Prolonged labor strife could give some competitive advantage

Most people just want NFL football in 2011 and couldn't care less about the daily labor issue chatter. At this point, fans just want a deal done. It's a simplistic view, but one that is shared by many. However, if a work stoppage does occur and drags into late August or early September, it's worth exploring the impact on teams. Admittedly, it could help some and hurt others depending on the situation.

The more I talked with players and coaches about how long they would need to get ready if labor unrest went right up to the door step of the season, the more complicated the answer I got. All in all, it looks like the established teams are in much better shape than those in need of significant improvement.

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There is no doubt certain teams would have a competitive advantage over others if there are no organized team actives (OTAs) this spring and a shortened camp period. The longer the labor issues go on, the more teams will separate from each other.

A few quarterbacks told me they will find ways to get the receivers together and work on their own. However, practicing might be discouraged by the NFL Players Association as counterproductive to getting a deal done. Plus, what happens to players that get hurt during activities not organized by clubs is another serious issue. For now, it's probably wise to consider nothing should happen until a new CBA is in place. If that turns out to be later rather than sooner, lots of factors could change the landscape of the 2011 season.

For a franchise to be on top of its game and ready to go with the least amount of preparation time, it must answer yes to most, if not all, of the following questions.

  1. Does the team have a top-rated veteran at quarterback?
    1. Does the team have a veteran coach who was with the team last season?
    2. Are the coordinators (offense, defense, special teams) all in place from last season?
    3. Can the team afford to draft the best-available athlete and not have to pick for need because most of the starters are back? Any team that has to use rookie starters can't expect instant success.
    4. Does the team have a limited number of health issues that were going to be answered in the offseason program?
    5. Does the team have a limited number of aging players that could have demonstrated diminishing skills over the course of a full offseason program and full summer camp?
    6. How many disgruntled veterans that were hoping to get paid in free agency potentially find themselves back on the roster without the big-money deal, because there simply wasn't enough time for clubs to compete for their services?

Here are the teams that are in the best position to succeed if there's a long labor problem.

Best chance to be ready

Packers: They answered yes to the first four questions. Aaron Rodgers finished the extended season strong and the extra month of football compared to teams that missed the playoffs is money in the bank. Green Bay did finish with a large number of important players on injured reserve, but I talked with many of them during Super Bowl week and they said they will be ready to go. The Packers had 44 guys on the Super Bowl roster under 30. While they have a few veterans looking for more money, they did recently extended Tramon Williams.

Patriots: They were in a youth movement, but can definitely answer yes to the first three questions. Even though they have issues on the offensive line and with their pass rush, they have enough quality draft picks to plug holes. The emergence of CB Devin McCourty, RB Danny Woodhead, and WR Brandon Tate helps this team.

Steelers: The Steelers answer yes to the first three questions with Ben Roethlisberger, Mike Tomlin and his coordinators, if Dick LeBeau doesn't retire. The influx of young talent at receiver with Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders as well as running back Rashard Mendenhall gives the offense much-needed experience. Although Doug Legursky played well when Maurkice Pouncey was injured, there is work to do on the offensive line. The secondary has issues, but if there's little preseason time, new additions might not be able to handle LeBeau's defensive scheme. LaMarr Woodley is the big question mark as far as a veteran seeking big money, but he has already said he expects to receive the franchise tag.

Falcons: They get a yes to the first five questions. Matt Ryan is an emerging star, the coach just signed an extension and the coordinators are in place. Even though Tony Gonzalez is an aging veteran near the end, he works so hard on his own that he needs camp the least of all. In fact, the fresh legs might actually help him. There could be some offensive linemen (veterans like Tyson Clabo and Harvey Dahl) frustrated by free agency, but not enough to impact the team.

Ravens: The top three questions are all yes, and they only had a few players on injured reserve. The defense has some aging veterans, yet they could line up in two weeks and be ready to play at a higher level than most teams.

Colts:Peyton Manning always has an edge early in the season because he gets the players around him prepared faster. He's a coach on the field, and even though they have questions at offensive line, linebacker and in the secondary, this team would be much further down the road with limited preseason prep time than most.

Saints: The coach didn't leave the team, he just changed his address. The QB could go on a field right now and throw touchdowns to his veteran receivers. The return of defensive coordinator Gregg Williams helps solidify that side of the ball. The defense is a scheme-based package that requires precision and lots of experience. Williams has a big advantage over offenses trying to install new systems.

Honorable mention

At a disadvantage if things drag on

Carolina, Tennessee, Cleveland and San Francisco all need a whole offseason to turn things around. Each has a rookie coach, new coordinators and quarterback issues. These clubs needed to get started yesterday to have a chance.

At least Denver has a veteran coach in John Fox, but the Broncos are trying to convert a 3-4 defense back to a 4-3 with personnel issues and no time to install the scheme.

While Oakland has a rookie coach, he was the team's offensive coordinator last season. Still, he might have trouble getting his staff and players together long enough to get off to a fast start. Same could be said up in Minnesota, where there are quarterback issues and a coach in his first full season.

Players need to practice, sit in classroom meetings, lift weights as a team and be around the discipline of the team atmosphere. Those things could be missing in 2011, so how many quality components a team has in place in these uncharted waters will go a long way toward determining success.

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