NFL offseason a mental, physical reboot process for players
Aaron Rodgers hits the beach and has even hosted a TV game show. Alvin Kamara has snowboarded in the mountains of Montana.
Quinton Jefferson takes his kids to school and runs errands. Sheldon Rankins catches up on cooking and traveling.
Game plans and practices are replaced in the NFL offseason by all the activities — exciting and mundane — players couldn’t do the last several months. It’s also a chance to rejuvenate their bodies and minds from the tolls of playing such a violent, competitive game.
Playoff teams can play deep into January, and even into February if they make it to the Super Bowl. But for players on the 18 teams that failed to make the postseason, the offseason begins when the clock hits zero in the regular-season finale.
“You want to get to that ultimate goal of the Super Bowl and all that,” said Kamara, whose Saints have missed the playoffs the past two seasons. “But if you don’t make it, you fall short, it’s still like, ‘All right, we lost,’ but now you’ve got some time to decompress and really just get your body right, get your mind right. Because it’s demanding every week.
“You can’t do this job halfway. So, I just kind of disconnect from everything. I go on a hiatus, really.”
Rodgers, who has surfed the shores of California to unwind and guest-hosted 10 episodes of “Jeopardy!” during the 2021 offseason, knows the feeling.
“I think we all take a deep breath once the season is over, and for me it’s not that hard to get into that offseason mode and enjoy my time away from it,” the Green Bay quarterback said. “I think it’s important to actually take time. When you’re younger, you want to jump back into workouts. When you’re older, you give yourself a little bit more time.
“But it’s more just having that balance, being able to shut that off when you get out away from here.”
This offseason will be a bit more intriguing than most, though, for the 39-year-old Rodgers. He’s under contract for next season but is uncertain about his playing future.
“I want to take the emotion out of it and have the conversation and see where the organization’s at and see how I feel after some time has passed,” Rodgers said after the Packers were eliminated from playoff contention with a 20-16 loss to Detroit last Sunday night.
Reflection and recovery — mentally and physically — are part of the offseason routine for every player, youngster or vet.
“It is a mental strain,” said Jefferson, whose Seahawks will play at San Francisco on Saturday in the NFC wild-card round. “I’ve seen this game break down a lot of strong dudes, strong men.”
Several Bills players acknowledged the duress they experienced after witnessing teammate Damar Hamlin being resuscitated on the field in Cincinnati last week — and then playing and beating New England in the regular-season finale last Sunday.
“Honestly, I don’t know how some of us did it,” cornerback Tre’Davious White said.
NFL players often mention being able to compartmentalize and separate their lives on and off the field. That’s why most use the first several weeks of their “vacation” to clear their minds. Some eventually explore new business ventures or work on earning academic degrees.
“At least early in the offseason before I get back training, I’m not doing nothing,” said Kamara, who spent part of his 2021 offseason learning how to snowboard in southwestern Montana. “I’m just chillin’, kind of flowing with the wind.”
The disappointment of not making the playoffs — or losing during them — gradually gives way to relief during the offseason, but the grind takes its toll. So does the overwhelming desire to win.
Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill acknowledged he had a “deep scar” and was in a “dark place” after Tennessee’s 19-16 loss to Cincinnati in the AFC divisional round last year. He needed therapy to get him through “a lot of sleepless nights” after blaming himself for the defeat.
Tannehill isn’t alone in seeking help for mental health during and after the season.
“I go see a therapist weekly, definitely making sure I even go see them in person now,” Jefferson said. “I do a Zoom in season, but make sure I spend that time to see my person. Just really taking time to get your mental and your body right.”
The focus for NFL players from some time in late-February or early March, when many start getting in training mode with light workouts and reviewing game film, through the next 10 months is performing at a high enough level to help their team reach the playoffs — and hopefully the Super Bowl.
When that goal no longer exists, players recognize the need to flip a mental switch before gradually restarting the process.
“Allow your mind to shift to other things you like and enjoy doing,” said Rankins, whose Jets have the NFL’s longest postseason drought at 12 years. “Because just like with anything, you stay too locked in, you’ll burn yourself out.”
Jefferson, who’s married with four kids, takes the time away to, well, reintroduce himself to his family.
“That’s the most important thing, making sure I’m being engaged with my children and making sure I’m being present,” he said. “This is strenuous on a lot of our wives. They don’t get us during the season. It’s hard.”
Players also use the time off to heal from all the bumps, bruises, breaks and muscle tears they’ve subjected themselves to the past several months. Medical procedures to fix nagging injuries aren’t uncommon.
“It’s nice to have your body not hurt for a little bit,” said offensive lineman Nick Gates, whose Giants play at Minnesota on Sunday. “But after a couple of months, you get bored and you want to get back into the swing there.”
And it comes soon enough.
NFL players will find themselves back at team facilities in April, followed by organized team activities in May, minicamp in June — and then training camp in late-July as they prepare for a new season.
Hopefully, physically and mentally refreshed.
“You allow that love, allow that thirst for the game to truly come back,” Rankins said. “Allow your mind to be free and be able to look forward to it again. And then you’re itchin’. You’re ready to go all over again.”