There's no deadline for the NFL to complete negotiations with its players, but coaches across the league have been alerted business could resume anywhere from mid- to late July, with two sources telling me there's a feeling that late July is more likely.
That tells us two things: 1) that management believes a settlement is probable, and 2) that it still acknowledges there is substantial work to be completed before players and owners complete an agreement.
|Cam Newton and first-year coach Ron Rivera figure to be at a disadvantage with the lockout. (US Presswire)|
One source said he and other assistants were notified that one of two scenarios could take place. The first would involve five days of workouts -- mostly conditioning -- to evaluate players before training camp begins, with the understanding that clubs could sign free agents during that time.
The second scenario involved a looser schedule, with a two-week period prior to training camp devoted to anything from conditioning and strength exercises, OTAs, team meetings and free-agent signings. After that, he said, there would be a brief break before training camp begins. In that instance, he said, he was told something could happen as soon as July 11, though he emphasized there were no fixed dates, only guidelines to an uncertain future.
Which is how it should be. This week's optimism yielded to a report Friday that owners are divided on negotiating issues they plan to address at next week's meetings in Chicago. While not necessarily discouraging, the report could be an indication that talks are slowing down -- pushing the lockout deeper into the summer.
"The way both of these sides are acting," said one source, "it's like, 'Show me the baby; don't tell me about the birth.' But coaches have to worry about the birth because there's a process we have to go through."
There's a process everyone must go through, one reason camps could open later rather than earlier. First, teams must be able to evaluate their players. Most haven't held practices or organized team activities since late December. Plus, there are eight coaches out there who haven't handed out playbooks.
So you start there, then move on to free agents and the re-signings of your own players. Teams have free-agent "ready" lists they're ready to employ once the lockout ends, but imagine what they're looking at: possible additions from other clubs, possible subtractions from within and undrafted college prospects they may or may not sign.
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One source said he identified a handful of undrafted college talent he wants and believes he could add. But the lockout prevents him or his team from contacting the players.
"So there are guys out there who don't know it yet," he said, "but they're going to be playing for us."
After that, it's training camp, where installations of offenses and defenses occur; then preseason games and cuts; then the start of the regular season. Of course, that's if all goes according to plan, and there wasn't anyone I spoke to who believed the preseason or regular season would be compromised -- basically because they didn't believe owners would surrender the revenues that accompany them.
Bottom line: Look for a blizzard of activity when the signal to resume business is given. Indianapolis owner Jim Irsay last month said he believed July 4 was the drop-dead date for labor peace. Otherwise, he suggested, the season in all likelihood would be compromised. But Irsay was alone in that estimation. No other owner fixed a deadline for the completion of negotiations.
"Coaches and players are concerned about the number of reps and practices," said one source, "but owners are not."
For that reason, expect rookie head coaches to be penalized. They haven't had an offseason to implement their programs, but, more important, they haven't had an offseason to evaluate their talent. If training camps are shortened or preseason games lost, it's clear who is hurt the most -- and it's not the veteran teams. It's clubs with first-year head coaches.
It's also clubs with first-year quarterbacks, and that's a problem for someone like Carolina. The Panthers not only have a new coaching staff; they have a new quarterback too, first-round pick Cam Newton. The expectation is that Newton starts, but how soon may depend on how much practice he and his teammates can get.
That doesn't seem fair, one reason Dallas Morning News writer Rick Gosselin proposed eliminating two preseason games to give the disadvantaged time to catch up -- essentially, leveling a playing field that would be tipped toward veteran teams with hold-over coaches. As Gooselin said, the only thing worse than no football is bad football.
But Gosselin argues the elimination of two preseason games would also serve as a dress rehearsal for a potential 18-game season -- an idea players at their annual March meeting swore they would never support.
"I can't see it happening," one source said of Gosselin's idea. "There's too much money that would be lost by sacrificing games."
"Besides," said another, "I can guarantee that the only people who feel sorry for the coaches in those eight cities are the coaches in those eight cities. That's how competitive this league is. I can't imagine anyone cutting them breaks."
I can't imagine anyone not, but this isn't about what's fair; this is about what makes the most sense from a business perspective -- with owners focused on striking a deal that holds for the next 8-10 years.
One source probably had it right when he said people who believe there's an urgency to get something accomplished by July are mistaken because all you're sacrificing then are OTAs, conditioning drills, quarterback camps and parts of training camps. The urgency, he said, comes in August when games are threatened -- and that, he believes, is what will motivate both sides.
"The thing I keep hearing," said one source, "is that while there are owners who are hard liners, there are also owners who are getting nervous about losing preseason games."
That makes sense. So does a mid-to-late July settlement.
"Do I think we lose preseason games?" asked another. "No. If we do it won't be more than one. But no matter what happens, that first preseason game is going to look a lot like the first scrimmage you usually have.
"In any case, the way we're looking at this thing is that something will happen toward the end of July -- that's just the talk around here -- with a transition period that takes us to camps opening sometime in early August."