One principle dominates. From the CBA: "No live contact is permitted."
It is the principle that the Dallas Cowboys clearly violated yesterday during their OTA. Rookie Zack Martin and linebacker Sean Lee were undeniably engaged in video that is all over the Web, and Lee ended up a serious knee injury.
If the Cowboys are found to have broken the rules - and it is hard to see how you can conclude anything but that - the penalties can be severe. Among other things, coach Jason Garrett can be fined $100,000 if this is a first offense, and a lot more if it isn't. The Cowboys also can lose practice days.
The NFLPA needs to come down hard and fast here - because these rules, considered an incredible pain by many NFL teams, remain about the best thing the union accomplished in its most recent CBA. The sport, so unsafe in so many ways, is finally sensible in the offseason because of these rules. The NFL cannot go back to the time when players were stupidly put at risk in April and May.
The rules have evolved over time, but the latest version says that the offseason (before training camp) can be no more than 9 weeks long, unless your team has a new coach, which lengthens the period to 11 weeks. The first 2 weeks, known as Phase One, allow for strength and conditioning work only. No coaches are allowed on the field (other than strength and conditioning coaches). Also, no helmets. And, uh, no footballs are allowed on the field, either, unless a quarterback wants to throw to an undefended receiver.
Yes, as April turns into May, there is no football in football.
After that comes Phase Two. Coaches are allowed on the field, and so are footballs. But no helmets, and no offense-defense drills. Instead, this is a 3-week period for individual instruction, as well as team plays run against air.
Next come the OTAs - a maximum of 10 practices. Just as in the first two phases, hitting is absolutely verboten. In several different places, the CBA emphasizes that earlier quote: "No live contact is permitted."
"No one-on-one offense vs. defense drills are permitted (i.e., no offensive linemen vs. defensive linemen pass rush or pass protection drills, no wide receivers vs. defensive backs bump-and-run drills, and no one-on-one special teams drills involving both offense and defense are permitted). Special teams drills (e.g., kicking team vs. return team) are permitted, provided no live contact occurs."
Players can be required to wear helmets, at the club's discretion. No shoulder pads are permitted at any time. Through all three phases - including the mandatory minicamp that generally follows OTAs - every on-field workout must be recorded by the team, and the team must retain the video until 30 days after the start of the regular season. The NFLPA will have access to the video if a player complains his team is breaking the rules.
In the case of the Cowboys and Lee, the video is already out there - no need for a player complaint. The contact is there. The Cowboys might be able to make the argument that there was no intent, that it was nothing more than an overzealous rookie, that the rest of the practice showed no intent to violate the rule. Maybe they get away with it, too.
But the union needs to push here. September is bad enough for NFL players, and there is only so much anybody can do to make it better. April and May are different, and they have to continue to be.
On Twitter: @theidlerich