Matt Furtstenburg arrives at the Under Armour Performance Center every weekday at about 8:30 a.m.
He eats breakfast, watches some “SportsCenter,” then heads to the gym. If he sees a coach, it’s just a simple, “Hey, how you doing?” All they can do is exchange pleasantries.
Furstenburg is entering his second season with the Ravens, and it’s a big one.
After spending all of last year on the practice squad, the University of Maryland product is looking to make the 53-man roster. As of now, he's in good position to do so. He’s one of just three tight ends on the roster.
But until April 21, when players can report to the team facility for voluntary offseason workouts and the first phase of the Ravens’ strength and conditioning program, Furstenburg is on his own when it comes to improving.
He’s at work, but he can’t truly work.
Head Coach John Harbaugh has a problem with this. He’s voiced it on a few occasions and did so again at the NFL owners meetings last week.
Harbaugh wants to see a rule change in the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), which bars players from working, or even really speaking, with coaches until official offseason programs begin. It was a measure pushed by the NFL Players Association in the last CBA negotiations.
Harbaugh has previously called not allowing players to hone their craft to their maximum potential "un-American."
“This is not the NCAA. This is not recruiting. These are our guys,” Harbaugh said. “We want what’s best for our players. That’s what’s good for the league. That’s what good for these young men. And that’s what they want.
“Young guys want a chance to compete in the National Football League for a job. They want to go see their position coach. They want to learn football. It’s their craft. And we’re saying, ‘No, you can’t do it?’ Why? Because of the collective bargaining agreement that makes no sense?”
Furstenburg is just an example of the kind of young player Harbaugh is talking about.
He’s a talented 6-foot-5, 224-pounder who can both block and catch. The Ravens reportedly gave him the largest contract of any of their undrafted rookie free agents last year, showing they think he has potential as more than just a practice squad player.
A young player has a limited window with which to make the active roster.
They can spend three years on the practice squad honing their skills. After that, they either make a team’s 53-man roster or they’re done. That’s what happened to wide receiver Justin Harper, who the Ravens drafted in the seventh round in 2008. He was a 6-foot-3 receiver with promise, but never made the leap.
So for players like Furstenburg, the clock is ticking, and every day is an opportunity to try to improve and impress the coaches. And days like these, before he’s allowed to work with coaches, are not allowing him to make the most of his chance.
“Any advantage I could get to put myself above other competition is the best thing for me,” Furstenburg said. “I have a lot more to lose than other guys.”
It’s also a matter of simple livelihood. If football doesn’t work out, Furstenburg has to find another living. He earned a degree in family science from Maryland.
“A guy like me just trying to make the team, I think that would help way more than the other guys that already have their contracts and guaranteed money,” Furstenburg said. “I don’t have as much money to lose, but opportunity.”
Furstenburg was asked whether he would change the rule if he were NFL commissioner for a day. He chuckled and pondered the question.
“If I could change it for myself, yeah, but not for everyone,” he said. “It’s a long season, and it’s grueling from what I’ve watched and learned. A lot of guys need time off. For guys playing, I wouldn’t change it, but I would for guys on that borderline trying to make it.”
When players are allowed to work with coaches, even on a voluntary basis, it can turn into unofficial mandatory expectations.
Look at the recent media storm around quarterback
But there could be a solution in the middle. Make time off mandatory for veteran players who wish to rest their body and spend long quality time with their families, and allow younger players who haven’t beaten up their bodies and are looking for every chance to learn and grow from the opportunity.
Furstenburg pondered the possibility of writing into the CBA a measure that allowed practice squad players from the previous years, or those who sign reserve/future contracts, to be able to work with coaches year-round. There could also be a rule differentiating players by years of service in the league. Those at two years or below could work out all offseason.
“Get together and do what’s best for these players,” Harbaugh said. “It’s about time that somebody stepped to the plate and realized that and [took] the politics out of it.”