From TikTok to tic-tac-toe: How Colts keep virtual program fresh

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INDIANAPOLIS -- Indianapolis Colts offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni has a degree in education from the University of Mount Union in Ohio. Both his parents and his brother have been teachers. So Sirianni knows the challenge of keeping people's attention in a classroom setting.

But teacher training never included a scenario in which there are more than 100 participants who aren't in the same room, or in the same state, amid distractions of barking dogs, crying babies and faulty internet connections. And then there's accountability -- making sure workouts are done properly because everybody is working out on their own because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Colts' coaches and players are making the best of it.

"Honestly, I really love having it,” center Ryan Kelly said about the online sessions. "Obviously, if I had the preference, I'd rather be in the complex every day, just being around the guys. That's the hardest part is just missing those guys. It's honestly a mental test to get up every single day and work out by yourself. How far can you push it just by yourself and how good do you want to be?"

The virtual offseason program has caused the Colts and teams across the NFL to be creative because it's unknown when the entire team will return to the facility. As of now, the NFL plans to start training camp and the regular season on time at the end of July. That means the Colts, like every team in the league, must be ready to go when that time arrives.

To get there, they're taking the creativity to another level.

They kick off most meetings with music. They make TikToks. They have pushup challenges between teammates. They do workout challenges using heart rate monitors. And it doesn't stop there.

Colts coach Frank Reich, who believes in open communication lines with his coaching staff, encourages his three coordinators to come up with different ideas during the meetings.

"We all have friends around the league," he said. "I think we're all calling one or two friends, looking for ideas to stay creative, to stay in front of the curve, so to speak, keep the players engaged. The best thing we have going for us is our players."

They've taken five- to seven-minute breaks to play tic-tac-toe. There have been Pictionary battles to break the ice. Basketball Hall of Famer Ray Allen and Los Angeles Clippers head coach Doc Rivers have spoken to the team during Zoom calls.

Doing that helps keep the meetings fresh, fun and entertaining, and it helps to curtail any boredom during the two-hour meeting sessions. The other two hours are for players to train. The Colts spent the first three weeks of their virtual offseason program meeting four times per week. They're currently in the midst of meeting three times a week for four weeks.

"So it's been fun trying to figure different ways to teach virtually," Sirianni said. "It's been a lot of fun to just go back to what I earned my degree in in teaching and just think of different ways to keep them entertained and keep them engaged and keep them learning -- most importantly, keep them learning so we can get a jump on other teams in the NFL."

Parks Frazier, who does Colts offensive quality control, was one of the people in charge of setting up and making sure the team's communication system worked properly. The process began in the middle of March, when it appeared that the coronavirus would have an impact on how the Colts handled top-30 draft visits, the draft and their offseason program.

Frazier, knowing players would use different devices to take part in the calls, dove into the process. He would set up practice meetings on his phone, iPad and computer, trying different things to see how it worked on each device.

Over and over again.

The coaches and staff members were added to the process before players took part in the meetings that have featured more than 100 people at times, depending on the situation. Each player downloaded his playbook onto his iPad.

"We've had to come up with a process so things aren't getting out of hand and people aren't talking at the same time," Frazier said. "There's a standard operating procedure so you don't spend a lot of time with multiple people talking at the same time. Feel like we've done everything we can do, keeping guys engaged, and our attendance has been off the charts, as close to 100 percent. You're obviously not going to have every person every single day because things come up. For the most part, our attendance has been just as good as it was last year when we were in the building."

Colts general manager Chris Ballard has built a roster of players who believe in pushing each other. That's even more important now when it comes to working out.

Technology allows players to wear heart-rate monitors so that all their workouts can be logged. That allows Rusty Jones, the team's director of sports performance, to follow who is doing what. One of the things Reich enjoys doing is looking for the "red" on charts. Seeing red means the player is at 90 percent of his maximum heart rate.

Linebackers Darius Leonard and Anthony Walker are always challenging each other on the field and in the weight room. So are the offensive linemen, who are among the tightest groups in the locker room. Teammates send each other their workout results as motivation.

"I think this is the test of a true professional during this time right now," Walker said. "Are you able to do the drills that you are used to, or the movements that you're used to, on the football field? Do them at your workouts right now at home. Are you able to go out there and execute in the meeting room? That is still a great opportunity for us to learn mentally.

"Eighty percent of the game is mental, 20 percent physical. We are professionals at the end of the day. We are paid to do this job, so because we are not in the building, that doesn't mean that we are not going out to work hard right now or going out and executing on the field. That is my job right now, being down in Miami. I am trying to execute all the drills, get my body in the best shape that it can be in so when we do report back, I am ready to go."

Players send in videos of their on-the-field work -- such as quarterback Philip Rivers throwing at targets and receivers running routes -- so the coaches can analyze what they're doing. But that doesn't beat being on the practice field at the team's facility in Indianapolis so the coaching staff can thoroughly evaluate players to see who potentially deserves a spot on the 53-man roster in September.

"We are pushing all of the guys, but maybe even pushing the rookies more. 'Send us video. We want to see you. We want to see your body moving, how you come out of your stance, how you come out of your break, how you break on the ball,'" Reich said. "Those little things we can get a little bit of a head start. It is not ideal, but that is what we are doing."