Mike Roemer, File, Associated Press
NEW YORK — Lockout.
There, we said it. Now forget that word for about a decade.
Well, not quite. While the NFL and its players spent the offseason ensuring labor peace at the cost of just one exhibition game, the work stoppage could have a profound effect on the upcoming season, which kicks off Thursday when the last two Super Bowl champions, New Orleans and Green Bay, meet at Lambeau Field.
Both teams emerged from the lockout without much damage, putting them among the early favorites to represent the NFC in the title game. The Saints are a veteran squad bolstered by free agency and the strong leadership of quarterback Drew Brees. No team had better attended offseason workouts while the league and players association were negotiating through July.
"We got a lot of young guys ahead of the curve during that process so that walking into camp, it's not that big of a shock to them when they get the playbook and it's that thick and they haven't had a chance to really look at it," Brees said.
"I feel like we've been together because, in reality, we were together,"
Green Bay gets back a handful of players sidelined a year ago, enhancing a roster that went from sixth seed to champions without them. Most notable will be dynamic tight end Jermichael Finley and starting running back Ryan Grant, who provide even more help for Super Bowl MVP Aaron Rodgers.
"The drive we've got in this locker room is amazing," Finley said. "I think this is going to be a special team right here."
Yes, it's back to football — real football — after months of labor talks, lawsuits and enough legal gobbledygook to last until 2021, when the new collective bargaining agreement runs out.
To get to the regular season, though, the 32 teams had to survive a frenzied post-lockout period featuring wild bidding wars for veteran free agents and compressed pursuits of undrafted rookies. Not to mention signing draftees, with many of the first-rounders subject to a rookie wage scale for the first time.
Expecting big contributions from those rookies this year could be a reach, particularly at quarterback — that's you, Cam Newton of the Panthers, and you, Blaine Gabbert of the Jaguars. The recent trend, fashioned by Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco and Sam Bradford, has been to plunk the kid into the starting spot and let him grow. It worked well for those guys, all of them Offensive Rookie of the Year winners.
But they had a full offseason of workouts, minicamps and learning the playbook. These guys had none of that.
"If you go into the season thinking that, 'Man, it's going to be a long season,' well, I've never been on a losing team," top overall draft pick Newton said, "and I think it's because of that (positive) mentality that you start the season with."
Not starting the season, for the first time in two decades, is Brett Favre. Also among the missing are Terrell Owens (unsigned and injured), Carson Palmer (unhappy and unofficially retired) and Randy Moss.
Sure, that eliminates some — make that lots of — intrigue, but there's plenty more drama, some surrounding another all-time great quarterback.
Peyton Manning had neck surgery in May and wasn't activated by the Colts until this week. His consecutive starts string of 227, including the playoffs, is the second longest in NFL history for quarterbacks behind Favre and could be in jeopardy.
Donovan McNabb is starting anew (again) in Minnesota, Matt Hasselbeck has headed to Music City, Vince Young left Nashville for Philadelphia, where he will back up $100 million man Michael Vick, and Kevin Kolb, through the most noteworthy trade of the summer, is first string in Arizona.
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