Finding meaning at an Organized Team Activity workout conducted by an NFL team is almost as difficult as finding actual football there. The health and safety restrictions on practices that were secured by the players in their most recent collective bargaining agreement - which they got while being pickpocketed by the owners - ensures that, until training camp, almost all of what takes place is on-field book work and glorified Pilates.
"Do you see how much running we do?" cornerback Cary Williams said Tuesday as the Eagles held the eighth of their 10 OTAs, edging toward the end of spring workouts that will be completed next week with a four-day mandatory minicamp. "Mentally, you have to understand that you can't put your hands on guys. You just can't do that. And obviously, it's more predicated to the offense and you understand that."
The players are on the field in helmets, jerseys and shorts - no pads or shells - and there isn't supposed to be any live contact. Last week, there were too many guys hitting the ground for one reason or another and Chip Kelly gathered the players and told them to cut it out. It's not an easy way to coach football, but the players' association is allowed to review practice film and grieve anything it doesn't like. Plus, who wants to risk losing a good player in June?
"I look at it as here are the rules and just implement them. I hear people complain about it, but they are not going to change," Kelly said. "I think you're wasting your time."
The Dallas Cowboys suffered for not getting the message across when rookie offensive lineman Zack Martin ran over linebacker Sean Lee at a recent OTA and Lee tore a knee ligament. The NFLPA is still looking into how it will respond.
Last week, Jeremy Maclin got tangled up with cornerback Bradley Fletcher as both were going for a ball and the receiver hit the ground hard and grabbed his knee. Fortunately for the Eagles, that was just a brief scare, but there has been noticeably less contact since, inadvertent or otherwise.
"It's tough for everyone, but it's also part of being a pro. You've got to learn how to practice," linebacker Jason Phillips said. "You get some young guys who don't understand and that can be a problem, but from what I've seen the young guys here are pretty good with it."
There is no contact allowed until the July/August training camp that includes the four exhibition games and, even then, there can only be one padded practice per day. During the regular season, coaches are limited to a total of 14 padded practices, with 11 of those having to come in the first 11 weeks of the season and the final three spaced out over the last six weeks of the season.
At least by then, Kelly and his staff will have learned what they need to know. Right now, even with all their scouting and evaluation, it is difficult to know the capabilities of the younger players. It is difficult to tell who can really wrap up a tackle at this level when there's no tackling.
"You look at some young guy [and say], 'Is he a good drive blocker?' Well, we can't drive block each other," Kelly said. "A lot of times, I know [the quarterback] wouldn't have made the play. That would have been a sack, but we can't go near the quarterback. . . . We can get a good amount of work done, but obviously there's certain questions that won't be answered until we get a chance to put the pads on."
If coaches negotiated the CBA, maybe things would be different. Dick Vermeil always said you don't train Marines by taking them to the beach and giving them ice cream cones. He wouldn't have liked preparing a team with the current restrictions in place. He also wouldn't have liked the scrutiny that is placed on the tiniest details of the OTAs, since there isn't actually anything of consequence on which to focus. Kelly's not a fan, either.
"There's nothing to read into who is where, what, whatever, because we're not playing a game until September," Kelly said, after being asked about the pecking order of backup quarterbacks Mark Sanchez and Matt Barkley. "If anyone is trying to make anything of who is playing what or how many reps . . . all we're trying to do is see if we can get three reps a minute as fast as we can go, get it on tape and coach off of that."
They do go fast, skipping lightly around one another, tapping their teammates gently on the back, if at all. They are allowed to go fast, but not furious. That comes later and only in measured doses.
"There's going to be a time when we get the pads and get a little contact. But we don't want to hurt our fellow teammates," linebacker Trent Cole said, adding a smile at the end that might have been just a little evil.
No, not hurt them. Perhaps just a good pop now and then. It will happen, but only when things get a little less Organized.