The NFL in recent years has wisely started using the first day of its annual league meeting to debut the schedule for its prime time kickoff weekend games, thereby cranking up the hype machine for the coming regular season.
But while the 2009 season is beginning to come into focus thanks to us learning who's playing in Week 1's biggest games -- for starters, Tennessee at Pittsburgh on Thursday, Sept. 10 -- it may be the last one of its kind for a while. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news regarding 2010 and 2011, but the first of those seasons may bear little resemblance to any in recent NFL history, and the second one may never happen at all.
After a Monday morning spent speaking to NFL club owners and front office executives here at the plush St. Regis Monarch Beach Resort, I've gotten -- really for the first time -- a growing sense that the league's impending labor showdown will all but assure a season with no salary cap in 2010, with a decent bet for a subsequent work stoppage in 2011.
The pessimistic sentiments I heard, usually on deep, deep background, were that people within the league are not only bracing for an uncapped season, they're preparing for it as if it's almost a given at this point. And once that unfolds, it could be a short, hop, skip and a jump to the NFL's first work stoppage in 23 years.
"I can't imagine we get a deal before there's a work stoppage at this point,'' one team's general manager told me. "The players are going to dig in, and that's where this thing is headed.''
Said another club's general manager: "I don't think it's a long shot any more in regards to an uncapped season. It's probably going to happen. It's just the reality now and everyone's dealing with it.''
A third general manager told me that his team's every move this year has been made amid the backdrop of no salary cap next year at this time, and then the strong possibility of a work stoppage in 2011.
"There's a level of acceptance now that this is a reality,'' said the third GM, of 2010 being uncapped due to no new collective bargaining agreement being reached. "You hear it from everyone. From our perspective as general managers, we start being a little more calculated about what we do with our moves in free agency, our moves with re-signing guys to contracts, and such. There's just a general feeling that this is a reality, so let's take care of business. If we don't have some foresight, then our backs may be against the wall.''
What once seemed like a far-off possibility, NFL sources said, is now coming clearly into view. It's not an issue for the distant future any more, and that point was driven home to me Monday when I asked NFL owners and club executives why the doomsday scenario that an uncapped year once sounded like is being viewed quite differently.
"It's not scary at all to us,'' Patriots owner Robert Kraft said of the possibility of playing without a salary cap next year. "There are a lot of pluses to it. It's definitely not a doomsday scenario, and it might have to happen to get things right. I hope it's the vehicle to get us a deal. I hope it's the ultimate hammer.''
Once upon a time, conventional wisdom held that NFL owners wanted no part of an uncapped year because they were fearful that a few rich and aggressive owners (read Jerry Jones and Daniel Snyder) would go all George Steinbrenner on them and snap up a boatload of free agents. Such a move would spoil the NFL's unique competitive balance that has so-called small market teams prospering right alongside everyone else.
But in reality, there were so many new parameters built into the CBA's rules for an uncapped season that owners will have anything but free rein to make a killing for their teams in free agency. And I don't think the players really grasp those realities yet anywhere near as well as NFL owners and club executives do.
For starters, once the salary cap disappears, players can't be free agents until they've completed six NFL seasons, rather than four. That means there will be fewer quality young players in the 2010 free-agent pool, and less talent for any spend-happy teams to accumulate.
"That's huge, the six seasons before free agency,'' one of the general managers told me. "But it's also a bit of a funky spot to be in because, let's face it, there are going to be some unhappy players who thought they were about to get to free agency. You've got a guy who just finished his fourth season, but now he's not coming up [for free agency]. That's why I keep saying to some of my agent friends, 'Man, this is real. Don't think this will never happen or that it's going to go away and be fine. You've got to be right about this.' ''
In addition, teams in 2010 would own an extra transition tag, meaning a franchise could use both a franchise tag and a transition tag on two of its own free agents (or two transition tags) in the same season, as opposed to the one or another they get to designate now. Again, that stipulation should serve to limit the quality of the free agents who actually reach the open free agent market.
"The pool of players in free agency shrinks dramatically in the uncapped year,'' another general manager said. "That means the quality of available players is going to be affected, and the ones who actually reach free agency, how good are they really?" Most teams have gotten very good at re-signing their own best players any way. So that uncapped year, with all the contingencies, all the parameters that are in it, those things are real and they're going to keep the rich from getting richer.
And there's more. In the uncapped season of 2010, the league would have a rule called the top eight plan, in which the eight teams that reached the divisional round playoffs in 2009 would have their activity in free agency limited. The NFL's final four teams wouldn't be able to sign an unrestricted free agent until they had lost one of their own. The other four teams among the final eight to be eliminated in 2009 would have some salary restrictions on the free agents they signed, which would serve to keep them from being able to afford any elite free agents.
When you factor in rules that took effect this year once the owners opted out of current CBA last May, they too seem to tilt heavily in favor of the owners, rather than reaping a potential bonanza for players who are no longer working under the salary cap system. This season, a player's base salary can't increase more than 30 percent from one year to the next, which restricts a team's ability to award a contract that includes a huge 2009 raise in anticipation of no salary cap in 2010.
No wonder team owners aren't as worried about life in a cap-less NFL as many assume. When you throw in the fact that there will be no league salary minimum (or salary floor) that teams must spend on players in 2010, some clubs will undoubtedly spend less than they have before.
All of which tells me that NFL owners believe they hold most of the cards when it comes to using the possibility of an uncapped season as leverage in their upcoming negotiations with the players, and that only strengthens their resolve for the potential of showdown over a work stoppage in 2011.
"The uncapped season was built into the design of the collective bargaining agreement for just the reason we have,'' Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said. "Because of the provisions under an uncapped year, there's always been a very legitimate thought that we're better off with those provisions than we were in a capped year.
"So I feel better about our ability to operate without a cap and keep our league competitive and keep the game progressing, moving forward, than any way I could have felt when we were in a capped structure.''
The owners and the league seem prepared for the consequences of an uncapped season and a potential work stoppage in 2011 in a way I can't possibly imagine the players are at this point. Having just this month elected DeMaurice Smith as the NFL Players Association's new executive director, the union is just beginning to approach the upcoming negotiations with a sense of focus. An NFL club source on Monday told me that some owners have implemented far-reaching contingency plans into their business operations that reflect the potential for no season in 2011.
"Some owners have set up every component for the future,'' the club source said. "From building triggers into coaches' and front-office executives' contracts that stop those deals if there's a work stoppage in 2011, to other ways where they found they can limit their exposure and their expenses. They're getting themselves ready for this.''
According to a league source, some NFL owners with particularly huge slices of debt service on the new stadiums that they own and operate have even prepared for a possible work stoppage in 2011 by having "Force Majeure'' clauses inserted into their contracts -- which frees one from liability when an extraordinary event or circumstances beyond the control of the parties prevents one of them from fulfilling their obligations. In other words, if there's no NFL season in 2011, some owners may not get hit as hard as they might have from the loss of revenue.
"It's like anything in life, the wealthiest will be able to survive,'' one general manager said. "But these players are going to be facing the loss of a year of their earning potential in the prime of their careers, a year they can never get back. And they're short careers to start with. Look at the minimum salaries these days. To lose even that for an entire year, there'll be a small group that will be OK. But not most of them. It's going to be tough.''
It sounds like some tougher times are coming in the NFL. After years of labor peace, the rumblings of trouble are very real and drawing nearer all the time. That's why NFL fans would do well to enjoy this coming season, which in a small way got a bit of an unveiling on Monday. Because 2010 and 2011 might wind up looking and feeling very differently than 2009, this is a season that could be remembered as the calm before the storm.