"A week from today, we'll all be locked out.''--Plugged-in NFL player to me Thursday night at the Scouting Combine.
INDIANAPOLIS -- We are one week away from coaches not being able to talk to players about anything, from strength-and-conditioning coaches not being able to talk to players about off-season training ... from players, basically, being islands for maybe six months. Or longer.
The statement Thursday from federal mediator George Cohen, in between all the niceties, was a bold frame to the situation the league and its players find themselves in this morning after 45 hours of negotiations at the mediator's Washington offices over six days.
"At bottom, some progress was made, but very strong differences remain on the all-important core issues that separate the parties,'' Cohen said in a statement. "Nonetheless, I recommended and the parties have agreed to resume the mediation process in my office commencing next Tuesday. During the intervening weekend, the parties have been asked by us to assess their current positions on those outstanding issues.''
In other words, it's going to be a while. Talking to club officials, coaches, a couple of agents and some players here, I hear a lot more pessimism than optimism. The league doesn't want club officials commenting on much pertaining to the possible lockout ("I say nothing!'' Andy Reid told me last night, doing his best Sergeant Schultz from "Hogan's Heroes''), but this much is clear from taking the temperature of football people here: I expect this job action to last well into the summer.
A man who just spent 45 hours with the parties said "very strong differences'' linger "on the all-important core issues.'' Forty-five hours. Little, if any progress on the issues that matter the most. I've said this throughout the process: Regardless how much commissioner Roger Goodell stresses the importance of the March 3 deadline to get a deal before the players are locked out of team facilities, it's a phony deadline. There's no need to make a deal before, say, Aug. 15. If NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith calls his Executive Board together next Tuesday and says he's just made a great deal with the owners and the players should ratify it immediately, what do you think his player leaders would say? I'm not sure exactly what the words would be, but it would be something like "Are you crazy? You're not getting the best deal from them on March 1. Go get us some more.'' Similarly, the league's not throwing out the last, best offer now either.
Lawsuits, particularly the one in Minneapolis where the players are fighting the fact that clubs will get their TV money whether the games are played or not, will factor into the final decision. But this deal won't get done in the courts. Owners need to be involved, and involved soon, in the process of negotiations. As agent Drew Rosenhaus said Friday morning, he's disappointed that no owners took part in the Washington mediation. (Apparently, the only ownership/management person in the talks, and for a very brief time, was Washington GM Bruce Allen. As bright as Allen is, making a deal here is above his paygrade.) The big guns, like owner Jerry Richardson of the Panthers (with a cool head, hopefully), need to be imported into these talks. And soon.
My negativity about the negotiations has been reinforced in the 36 hours I've been here. And it was further buttressed when I read the Washington Post this morning, about an influential senator saying the NFL should further open its books for union examination.
As one of the club people said to me Thursday night, "I wish I saw something pushing us to narrow the differences between us and the players. But I don't.''
I understand all of you out there who have blood boiling today. You can't understand, with so much money at stake, why the two sides can't narrow their differences and make a deal. I appreciate your angst. The league feels it. The players feel it. But until there's a real deadline, until there's reason to think that real games are going to be missed, no deal is going to get done.
At the combine Friday, Atlanta GM Thomas Dimitroff was talking about team chemistry in such an odd time, when players could well be on their own for the next six months. And he sounded like he already longed for the bygone days ... of 2010. "It's so nice right now, it's so cohesive right now, you don't want to let go of the feeling you have in the locker room,'' Dimitroff said.
The best teams in the league now will be the teams that adjust to a very weird year well, and who come back, whenever that is, with the kind of cohesion and readiness to play great. There might not be many of them.
1. I think when Auburn quarterback Cam Newton meets with the press, his reaction to the hubbub over his comments to me the other day about wanting to be "an entertainer and icon'' will be something like, I stuck my foot in my mouth. That's not who I am. A little birdie name Gil Brandt told me on Sirius Radio this morning that, basically, that's what Newton told him this morning in a long talk.
2. I think my first reaction to Rex Ryan guaranteeing a Super Bowl win was to yawn. It's not news, people. He's said it consistently. I think he said it to the cabbie on the way in from the airport, and to the bellman who took his bags at the hotel.
3. I think Jimmy Clausen might not be really happy with Ron Rivera's quotes from the combine. Rivera was very high on Cam Newton in his meeting with the media Thursday, and the Panthers clearly are considering taking Newton to lead what Rivera wants to be an offense that can make deep strikes downfield. "He [Newton] has natural size and can run and has a tremendous arm. The young man has tremendous talent. I think he's well on his way. Look at the quarterbacks that have been drafted high. They're all big men. Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco. Cam has got a lot of those physical attributes.''
4. I think the biggest X factor among players here, other than the off-field questions about Newton, is Jake Locker. After the Washington quarterback's great 2009 season, he had a clunker year last fall, and teams are trying to figure how much of a factor he'll be.
5. I think I was surprised to see the Minnesota Vikings not put the franchise or transition tag on wide receiver Sidney Rice, because a team with significant salary space might try to grab him if and when free agents can be signed. But Leslie Frazier told me Friday morning the team has legitimate hope it can sign Rice long-term before he hits the market. We'll see, but that's risky.