The Asterisk


Those of us trying to block out the lockout – to pretend that the NFL’s ongoing work stoppage is nothing more than a bad dream that we’ll all soon wake up from – were not exactly thrilled earlier this week to hear Colts owner Jim Irsay put a solid deadline on negotiations for a 2011 season.

In an interview with the Indianapolis Star, he said: “There’s a window where we can get something done, but we really need to get something done by the Fourth of July.” Otherwise, he said, the loss of training camps and preseason games will become inevitable and the realistic probability of having a full 16-game season will drop down to nil. Less than five weeks, and we’re officially in the soup.

Things like this make it difficult to keep pretending. At least for the fans. Owners and players are apparently just as delusional as ever. Heedless of Irsay’s warnings, both sides are still crossing arms and stomping feet, running to tell mommy how mean the other kids are. Negotiations are still postponed until June 7th, four days after the start of the players’ antitrust suit against the league. Their lack of urgency is a pretty clear indication that gaining leverage at the bargaining table – via legal victory – is still priority number one. Making sure there will actually be football this year seems a distant fourth, behind making the other guy look bad and making themselves look like champions of justice. Whether their delusions are built on the idea that the other side can’t afford a lost season or that some massive alien robot will soon land on Earth to vanquish all opposition with a laser gun is irrelevant. All that matters is the deadline, and the fact that neither side seems to care about it.

But, for argument’s sake, let’s say that alien does show up and uses his telepathic mind-bomb to annihilate all greed and stupidity on Earth. Let’s say both sides do reach an agreement, sometime in late June. What should we expect?

For starters, it would be safe to assume that coaches would call all players – rookies, veterans, and possibly some undrafted free agents – into work immediately. Strength, conditioning, and OTA-style team building activities would be at the top of the list, as shoving a bunch of physically unprepared players into the high-speed rigors of training camp would be ineffective and possibly disastrous. At the same time, coaches and GMs would begin implementing their various free agency plans; trades, signings, franchise tags, etc. You’d see a wild couple weeks of fast moves and bidding wars as teams try to get their new acquisitions into the playbook as soon as possible.

This would definitely work out in the players’ favor, as teams wouldn’t have the luxury of drawing out the auction process and slowly scaling up their bids over a number of weeks. They’d have to fire big right off the bat, scare off the competition, and lock the deal up quickly. Same goes for first and second-round draft picks, as teams would have neither the time nor resources to haggle for a month over a couple million dollars. They’d probably come up with an above average starting offer and tell the rook he can take it or leave it.

Next of course would be training camp. A truncated version, for sure, as we’d probably be well into August by the time all potential players could be signed and on the field together. This would be the big test for players, who’s offseason workouts would either pay off or come back to haunt them in the form of pulled hamstrings, dehydration and catatonic exhaustion.

By this time, Goodell would already have announced the cancellation of the first two preseason games, leaving teams with just two full-go scrimmages to evaluate their rookies and finalize their depth charts. For this reason, starters would probably play only one or two total quarters, allowing as much time as possible for the second- and third-stringers to fight for a roster spot.

Then, boom. Just like that, it’s opening day. A few days of conditioning, a few weeks of toned-down practice, and a couple of meaningless half-speed games would be all that separates players from the beach and the bright lights of Monday night. Needless to say, Andy Reid’s prediction of a “watered-down product” would most likely come true.

The ensuing five months would be riddled with injuries, penalties, blown coverages, missed routes, and just all-around bad football. By December, you could be watching a third-string quarterback throw an interception to a second-string linebacker (who is actually playing in the secondary, because the team ran out of safeties) who then laterals the ball to a third-string corner who takes four steps, drops the ball and falls down, then a third-string Australian rules punter runs out on the field, picks up the ball and boots it as hard as he can through his own uprights, then runs off the field celebrating. And that, my friends, would be the flex game. The rest of the week’s “contests” would have more penalty yards than passing yards and final scores of 4-2.

By January, nobody except the fans of playoff teams would care anymore, and even they would probably be more interested in their fantasy scores than what’s going on on Fox. Channel flipping in between plays, going outside to throw the ball at halftime and never bothering to come back in. In the end, the Superbowl will have lower ratings than the final episode of Glee, and the team that wins (and its fans) won’t be taken seriously by anyone. The 2011/12 season will go down in the record books with an asterisk, and so too will the Superbowl Champion Cleveland Browns, who in the land of the blind proved their one eye was enough to make them king. The guy who takes Josh Cribbs with the number one pick in your fantasy draft is going to win the whole thing, and the rest of us are just going to close our eyes and pray to wake up in 2013.

That’s the way I see it, anyway.