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.
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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