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A helpful roadmap to the post-lockout world of the NFL

by | CBSSports.com Senior Writer
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The countdown has begun to the end of the NFL lockout, with the expectation that league owners will ratify a new agreement when they meet next Thursday in Atlanta.

OK, that we know ... or think we know. What we don't know is what happens next, and I have a few suggestions on how the next few weeks should unfold:

Cancel the Hall of Fame game

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I said it once and I'll say it again: Move on. I know, Chicago offensive coordinator Mike Martz said he could be ready in a day. Great. He doesn't have to play. The NFL should be concerned about the possibility of injuries after an offseason of no OTAs, no mini-camps, no quarterback camps, no nothing. I don't care if these guys are in camp a week; that's not long enough to get them in football shape and familiar with playbooks. Remember, St. Louis has a new offensive coordinator, and it will take time to absorb Josh McDaniels' offense. More than that, this just doesn't make sense. Coaches don't like five preseason games, anyway, treating the extra contest as a scrimmage -- which is why the caliber of play isn't really a concern here. It never was very good. But the NFL should be concerned about the increased possibility of injuries, particularly since it was the NFL that kept players locked out in the offseason. Under normal circumstances, Bears coach Lovie Smith said, the league gives clubs 15 days of workouts prior to the Hall of Fame game. So now, just because there was a lockout, you want to fast-track a meaningless game? Forget it. Look, the NFL just made peace with 1,900 players who couldn't wait to return to their jobs. So show them you care about them. Call off the game.

Open all camps Aug. 1

The Bears were scheduled to open training camp July 22; the Rams were scheduled for a day later. Obviously, that doesn't appear likely to fly, and not because owners and players first must sign off on a new CBA. That should happen soon. Nope, it's because of what follows. There are all sorts of player transactions that need to take place, and soon. Free-agent signings. Rookie signings. Trades. Contract extensions. Contract reductions. Releases. I think you get the idea. Some coaches will want to start immediately, figuring that an extra day somehow gives them a head-start on the competition, and some players will want to join them. In fact, Detroit linebacker Zack Follett said the Lions could be in camp by June 25. Please. This isn't a race. Let's make this uniform and fair. The league should mandate that all teams start the same day, thereby giving nobody an advantage. Plus, that would allow everyone a chance to start assembling rosters first, and good luck. What once was done in six months now must be done in six weeks.

Open the window to exclusive negotiations

Normally, the new fiscal year starts at the beginning of March, when player contracts expire, but the lockout put everything and everyone on hold. So put them on hold a few more days. It's not going to break anyone's bank, and it would provide order to what is expected to be a tidal wave of player transactions. Look, the month of August will be frenetic, especially for a league office that must process contracts, so let's try to make things as smooth as possible. How? By allowing teams a small window to shore up their existing rosters (through re-signings, re-negotiations, releases and contract extensions or reductions) before opening the door to unrestricted free agents and trades. I don't care what the timeframe is. I've heard anywhere from three-to-five days, and that sounds fair. Under normal circumstances, teams would have until March, or the end of the fiscal year to manage their existing rosters. So push back the start of the new calendar three-to-five days, allow clubs exclusive negotiations with contracts pertaining to their current rosters, then open the floodgates.

Explain the facts of life to James Harrison

James Harrison's mouth has damaged the Steelers locker room. Soon he will have to fix the problem. (US Presswire)  
James Harrison's mouth has damaged the Steelers locker room. Soon he will have to fix the problem. (US Presswire)  
There were a lot of dimwitted things said during the lockout, but the mother of all shock and awe was that Men's Journal interview with Harrison. It wasn't just that he trashed the commissioner, calling him "a devil;" it was that he tore apart his own locker room by shredding teammates Ben Roethlisberger and Rashard Mendenhall. I'm sure Roger Goodell will want to speak to him, but not about his comments. He'll want to discuss that photograph that accompanied the article. Harrison was depicted brandishing a pair of handguns across his bare chest. That’s OK if you’re auditioning for The Sopranos; it's not OK if you're working in the NFL. It's precisely the image the league is trying to dispel.

But there's another issue here, and it's the division of the Pittsburgh Steelers' locker room. Whatever happened to one-for-all and all-for-one? If I'm coach Mike Tomlin, I can't wait to get my hands on James Harrison -- preferably around his neck. First of all, I'd have him apologize -- face to face -- to Roethlisberger and Mendenhall. Then I have him stand in front of the team and deliver a mea culpa. That way he can't hide behind a prepared statement or some PR flak's words. Every action is supposed to have a reaction, right? Well, this one did, and I don't give a rip what Roethlisberger or Mendenhall said or are supposed to have said about forgiving. Harrison ripped an enormous hole in the emotional fabric that ties the Steelers together. A team is supposed to be composed of people who trust each other. But that trust was just abrogated by a thoughtless individual who has a lot of explaining to do. Oh, and before I forget: Harrison could do a better job apologizing for his homophobic slur, too. Yeah, so he said he was sorry. Look how he put it: "I apologize to all who were offended by the remark." Swell. That puts the onus on his listeners. In other words, if you didn't like it, it's your problem, and he's sorry. Otherwise, it's OK. Uh, no, actually, it's not. Make James Harrison the early frontrunner for Offensive Player of the Year.

Have Goodell visit training camps

I don't care if players like him. The lockout isn't a popularity contest. It's about business, period, and Goodell represents businessmen trying to get the best deal for themselves, just as the NFLPA's DeMaurice Smith represents players trying to get the best deal for their side. Don't like it? Tough. Labor deals can and do get nasty. So some players don't like Goodell. Big deal. I'm more interested that they know where he's coming from, and, no, I don't mean New York. He runs the league that employs them, remember? So it's imperative a dialogue exists between the two. That's why I suggest Goodell stop by camps next month to meet players and make himself available for their questions. Call it a goodwill tour if you want. We could all use goodwill in the wake of the lockout. Harrison portrayed Goodell as "a crook" and "a devil." San Diego's Kevin Burnett called him "a blatant liar." Baltimore's Derrick Mason characterized him as "a joke." So one-up your accusers, Roger, and visit training camps to demonstrate why you're none of that. Sitting down with your employees -- and, like it or not, that's what NFL players are -- is always a good idea, especially in the wake of a lockout.

Once and for all, pull the plug on talk of an 18-game schedule

Shortly before players walked out of negotiations and de-certified on March 11, the NFL made an offer that included no mention of an 18-game schedule unless players first signed off on the idea. Hallelujah. That's the first rationale idea I've heard about future scheduling. Eighteen games make sense if you want to jack up revenue, and who's not for that, right? I'll tell you who: Anyone who cares about the safety of players. It's incomprehensible that a league that reiterates its concern for player safety would contemplate two more regular-season games -- explaining that the move is in keeping with the current 20-game package. Sure, and the Pittsburgh Pirates are going to the World Series. Two preseason games do not equate to two regular-season games -- unless, of course, you're trying to legitimize the move. I think we all agree that four preseason games are too much. But so are 18 regular-season contests. In fact 16 games are too many, and if you don't agree, stop by the training room of your favorite team in early January. Increase the number of regular-season games, you increase the number of serious injuries. So do us all a favor and put a sock in this idea ... now and forever.

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