Lockout's impact will linger in NFL 2011

By Barry Wilner

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, Sept. 3 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

Other faces to watch in new places include Reggie Bush in Miami, Chad Ochocinco in New England, and Nnamdi Asomugha, the grand prize of free agency, in Philadelphia.

Ah, free agency. The CBA settlement made more than 450 players unrestricted free agents, as the minimum to qualify went back to four years; it was six in 2010, an uncapped year. The salary cap was set at about $123 million, then the frenzy began.

Philadelphia, already a solid Super Bowl contender, retooled its roster and has been declared the champion of free agency, for what that's worth. The Eagles added cornerback Asomugha, DLs Cullen Jenkins and Jason Babin to their defense, receiver Steve Smith, running back Ronnie Brown and Young to their offense.

"Whatever it takes to try to get there, that's what we're going to do," team president Joe Banner said of the Eagles' Super Bowl-or-bust mentality. "I want the players to feel like that's the goal. If we fall short of that, then we didn't hit the goal. It's really that simple. I'm glad that the mindset is that we have a real shot to do that. ... The expectations are high internally as well as externally, and I think that's a good place to be."

A tough place to be is anywhere that new coaches are trying to install their systems, learn about their players and, somehow, win games following a wasted spring and half of summer. Ron Rivera in Carolina might have the biggest challenge as he takes over the NFL's worst team of 2010 and tries to get Newton indoctrinated quickly — all under a glaring spotlight.

It won't be easy for Jim Harbaugh in San Francisco, Pat Shurmur in Cleveland, Mike Munchak in Tennessee, Hue Jackson in Oakland, John Fox in Denver, Jason Garrett in Dallas and Leslie Frazier in Minnesota. At least Garrett and Frazier got in some time as interim head coaches a year ago.

Their jobs seem secure for at least one season, barring an 0-16 debacle. Veteran coaches under the most pressure to produce in 2011 will be Tom Coughlin with the Giants, Jack Del Rio with the Jaguars, Gary Kubiak with the Texans and Tony Sparano with the Dolphins.

Many of those coaches spent an inordinate amount of time — because they had an inordinate amount of time available from March until mid-July — examining rules changes.

Most notable is the decision to move kickoffs up 5 yards to the 35 and limit coverage teams to a 5-yard run-up before the kick. The reason for the change: player safety.

The reaction thus far: bring back the kickoff return. Through three weeks of the preseason, touchbacks had just about doubled to 38.8 percent of all kickoffs.

"There's no truth that we are looking to eliminate the kickoff return," said Ray Anderson, the league's chief disciplinarian and a member of the competition committee. "That has been presented to the committee and didn't ever have any support.

"We understand it's an exciting play and that it should remain in the game — with tweaks to make it safer."

Players who run back kicks see it as more than a tweak.

"Nothing I can say in public," offered Seahawks special teams star Leon Washington. "You have to understand with the NFL, safety is their priority. So, I definitely understand that part. But for teams like us, Chicago, Arizona, Cleveland, it's a big deal to win the field position battle with special teams, and now, they're taking that part of the game away from us."

The league is making all scoring plays reviewable by replay, but in the preseason, only a handful have led to lengthy delays.

It's also promising to ramp up discipline for illegal hits, including handing suspensions to repeat offenders — and to anyone else whose illegal hit is troublesome enough to warrant being sat down.

"Let me make it very clear, particularly in regard to repeat offenders," Anderson said, "that egregious acts will be subject to suspension. We will not feel the need to hesitate in this regard."

Following the opener at Lambeau Field, the NFL will stage remembrances at all of its games of the terrorist attacks of 2001. With that in mind, the Giants are scheduled to play at the Redskins, the Jets are hosting the Cowboys, and the Steelers are at the Ravens, covering teams with ties to areas where the impact of the attacks was felt immediately.

The league and the players' union have pledged $1 million in donations to three Sept. 11 memorials and two charities.

For months, there was some doubt if games would even be played as scheduled. Instead, the only victim of the longest work stoppage in NFL history was the exhibition Hall of Fame game.

The lockout seems to have whetted the appetites of fans even more. Expectations are for TV ratings to continue to outdo everything else, and for the NFL, even in the wake of one of its ugliest periods, to remain the king of American sports.

AP Pro Football Writer Rob Maaddi and Sports Writers Chris Jenkins in Green Bay and Brett Martel in New Orleans contributed to this story.

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