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NFL schedule release a big deal? Not this year

by | CBSSports.com National Columnist
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The release of the NFL schedule has received the superficial orgasmic fanfare from the league that it has for years. It's an annual ritual -- like face painting or Lawrence Taylor getting arrested. Release the schedule, float some balloons, blow some horns, talk about the future.

Only this year, the schedule's announcement rings, well, hollow. It's almost meaningless. It's not worth the bandwidth it's printed on.

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Oh, maybe the latter half of it will stick as we traverse through this ugly lockout, but increasingly, there are signals the beginning of the season will be pushed back, at best, and possibly even lost. So releasing the schedule is premature schedule-ization at its best.

More importantly, I'm getting the sense from large swaths of fans that they just don't care. The schedule. The draft. They want to punish the league with inattention. All of the squabbling has left them furious and bruised and their only recourse is to refuse to smell what the NFL is cooking.

Sure, the diehards won't turn their back on anything NFL-related. And sure, many fans will sneak a peek at the schedule and the draft, one eye on the NBA playoffs, the other on when the Steelers and Browns play. ESPN claims the draft ratings will be higher than normal. Maybe that does occur or maybe that's ESPN attempting to fool itself because it broadcasts the draft.

Still at some point there is going to be a fan statement. Part of it can be felt in the very unscientific fact that the buzz surrounding the schedule release is at its lowest point since I can remember, and I've been around the NFL for over two decades. That revolt might also be felt during the draft. It wouldn't be stunning if this draft's television ratings dipped as a result of the fan anger.

The schedule for next year right now is highly murky. Will there be football played next season? Probably. But it's not certain and that uncertainty makes the schedule presentation a shaky one. This is why. If Judge Susan Nelson rules for the owners and the lockout continues (and the players lose an appeal) then the lockout becomes a waiting game that could last well into the summer and fall.

If Nelson rules for the players and lifts the lockout, the owners would appeal, and a ruling might not come until sometime in June. Even in the most optimistic scenarios we're looking at a likelihood of the schedule being delayed a minimum of weeks. That is why Commissioner Roger Goodell recently spoke of the possibility of pushing back the Super Bowl.

A delayed season isn't an abstract thing any longer. We're now creeping into the probability realm.

Fans are starting to sense this as well. They know something wicked this way comes and won't be soothed by the pacifier disguised as the schedule release or draft no matter how much it's gussied and lipsticked.

Things can change in an instant. Maybe mediation works this week and the problem is solved and football begins next month and the schedule means something. Or maybe not.

For now, the schedule should be etched in pencil.

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