’s going to be, ‘All right, what’s next?’”
And that’s a question for which no one in the NFL has a good answer, at the moment.
“There’s film to watch, but I’m not going to be watching a lot of film next week,” Quinn said, smiling wearily. “I’m just going to be truthful with you guys: I need a little break from the film for a few days. But I think evaluating what the next steps are, and how we stay ahead of this from a football perspective is important.”
So they’ll have more phone calls and video conferences to try to do just that. And beginning this week, the Lions’ players will, too, reconnecting with head coach Matt Patricia and his reconfigured staff from homes scattered across the country. Four days a week, the veterans will meet for 2-hour online classroom sessions around midday. The rookies will take part in some sort of introductory minicamp online as well in early May, though the details on that – “I’ve gotten so many memos from the NFL in the last two weeks, you couldn’t even imagine,” Quinn sighed – aren’t yet finalized.
Earlier this month, the NFL and the players’ union agreed on a plan for a virtual start to the league’s offseason program, one that allowed for three weeks of instruction and workouts held remotely. (Teams also are allowed to send players up to $1,500 of workout equipment since most gyms are closed.) But in order to maintain competitive balance, there won’t be any on-field work until the facilities for all 32 teams are allowed to open by state and local officials.
So for the Lions’ decision-makers, while the work never ends, the adjustments won’t, either. Not anytime soon, anyway.
“What would I normally be doing on Monday to get ready for the next phase of the offseason?” Quinn said. “For me, it would be planning rookie mini-camp. We would bring in a bunch of tryout players, probably 30-40 guys every year. But, obviously, we can’t do that.”
There are other things the Lions’ GM can – and will – do, however, from finishing up the deals for a smaller group of undrafted rookies to circling back with representatives for the veteran free agents that remain unsigned across the league. The Lions are one of a handful of teams with the most available cap space, though Quinn still has an expensive draft class to sign and potential contract extensions looming for players like Kenny Golladay and Taylor Decker.
Beyond that? It’s hard to say, honestly.
“It’s a great question,” Quinn said. “It’s going to be different.”
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though. Because for years now, the NFL offseason has felt like such overkill. A way for teams – and specifically all those Type-A coaches – to keep players under their thumb, despite the fact these athletes now stay in shape working year-round with personal trainers.
The offseason programs technically are “voluntary,” thanks to collective bargaining. But almost every player has a reason to be there, whether it’s to collect the workout bonuses teams use as contract incentives or because their roster spot is in jeopardy if they don’t. Never mind that no one puts on pads and there’s no live contact permitted in any of the on-field workouts in the spring. Or that NFL teams managed just fine without an entire offseason in 2011 due to a lockout. There were Webex meetings then, no OTAs, no nothing.
That’s one reason why the Saints’ Sean Payton essentially told his veteran players last week he’ll see them whenever training camp starts. Payton, who was diagnosed with COVID-19 earlier this spring, is the league’s second-longest tenured head coach, and the Saints also boast the league’s second-oldest roster, so Payton admits this is easier for him to say than for others to do.
“I think it’ll be challenging for the new staffs in 2020,” Payton said Saturday night, “but a lot of (our decision) had to do with the returning roster, the continuity that we currently have.”
The Lions, for their part, have more continuity than the handful of teams with new head coaches, or the several that are still a year behind Detroit in turning over rosters following changes at the top. But coming off a 3-12-1 season, and with some new coaches and major personnel changes on the defensive side of the ball, there’s still a lot to do.
That’s the point Patricia undoubtedly will make clear Monday when class is back in session. And it’s one he and Quinn both delivered on the phone to the Lions’ draft picks the last few days.
“We congratulate them, we get them fired up for a minute and then it’s like, ‘Hey, listen, enjoy this with your family tonight and tomorrow. Then we’re going to work.’”
That said, it’s worth noting the Lions aren’t among the several teams requiring players to take part in virtual workouts and conditioning to get credit for participation during this Phase 1 portion of the offseason. (The Patriots are, in case you were wondering.) Instead, they’ll let the players continue their workouts on their own for now.
Likewise, Quinn acknowledged Saturday night that one of the benefits of this quarantine life we’re all living is realizing that maybe there’s a way to build a better mousetrap. Maybe the nonstop grind from January through April, with coaches and front-office executives dissecting video and criss-crossing the country for pro days and player workouts, isn’t quite the necessary evil they’ve made it out to be.
“This could be a good lesson for us to have a good balance in our lives in the offseason,” said Quinn, who enjoyed letting his kids in on the process this year, even putting them in charge of a makeshift draft board at his home Saturday afternoon. “The draft is critically important to what we do, but maybe we can tone down the hours and work smarter rather than longer, maybe do a few things virtually a day or two a week. I’m going to look in to that. I’m not going to make any promises one way or the other, but that’s something that I’m going to evaluate over the next couple months.”
In the meantime, like most of us, he’ll continue to go to work at home, preparing for a future that remains up in the air. Asked Saturday if he thinks training camp will start on time in late July, the Lions’ GM shook his head.
“I really don’t have a feeling,” he said. “I really don’t. And I don’t want to put an opinion out there because it would be very, very uneducated.”
All he can say for sure is, after months of preparation for a draft unlike any we’ve seen, the daily uncertainty is now officially part of his routine.
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