June has barely begun. Yet the locker room inside the Indianapolis Colts Complex exudes an almost September-like vibe.
Some players joke amongst themselves, the seeds to their friendships planted years earlier in the grounds of common purpose. Others like veteran kicker Adam Vinatieri take the quieter approach by scrolling through cellphone messages while seated alone in front of their lockers.
Organized Team Activities, or OTAs as they are commonly known, are a necessary component of today’s NFL. A sturdy foundation for the season ahead as they are engraved invitations for the 32 franchises to mesh talents, personalities and philosophies following months dedicated to the offseason.
The Colts began OTAs in late-May. These instructional sessions in which players wear shorts, shirts and helmets are beneficial precursors to mini-camp, training camp and, eventually, pre- and regular-season games.
Indianapolis squeezed in a total of 10 OTAs, the final one taking place Thursday. OTAs were established by the NFL as part of the league’s Collective Bargaining Agreement.
OTAs enable the NFL to keep track of the offseason activities of all teams in an attempt to ensure no competitive edge is gained.
Absolutely no full-contact practice sessions are allowed during this time.
This isn’t to say there isn’t hitting. The books, that is.
A total of 37 players are new to the Colts team as are first-year offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton and special teams coordinator Tom McMahon.
Hamilton, 38, replaces Bruce Arians, who is now head coach at Arizona. As an assistant coach at Stanford University from 2010-12, Hamilton is familiar with quarterback Andrew Luck and tight end Coby Fleener, second-year Colts starters who had been All-Americans for the Cardinal.
Hamilton’s hiring may or may not make it easier for Luck and Fleener to decipher their coach’s playbook. Regardless, every one of Indianapolis’s offensive players benefited from OTAs in that they could adjust to Hamilton’s personality, his expectations.
“One, he is not that much older than I am. I guess that can be good or bad,” said 13th-year receiver Reggie Wayne, 34. “But from what I understand coming from (Luck) is that he’s going to be well-prepared, he’s going to have everyone ready to go. Guys seem to be getting it, digesting it a little bit and going out there on the field and putting it to work.”
Newcomer Matt Hasselbeck, 37, brought on to be Luck’s backup, broke into the NFL in 1998 as the second-string quarterback in Green Bay to one Brett Favre. This was pre-OTAs, a time when attempting to gain additional knowledge meant staying after practice to work with Favre on timing, situational reaction or any number of other things.
“We didn’t have OTAs my first years in the league,” said Hasselbeck, who is now with his fourth NFL team, including 10 seasons (2001-10) spent in Seattle. “It’s a great opportunity for players, and coaches really get to coach technique. The focus is on fundamentals. Technique. It doesn’t matter if it’s your first year or your 15th year; that’s important.”
“With a new offensive coordinator it’s definitely something you look forward to,” added tight end Dwayne Allen, now in his second season after making 45 catches for 521 yards and three touchdowns as a Colts rookie in 2012. “It’s gone pretty well so far.”
Indianapolis hired McMahon in January to lead the special teams in place of Marwan Maaloof, who spent only one season here. McMahon, who worked last season in Kansas City and the season before with the St. Louis Rams, has his own way of doing things.
Thus, it’s up to the likes of Vinatieri, punter Pat McAfee and long-snapper Matt Overton to assimilate. The same can be said for return men T.Y. Hilton and LaVon Brazill and those players assigned to pave running avenues for them on punts and kicks.
“I use this time, as do many of the guys, to get better,” said Overton, who stepped in last season after the Colts parted ways with longtime snapper Justin Snow. “It’s building on consistency and just getting on the same page as Adam and Pat. As long as we hit the ground running in training camp, that’s what we’re trying to do.”
This is Overton’s second opportunity to live out his dream of playing football at the highest possible level. It’s Vinatieri’s 18th.
Now 40 with facial stubble featuring as much salt as pepper, Vinatieri continues to notice the most obvious aspects of the OTA process.
“I think it’s a necessity like training camp,” Vinatieri said. “Football is a team sport, so everyone has to be there. You really have a unique locker room here. A unique brotherhood. It’s important to keep that going.”
Organized Training Activities are labeled as voluntary workouts. However, teams have been known to add incentives to players’ contracts in an effort to ensure their participation. Players under contract with a team have also been known to be fined for their absence from OTAs.
The Colts tend to be unique in this arena. Historically, players simply show up, put in the work and become better because of it.
“I think what’s special about our team is that everyone embraces OTAs,” offensive lineman Joe Reitz said. “We’re grinders. It’s great how strong our attendance is. We pretty much have everyone here. The work we’re putting in now is going to pay dividends when the games start in September.”