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Archive for Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Ready, set, go: NFL off to the races

July 26, 2011

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The NFL lockout is over, with a Monday afternoon peace accord that should have come with an accompanying warning: “Get ready for a wild ride.” The longest pause in league history gives way to the most frenzied stretch we’re sure to see in pro sports, a starting gun to a race suddenly transformed from marathon to sprint.

“Compressing about four months of work into two and a half weeks,” is how player agent Tony Agnone described it, calling his Monday night “already crazy.”

From dead silence to utter cacophony, the NFL is immediately alive with activity. Welcome to the strangest byproduct of the work stoppage found at the intersection of owners’ greed and players’ resolve — a free agent period like none we’ve ever witnessed. The official opening of that previously locked negotiating window arrives at 10 a.m., and if we have learned anything after 130-plus days of lockout insanity, it’s this: Players deserve to enjoy the ride.

Players deserve to get onboard and cruise into the biggest paydays they can find. They earned that right after a display of solidarity few believed they had in them. They held out for their face-to-face spot across the negotiating table, a change in format the owners and players described Monday as a turning point toward resolution, and in the end, won far more one-on-one battles than they lost.

Snapshots of Monday’s detente ranged from the heretofore unimaginable (union chief DeMaurice Smith and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell smiling behind a shared microphone) to the unexpectedly poignant (Patriots owner Robert Kraft accepting a hug from player representative Jeff Saturday after Saturday’s moving tribute to Kraft’s late wife), and together they painted a memorable picture of the day sanity returned to the NFL.

Now insanity is sure to reign, at least for the foreseeable future. Think about it. Teams are rushing to get players prepared for training camp, which means getting physicals done to gauge conditioning, getting them set up with accommodations and schedules, delivering playbooks, etc. But in the middle of formatting practices and meetings, teams also have to finalize their rosters, a process that opens this morning with no precedent to rely on.

Teams can re-sign their free agents, sign their rookie draft picks or sign undrafted free agents. But they also can talk with veteran free agents, even if they can’t actually sign them until 6 p.m. Friday, opening what is sure to be plenty of frenzied bidding wars and lots of burned up cellphone lines.

The results will be fascinating. Both sides are sure to make mistakes. Some owners will overpay for veterans; some free agents will panic and sign too quickly. The wisest will attempt to take a deep breath, absorb the language of the new deal and figure out what’s best. But patience isn’t likely to rule the day. There’s not enough time and there’s too much competition.

The owners would love to apply the brakes, if only to avoid escalating contract proposals, but they should be thankful for the amount of attention this shopping spree is about to draw. Every discussion of where top free agent prize Nnamdi Asomugha will land, every debate about where released prisoner/wide receiver Plaxico Burress will run his routes, every dissection of whether Tiki Barber has an NFL comeback in his aging legs erases the memory of the lockout fight the owners started.

The anger and frustration at what took so long to solve the labor pains continue to reverberate, intensified by the sunshine and rainbows offered up by Smith, Goodell and company.

The conciliatory mood was shared by all, and without doubt, fans will return in droves. After 130-plus days of inactivity, the frenzy is on. In other words: “Get ready for the wild ride.”

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