Merriman, Smith show lockout isn't work stoppage

by | CBSSports.com National Columnist
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Linebacker Shawne Merriman thinks he knows when the lockout will end. He's not claiming to be an expert. He's calling it an educated hunch.

"My guess, late June or early July," he said. "It'll run its course by then."

Shawne Merriman figures the lockout will wind down in June or July. (Getty Images)  
Shawne Merriman figures the lockout will wind down in June or July. (Getty Images)  
In the meantime, as the lockout drones on into paralyzing monotony, Merriman continues the business of preparation. He is a Buffalo Bill but still works out in San Diego, where he spent most of his career. There's the MMA workout, the field drills and conditioning runs. Like hundreds, if not thousands of other players, he constantly preps for a season that may never come.

"You have no choice but to stay ready," he said. "If players don't stay ready, they're going to regret it later."

Thousands of miles away, the lockout hasn't caused one of the league's best and brightest, coach Mike Smith of the Falcons, to leave his offices and retire to a beach. Quite the contrary. In many ways Smith and the coaching staff remain as busy as if this were a normal offseason. Smith is discovering the lockout has provided more time to direct attention to previously neglected projects.

"This isn't a time to take it easy," said Smith. "I can guarantee you no coach in this league is seeing the lockout as a time to rest. It's the opposite."

Smith and Merriman are symbolic of what's occurring with coaches and players during these ugly times in a fractured sport. They prepare as if the season could start at any moment despite not knowing for certain when it will arrive. Coaches like Smith watch their film and run their scenarios while players like Merriman still perform their own due diligence, the bills still due, despite the absence of paychecks.

They prepare. Then wait. Prepare some more, wait some more. It's the lockout two-step that has been ongoing for over two months and will probably continue for many more.

What has become clear is that coaches and players are using the lockout almost as a test of their dedication. As Merriman sees it, no one is watching -- no coach, no trainer -- so now is the time to work your hardest. As Smith sees it, no one is watching -- no media, no players -- so now is equally the time work your hardest.

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That similar mindset is why there has been no public animosity between players and coaches similar to players and owners. Both see themselves as the working class of the sport. Sure, that's a stretch, but they possess the belief that lockout or no lockout, they're going to outwork competitors. It's what distinguishes them from the amateurs.

There are certainly coaches vacationing in the south of France and players getting their Krispy Kreme on. The exceptions exist. We've seen the Reggie Bush tweets. But it seems, for the most part, neither player nor coach is getting fat and happy during the lockout.

When Smith was a defensive coordinator in Jacksonville he was known as one of the more studious coaches in all of football. That hasn't changed. Interestingly, Smith has spent time examining how other coaching staffs are handling the lockout, and the common theme seems to be this: Act like there isn't one, prepare as normal.

Smith gives a complicated example and it serves as a window into how talented coaches think during these times. Smith said the normal Falcon offseason consists mainly of four components: free-agent evaluations, draft evaluations, working with players on the field and something called system analysis. That last goal is rarely reached in full because of the demands on time from the other issues.

Since there's more time because of the lockout the staff has dived into this system analysis, which consists of a top-to-bottom look at the efficiency of the offense and defense -- plays, players, schemes, everything. It's like a 100,000-mile checkup on a car.

When the Falcons lost last season in the playoffs to the eventual Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers 48-21, Smith was determined to evaluate their postseason preparation. Every minute of it, in fact. The lockout allowed him to do just that.

On the surface, the league is quiet, but underneath, the activity is there. Merriman has a number of off-field projects he's working on though his workouts remain the priority, and Smith is still the detailed worker bee. They push back as the lockout pushes on.

Smith has enjoyed one thing about the lockout. He's been able to eat more meals at home with his family. And who says the lockout is all bad?

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