Thursday March 27th, 2008

Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we await the start of next week's NFL annual meeting in Palm Beach, Fla. ...

• I can't believe we're here again already. Two short years later. It seems just yesterday that the NFL and the players' union -- after twice delaying the start of the 2006 free-agency period -- were staring into the abyss of a labor stand-off that centered on whether the two sides would extend their collective bargaining agreement or face the prospect of life without a salary cap in 2007.

Almost before the league and its fans collectively exhaled in relief upon reaching a crisis-averting, six-year CBA extension through 2011, someone bothered to read the fine print and realized that a clause allowed either side to opt out of the deal in November 2008, which would start the clock anew counting down to an uncapped NFL in 2010. No wonder commissioner Paul Tagliabue didn't waste any time in announcing his retirement after what was then seen as his parting gift of labor peace to the league he presided over for 17 years. He knew what the deal was, or wasn't in this case.

And so, here we are. Team owners are poised to do just that -- opt out of the deal in less than eight months -- and the rhetoric coming from both sides already portends a stare-down that could dominate the league's attention for most of the coming two years. You can expect to hear plenty of ominous labor talk from the owners at the league meeting in Palm Beach, after players' union chief Gene Upshaw got the saber-rattling festivities off to an emphatic start at the Super Bowl by dropping the magic words of "strike, lockout and union decertification'' into his comments at an NFLPA news conference.

And that, dear readers, is how a supposed six-year labor agreement can be made, in effect, to last only two. It's understood that as NFL fans, you don't really want to read about it. Rest assured, I'd rather not write about it. But it's an unavoidable subject that is more than just looming on the horizon. It's already here. Again. Cue up your gratuitous Groundhog Day reference of choice.

The coming dissection of revenue-sharing models, the disparity between higher and lower-revenue teams, and the thorny issue of how to equitably divide non-football income will not captivate anyone. It's enough to make you pine for another chapter in the Spygate files, or the debate over the players' personal conduct issue, or anything that doesn't have the letters C-B-A (in that order) included in it. We'd all much rather focus on PATs, or INTs, or even YAC (yards after the catch in the semi-new vernacular).

But unfortunately we're not going to be able to escape the league's labor issue. And it will be an ugly and protracted showdown, with both sides digging in up to their eyebrows and talking about it in terms of a battle that must be won. Many ultimatums will be fired off on both sides, and after a while, they'll all sound like so much "Blah, blah, blah.'' So everybody now, on three: Open palm, smack forehead. Repeat as often as necessary. If only we could opt out of the whole messy saga.

• Can I be the first to dub the new proposal to out-law a player's hair from obscuring either his name or number on the back of his jersey the "Troy Polamalu Rule?'' Though others have joined the parade, the Pittsburgh safety's wild mop of hair got this whole issue started. Three years ago or so, Dallas safety Roy Williams inspired the horse-collar rule, which outlawed his favorite style of tackling from behind. What is it about these precedent-setting safeties?

It's kind of amusing to hear NFL competition committee co-chairman Rich McKay of the Falcons say the rule proposal would not make anyone cut his hair, only stuff it up inside the helmet. I'd like to see Polamalu manage to keep his unruly mane inside a helmet without at least a trim. Same goes for the players who prefer the dreadlock look. There's only so much room in those helmets.

• Predicting the outcome of rule-change votes at an NFL owners meeting is a fool's game, but my sense is that the league's competition committee is firmly -- if not unanimously -- behind the push to re-seed the playoff field, allowing wild-card teams with a better record than a division champion to host a first-round game. Whenever the competition committee strongly recommends a proposal, it generally gets adopted by the full ownership.

• So when the NFL almost three weeks ago (March 9) said it was close to striking an agreement with ex-Patriots video assistant Matt Walsh to hear whatever he has to tell about the team's history of video-taping opponents, what exactly did it mean by close? Eighteen days later, and we're still waiting.

Why do I get the feeling that whatever Walsh has to show or tell, it's not going to be worth the build-up?

• I like the idea of the new five-to-seven-day window that the competition committee is proposing to allow teams and agents to consort just before free agency officially opens. If it even does away with most of those near instant deals that miraculously get struck in the first minutes and hours of free agency, the ones where you know the league's tampering rules got winked at, then it'll be an improvement over the current non-compliance.

Teams won't be allowed any contact with potential free agents, only their agents, during this dead period. The agents can strike a deal, but the player can't sign anything or take a visit until free agency opens. Meanwhile teams get the added advantage of scouting out the free-agent market a bit before plunging in, checkbook first. It looks like a win-win to me.

I can forsee one controversial scenario occurring with semi-regularity under the new system: An eager agent during the dead period announces he has a verbal agreement for player X to sign with team X, only to then elicit a better offer from team Y, prompting player X to eventually sign with team Y. Much to the consternation of team X.

In other words, until a deal is on paper and done, it's not going to be done, no matter what a particular agent might clear his throat and say. That'll be fun.

• Please don't bore us with reports of Titans' franchise defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth or disgruntled Bengals receiver Chad Johnson missing the start of their teams' offseason conditioning programs in March. As if it's really critical at this point.

It's still far too fresh in my memory that both Patriots cornerback Asante Samuel and Giants defensive end Michael Strahan blew off their teams' entire training camps last summer, and it still seemed to work out more than OK on both fronts. Didn't it?

• Not many teams could have signed 38-year-old Jason Elam in a move designed to get younger at kicker, but the Falcons had the NFL's version of Methuselah kicking for them last season in the form of 47-year-old Morten Andersen. Elam, 38, signed a four-year deal with Atlanta, but by my math, that'll only make him 42 at contract's end.

I would have tried to get nine years if I were Elam.

• Raising your ticket prices after winning a championship has become such a cliché in professional sports, and the feel-good Giants are just the latest team to make the move to cash in while the afterglow lingers.

Then again, it was a pretty gusty call for a team that has gone 3-5 at home in each of the past two seasons, somehow still making the playoffs both times. And I'm guessing there's another price increase coming when the Giants move into their new Meadowlands stadium in 2010. Call it a hunch.

• Speaking of the Giants, the NFL is contemplating moving up the Sept. 4 regular-season opener between Washington and New York by 90 minutes, in order to avoid too much of a head-to-head conflict with televised coverage of the final night of the Republican convention in St. Paul.

So what's it going to be that Thursday night, America? A speech by John McCain followed by a big balloon drop, or an interception by R.W. McQuarters followed by him dropping by for an Andrea Kremer postgame interview on NBC? I know where I'm presuming the highest TV ratings will be.

• The Patriots usually are smarter than the rest of the NFL when it comes to personnel, but in signing cornerbacks Fernando Bryant, Lewis Sanders and Jason Webster this month, one could make the case that they're going for quantity over quality in their efforts to replace the departed Samuel.

Then again, we've seen New England in recent years cobble together a patchwork secondary at midseason and go on to win a Super Bowl, so maybe we should just shut up and watch.

• If the Chiefs do wind up taking Boston College quarterback Matt Ryan at No. 5 -- and I'm starting to get the sense that's a very real possibility if the No. 3 Falcons pass on him, as it appears they will in favor of LSU defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey -- it probably means that veteran Damon Huard will be released or traded. Kansas City coach Herm Edwards said this week that he wouldn't nix the idea of going into the season with a rookie quarterback, in addition to third-year veteran Brodie Croyle and second-year man Tyler Thigpen.

If he gets to the market, Huard would be a potential fit in Green Bay, which is searching for a veteran backup as insurance behind first-time starter Aaron Rodgers, or Minnesota, which continues to explore options in addition to Tarvaris Jackson.

• Why did the Texans sign ex-Jaguars quarterback Quinn Gray to a one-year deal this week? Houston's move tells me two things: It could still deal backup Sage Rosenfels if it gets the second-round pick it seeks. Having Gray on the roster gives the Texans more insurance at the position should a trade offer for Rosenfels rise to the level of too good to turn down.

Last month, the Vikings were talking to Houston about Rosenfels, but offered only a third-round draft choice in exchange for him. Rosenfels went 4-1 last season for the Texans as a replacement starter for the injured Matt Schaub.

Secondly, the Texans clearly liked what they saw of Gray first-hand in Week 17. Houston beat the playoff-bound Jaguars 42-28 to close out the season at home in Reliant Stadium, in a game that Gray started in place of the resting David Garrard. Despite that Jacksonville rested several key starters in anticipation of the postseason, Gray completed 25 of 39 passes (64.1) for 302 yards and four touchdowns against Houston.

Count me among those who are surprised there wasn't more interest around the league in terms of Gray as a free agent. Those stats against the Texans are nothing to sneeze at, and Gray was 2-2 as a starter in 2007, beating a pair of playoff teams in Tampa Bay and Tennessee.

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