The reality of the NFL's labor dispute has the owners on one side and the players on the other. And in between are the league's "football people", the coaches and personnel men who put the teams together.
While the CBA issue has simmered, those folks have sat on the sideline. For them, unlike just about anyone else, it's been business as usual to this point.
But if we reach March 4 without a new deal, everything changes. No free agency, no minicamps, no OTAs, and no sign of the normal spring routine for the league's scouts, coaches and personnel executives until there's a CBA.
"We're operating like we're going to be ready to go on March 4," one NFC general manager said. "It's been business as usual. We're having our free agent meetings, our draft meetings, at the exact same time we always have, because until March 4 happens, we don't know that it will be different. And you usually need deadlines to settle these types of things.
"Talk to me in May, and I'll tell you how different it is. Right now, we're doing the same thing we have."
What does that mean?
There's a process of self-evaluation of the staff, roster and scheme that happens right after the season, and that rolls right into the outside evaluations. At this point, teams have their free-agent boards assembled and are going through draft meetings to get their initial draft boards set in advance of next week's NFL Scouting Combine.
As our GM intimated, the draft is happening regardless, and teams have to be ready in case free agency does start on time. So for now, the talk is all football.
"I think in casual conversation, (the CBA) comes up, but from a preparation standpoint, it's all football," one AFC personnel director said. "The only real dilemma is what happens if free agency doesn't start on time?"
Over the last week, in panning football people, that's just what I tried to figure out. I'm not here to rain on the parade of optimistic talk that happened on Thursday, but simply ask, 'What if?' Here are some of the things teams are preparing for:
The draft coming before free agency
Normally, teams that spend big in free agency do so to fill a specific need on the roster. But if the draft comes before free agency, more clubs could be making needs-based picks in April, and those will certainly have fewer holes to fill when the market is flooded after a CBA is reached.
"You're going to have to ask, 'How are we drafting? Do we fill needs, which we have more of, or get the best player?'" said a second AFC personnel chief. "I can see a lot of teams filling those needs and a situation where players are frustrated in free agency, because young draft choices are taking their roles."
That particular personnel man said he prefers free agency coming first, because it allows for more flexibility on draft day. But our NFC GM actually said he likes the idea of the draft being before free agency, because teams would be less likely to pass on players without having spent big bucks on free agents. Either way, it's a pretty different dynamic.
The lack of spring camps
This is where veteran players who are under contract have an edge and probably an easier road to keeping their jobs. And it's another area in which the 2011 free-agent class could take a hit, since a team might be less likely to spend on a player who won't be able to get a full offseason under his belt before his first year in that new uniform.
Then, there's the fact that a truncated process could lead to more problems team-wide.
"The offseason conditioning with these athletes, it's inherent on them to be ready to perform," said the first AFC personnel man. "I'd guess you'd probably have a spike in minor injuries in camp and the preseason. You hope players are taking care of their bodies. But you'd worry about the bigger guys."
The trade market
If the draft does happen before a CBA is reached, then that means veterans who might be expecting to move locales won't be able to be traded for current-year draft picks. So say you're the Eagles and teams are coming after Kevin Kolb, the club has to consider that the windfall would more than likely be a 2012 pick, and that means going through 2011 without either Kolb or the player(s) you'd ultimately get in return. So why not wait?
The bottom line here is it might be harder, for teams looking at players on trading block, to pry them away, since the trading teams have the above knowledge. And the team-in-pursuit might be less fervent anyway, since the 2011 return might be limited as the player has to learn his new surrounding without the benefit of a full offseason.
"It'll be situation-specific," said the NFC GM. "A good example is when you trade a future-year draft pick. To get a team to give up a pick in a given year, you need extra incentive to do that. … That's the reason why you get a second next year for a third this year. That's how you'd fix the problem, if you're going after a guy. Because if you're trading a guy, you're asking, 'Why don't I keep him for the year?'"
Undrafted free agents
In the scenario that we've laid out, either there will be a lot of handshake deals between teams and players who go undrafted, or this will be the most well-scouted group of undrafted free agents ever. Those guys won't be able to sign deals, absent a CBA, after the draft. And so teams will be able to further evaluate who's on the market, something that could hurt lower-tier veteran free agents.
"It'll be like a second draft," said the first AFC personnel man. "You'll be able to reset, which you can't do if it's happening immediately after the draft, and it'll give all 32 teams more time to digest who's available, rather than have that haphazard one-to-two-hour window where you have a flurry of signings."
The important thing, of course, is readiness -- for anything.
"You have to have a 48-hour emergency plan," said the second AFC personnel man. "You have to be able to say once there's an agreement, 'OK, here's our attack mode.'"
To this point, that means the prep has gone as it always does. The difference this year is the starting line is not defined yet. And it might not be for some time.
Rather than getting a long-term deal in 2010, he was a restricted free agent and bound to his one-year, $3.168 million tender, which he signed in June. Daniels bounced back from ACL surgery in 2010 to post 38 catches in 11 games, and now he finds himself in an even more precarious position -- going into an offseason of uncertainty without a contract.
"My agent's doing a great job of keeping me updated on the different scenarios," Daniels said. "We could have a deal with the Texans or another team. It's possible we're playing under the same rules, and I'm restricted again, or I could get the franchise tag. It's weird, with so many different scenarios, but I have no control over any of it."
So Daniels has chosen to approach the offseason as a Texan. He lives in Houston and has a trainer who lives across the street to keep him in shape -- "The gym is like Average Joe's from 'Dodgeball,'" he says -- and is organizing with his teammates to get field work in if there is a longer work stoppage.
"I'm treating it like that, partly because I want to be here," Daniels said. "I also spoke to coaches, though, and coach (Gary) Kubiak voiced the opinion that I need to be here because (the team) needs me, so I'm working off that idea. When guys around here are working like we plan on doing, I'm gonna work with them, as long as I'm a Texan."
And as is the case with a lot of other teams, Houston's players have taken it upon themselves to start discussing plans for the spring.
Part of that, Daniels says, is being at the facility prior to March 4 to get all the material needs (film, playbooks, etc.). But it's also organizing as players to meet.
"The quarterback's the leader, so Matt will get that organized and make sure we get together to meet," Daniels said. "When it gets closer to April and May, with OTAs and minicamps, we'll really start to put a plan together and find a place to do that stuff, whether it's at a high school or a college around here. We're disciplined. We're pros for a reason, and we're not going to let this affect our game.
"Everyone's expectations are the same. Management expects us to be ready, too. So you gotta do what you gotta do."
And get ready for whenever the offseason truly begins.
I know this truth...
Ben Roethlisberger deserves credit for handling his four-game suspension in 2010, just like he deserved blame for putting himself in that position to begin with. And the truth is that his use of that time -- getting individual work in -- could wind up benefitting his play for years to come.
That's coming from the coach, George Whitfield, who had Roethlisberger for that month away.
"Quarterbacks, especially at Ben's level, spend so much time working on the offense, working on game concepts, working on the entire ship," Whitfield said. "They rarely get a chance to work on the cockpit, so to speak, and go over those fundamentals and mechanics. If you don't do that on a regular basis, you can kind of drift away.
"Those four weeks was really about him, and that was the best use of his time to improve himself as a player. Then to come back, like he did, you're more of an asset upon your return."
Whitfield and Roethlisberger tried to simulate the Steelers' schedule the best they could during that time, practicing when the team practiced, watching film when the team watch film, breaking when the team broke, to mirror the process and create a seamless transition back to the team.
But the work was most certainly different.
Whitfield says the focus was on Roethlisberger being more efficient in getting the ball out on time, being better at bringing the ball back up in scramble situations to become more consistent with his launch point, and being more compact with his footwork in the pocket. And the coach could see the strides in Roethlisberger's 15 games (playoffs included) this year.
"It's his consistency," Whitfield said. "It's just how organized and consistent he was in terms of playing. There are times, especially during that (Sunday) night Ravens game, when he does things that can't be coached, can't be duplicated. But in some games, it comes down to how you're doing things in the cockpit, little things you notice, where I'd be like, 'Nice shot there.'
"It's small nuts-and-bolts pieces, but I'd says his consistency mechanically was noticeable."
Now remember, this is a 28-year-old quarterback with two Super Bowl titles, three conference titles, four division titles, and five playoff berths in seven years.
And he could still be ascending? Whitfield thinks so.
"That may shock people," the coach said. "But there are areas where, I don't want to say he can be better, but I'll put it like this: It's scary how good he can be. There are still more weapons within Ben's game, more phases to his game, it's pretty scary. He came in that September with a lot of things we worked on, and he could hone in on those and make them second nature.
"I don't think the NFL has seen the best elements of Ben. You look at it, and Kobe Bryant is in his 13th year, and there are still things he's doing better in his 13th year than he did in his 8th. … Ben's like that. He's still sharpening his game."
We don't need to toss verbal bouquets out to agent Tom Condon and the folks at CAA who do Peyton Manning's financial dirty work for him. They get plenty of credit without our help.
But it's worth noting how Manning's camp had the foresight to build the quarterback's previous deals in ways to set up enormous leverage for the next ones. And that's by loading up the final year of contracts to set up a bloated franchise tag.
Manning's cap number back in 2003, the last year of his rookie deal, was over $15 million. So rather than getting the standard franchise number for quarterbacks when he was tagged in 2004, which was just under $10 million, Manning's tender was worth 120 percent of his 2003 figure, adding to $18.4 million.
And last year, Manning's cap number was $19.2 million, which led to the franchise tag number he's now drawn, which is right around $23.1 million. The quarterback number this year is projected to be $16 million, meaning in both cases, Manning's tag number was upped by more than $7 million based on the structure of his previous contract.
Those types of things aren't accidents, and they're also part of the risk in a team letting a player get to the very end of his deal. In most cases, teams view bloated final years of contracts as motivators to get to the negotiating table early. In this case, it's a reason why Manning's folks weren't in any hurry to do so, watching as the Colts adhered to their policy of getting deals done early.
Now, if Manning were to negotiate a deal in the range of $22-23 million per year, which would blow Tom Brady's record deal of last summer out of the water, he'd actually be making concessions to the team, like he did when he signed a contract worth a then-record $14.2 million per in 2004.
1. Comparing the franchise tag to other sports
Speaking of franchise tag, one friend of mine brought it up in relation to the breakdown of talks in another sport this week, between Albert Pujols and the St. Louis Cardinals. His point: This would never happen in football. And he's right. Much of the angst over all this in St. Louis is that Pujols can simply play his deal out and walk. Imagine if Manning or Brady was in a similar position last summer, with a deal close to expiring and an easy way to exit. Leverage? Yup, they'd have had plenty. Instead, it was known then that both players would be tagged if they didn't get a deal done (and obviously, Brady did). The flipside is that the tag's presence probably played a role in prompting Brady and his people to go to the bargaining table. And Pujols' people have complained that the Cardinals' offer falls short of the top five players in the game, and the presence of a tag would fix that and give him leverage to fight it. So you can look at the tag a few different ways, when comparing it to other sports, and it's not all negative.
2. Seymour deal actually makes sense for Raiders
I've been asked a few times this week about the Raiders "breaking ranks" to sign Richard Seymour to that blockbuster two-year deal worth $30 million. And if you look at things in a vacuum, I get the point. But this situation is a bit of a different one. First, again, there was the presence of the franchise tag, which would've cost the Raiders close to $16 million, creating leverage for Seymour similar (albeit on a smaller scale) to what Manning has in Indy. Second, there's the fact that the Raiders have a fleet of free agents to take care of, and it'd behooved them to leave the franchise tag free, and they actually save money by signing, rather than tagging, Seymour. So now, the possibility exists they can tag other players, like perhaps tight end Zach Miller.
3. Free agents sitting in limbo
As for other teams moving slowly on their own free agents, that appears to be more of a product of where we are with the CBA than anything else. Many clubs cited the looming labor uncertainty in negotiations with players during the 2010 offseason and even into last summer's camps. And still, plenty of guys (Brady, Nick Mangold, Darrelle Revis, D'Brickashaw Ferguson, Patrick Willis, Elvis Dumervil) got paid, even if they had to concede that some big-money bonuses come post-CBA. Those that waited? Well, if a team did decide to wait on extending a player (and some didn't have a choice due to the 30-percent rule), why would it pull the trigger now? With two weeks left until the expiration of the labor agreement, and no games between now and then, it makes more sense for clubs to wait and see how the new landscape looks, whenever a new CBA is agreed upon. For all that the sides are arguing on, this feeling is universal: There will be a grace period following a new CBA for teams to get their houses in order and have one last chance to negotiate exclusively with their own free agents.
4. Bradford ready to work, no matter what
Good sign for the Rams: As reported by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch this week, quarterback Sam Bradford was in the building this week and met with coaches. While there's no evidence that he went through classroom sessions or anything too organized with new offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, the fact that they've got some sort of start on 2011 is important. As I wrote two weeks ago, Bradford is planning on organizing offseason workouts, maybe in his college town of Norman, Okla., with his offensive teammates during any work stoppage that might lie ahead. And so having the playbook is important, as is some form of communication with the staff before March 4. It'll be largely on Bradford to impart this system on the others, and he's already got Matt Cassel as a resource to that end. All this is, of course, in accordance with the player's drive and desire that played into the Rams' decision to take Bradford last spring. Remember, last year, Josh Freeman got a similar jump on the offseason, and it helped set the stage for a big sophomore season. Bradford seems to have the same mindset.
5. What's in a title anyway?
Over the last few days, the importance, or non-importance, of titles was highlighted in two NFL locales that had pretty different seasons -- New England and Arizona. The Patriots promoted quarterbacks coach Bill O'Brien to offensive coordinator/quarterbacks after New England led the NFL in scoring by nearly a five-point margin. Meanwhile, the Cardinals gave passing game coordinator Mike Miller the OC title after Arizona finished 31st in the league in total offense. Both O'Brien and Miller took on many coordinator responsibilities after respective predecessors Josh McDaniels and Todd Haley bolted in early 2009, and each spent two years earning their stripes. Obviously, it helps O'Brien that he has Tom Brady and doesn't help Miller that he's had an unsettled (to put it nicely) quarterback situation. But it does show you that titles aren't all that important. O'Brien has called plays the last two years, giving him more power than some other coaches who had a coordinator title (Brad Childress, for example, never called plays as Philly's OC). Specific responsibilities are really what count.
6. Combine a tricky dance for prospects
With the combine coming up, it's important to note -- as our own Michael Lombardi did earlier in the week -- that the interview process the players go through is as important as any three-cone drill or 40-yard dash. And for players trying to answer character questions, it's the most important thing they'll do in Indy. Honesty doesn't always pay dividends, either. Tight end Aaron Hernandez, from what I understand, was very up-front with teams last February during this process about his off-field issues, and that turned some people off. Would he have been better off lying? Maybe. What is clear is that underscores what a tricky dance all this is for prospects. Different teams are looking for different things from players, so working off a script is bound to burn a player with someone.
7. Simple might be better
The possibility of a truncated offseason came to mind when I looked at Juan Castillo's feelings on how he'll put his stamp on the Eagles defense. The new coordinator plans to simplify in an effort to get the players to play faster. "The front seven guys know we're going to be aggressive," Castillo told the Philly press. "We're going to be dogs." The Eagles do have talent on that side of the ball, and if there is a long work stoppage and quick turnaround into the season, it would reason that Castillo's approach would pay dividends. Offenses could be tripping over themselves to find a rhythm without as much prep work for the season, and this type of style should be built to take advantage.
8. Tice still the right man for the job
The Bears denying the Titans permission to speak with offensive line coach Mike Tice, then handing Tice a contract extension wins Underrated Move of February. If there was one area that was bound to sink Chicago, it was that line, and while the group was hardly anything to write home about, the job Tice did in getting them to play at a passable level was, considering that the tackle spots were populated by a journeyman who played guard in 2009 and an unheralded rookie, kind of impressive. Chicago will have to address that area in the draft, and the guys coming in will benefit from the big man's guidance.
9. What's in store for Zorn-Cassel combo?
Speaking of coaching moves, it'll be interesting to see the work that Jim Zorn does with Matt Cassel in Kansas City, since the vision appears to be that the disposed Ravens assistant would replace Charlie Weis as Cassel's sounding board. Despite Zorn's washout as Redskins head coach, he did enough for Joe Flacco last year to have the Baltimore quarterback bemoaning his departure, and he has a good resume for developing quarterbacks. He played a big role in Matt Hasselbeck developing into a Super Bowl quarterback in Seattle, after Mike Holmgren dealt to get him out of Green Bay, and also was responsible for Charlie Batch's weaning in Detroit, and Batch has carved out a 13-year career for himself. The Zorn-Cassel relationship will be important, too, as the Chiefs try to build on the momentum of last year's turnaround, and line coach Bill Muir takes Weis' place as coordinator.
10. Newton-Tebow comparisons rage on
Finally, let's finish up with this -- As I'm writing this (Thursday night), there are 188 comments on my Cam Newton story that went up mid-day Wednesday. Fact is, the Heisman Trophy winner is moving the needle in a very serious way, and I'd expect that to continue. Part of it? All the intrigue over Tim Tebow last year kind of spills over. And the scouts I've talked to tell me that Newton is clearly the better prospect of the two former Florida teammates. That's in almost every category, except one: Leadership. Newton had a strong hold over his Auburn teammates, but Tebow was almost unmatched in the category. "That was a hard locker room at Florida," said the NFC personnel exec I quoted in the story. "There are a lot of personalities, some lazy guys, and Tim got them to play with passion. ... Tim had 'it', no question. I think Cam does too, but we still have to find out." And if you think the "it" doesn't matter, you can reference how Tebow rallied Denver in some meaningless games as a rookie. It's significant.