Yes, OTAs—that's NFL-speak for Organized Team Activities—are "voluntary." So says the CBA—the Collective Bargaining Agreement, which is the peace treaty between the Players Union and the owners.
For the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, you're talking about a situation where these OTAs are voluntary in theory, but in reality they are mandatory.
There are a lot of reasons they're mandatory, so let's get right to them:
First reason and most glaring: Four and Twelve. Does that mean anything to you? Yes, 4-12, the Bucs 2011 record. That should be reason enough.
Second reason and equally glaring: New coaching staff, new systems, new offense, new defense, new everything.
Third reason: This team is not packed with Pro Bowlers.
Fourth reason: Basically everyone who can operate a keyboard last year said that the lack of OTAs would really hurt this "young" football team.
Fifth reason: It's still a "young" football team.
Sixth reason: Josh Freeman was awful in 2011.
Seventh reason: Basically everyone else was awful along with him.
Eighth reason: Lo and behold, there will be actual "competition" for roster spots when training camp opens at the end of July.
Ninth reason: There's a new sheriff in town.
Eleventh reason: See reasons one through 10.
Notice how few of the "Pro Bowl caliber" players that are on this team are there for the OTAs. That would be Vincent Jackson, Carl Nicks and some guys on the borderline like Donald Penn and Davin Joseph.
Ronde Barber, a five-time Pro Bowl player, has a "gold star" for perfect attendance. Barber has forgotten more about football 101 than the rest of the team combined. But he's there, sweating and learning.
Head coach Greg Schiano knows he has a tough task. He knows about reasons 1-10, and you can bet your ticket stub from last year's New Orleans game that he's watched a LOT of video since he was hired. His team is way behind the rest of the division on the system learning curve.
It's easy to say the Buccaneers will be "improved" this year. That's what every scribe for every team is writing as we speak. The Cleveland Browns will be improved, the Indianapolis Colts will be improved, the St. Louis Rams will be improved...
The fact of NFL life is that after the euphoria of the draft, every fan for every team is dreaming as we write that their team will be "improved." But does "improvement" translate to more wins than losses?
That's where work ethic comes in, where coaching comes in and where fundamentals come in, and 4-12 means you are lacking in all those categories.
You are what your record says you are. Bill Parcells has said that year-in and year-out.
You get what you deserve in the NFL. Jon Gruden said that when he won, said it when he lost, said it when he came in and said it on his way out.
Achievement in sports at any level does not come without supreme sacrifice. Players with lesser God-given talent have worked and over-achieved their way into the Hall of Fame in Canton.
As things stand right now, in order for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to win this year, there will have to be a lot of over-achievers on the new roster.
And that starts with OTAs.
Talent is God-given, work ethic is learned, pride in being a professional is learned and loving what you do comes from within. If you love football, you wouldn't want to miss a single OTA, an opportunity to learn more, to improve, to over-achieve and to be better than you imagined you could be.