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Snap Judgments: NFL, union need to work to avoid going over cliff

• We interrupt this Super Bowl week to give you just a small update on the elephant in the room here in Dallas. That would be the looming labor issue that threatens to make Sunday's action the last glimpse we get of the NFL between now and who knows when.

In a press conference on Wednesday, NFL lead negotiator Jeff Pash made it clear the league is attempting to turn the March 3 expiration date of the current CBA into an urgent deadline that hopefully drives both sides to a new deal. Otherwise a lockout begins on March 4 and most of the NFL's offseason is thrown off schedule, from free agency, to offseason conditioning programs, to minicamps and potentially even the start of training camps.

And that's a lose-lose proposition for both sides that must be avoided, Pash said.

"They [the players] know the same facts that we know, and they know that there are 500 or so players out there whose free agency rights will be in limbo, and they know what free agents get in terms of contracts and payments,'' Pash said, who also noted that all players drafted in late April will remain unsigned without a new CBA.

"The union also knows who has a roster bonus coming due or an option bonus coming due or a salary advance coming due after March 3. So they can do the same calculations [of lost revenue]. There could be as much as a half-billion dollars in March that is not changing hands as it might have. We think the March deadline is real. It's real for us. It's significant.''

That sounds logical, but I don't get the sense the players union has the same perception when it comes to the urgency of the early March expiration of the CBA. And I think the league is making a concerted effort to change the players' perception that the real financial pain would only begin once regular-season games [and paychecks] are jeopardized by a work stoppage.

But as Pash conceded, once we get to March 4 without a deal, I'm not sure what the next key deadline will be when it comes to serving as an impetus for an agreement. I think the fear on both sides is that the standoff will then linger into summer and wreak havoc on many fronts, but especially for those teams that have hired new head coaches and are trying to install new programs and new offenses or defenses. Top league officials concede there will be a clear advantage gained in 2011 for the teams that have continuity and an established program in place.

"I think that's a serious risk,'' Pash said. "I think it's especially serious if the strategy is to decertify the union and pretend the union no longer exists and to go in court. Then you're sitting around to see what a court does. And we're not going to solve this in a courtroom. We're not going to solve it in a congressional hearing room. We've got to solve it ourselves. We're the only two parties that can solve it.''

Pash did offer one hopeful caveat Wednesday, and that is that both sides could keep negotiating past March 3 -- without a lockout occurring -- if there's real progress being made as the deadline arrives. The same thing happened in the now infamous 2006 negotiations, with the start of free agency being pushed back twice.

"If you're making progress, you can stop the clock,'' Pash said. "It's not a Thelma-and-Louise-type situation where you just go over the cliff.''

I can't think of a more apt description of where the league and the players union appear headed at this point.

• I still think the most remarkable statistic in the NFL these days involves Art Rooney II, the president and co-owner of the Steelers. Rooney hits 60 next year, but he was a lad of 16 the last time the Steelers canned one of their head coaches. Maybe he doesn't even remember Bill Austin getting the boot after going 11-28-3 from 1966 to '68.

In Rooney's entire lifetime, the Steelers have only had eight head coaches, with three of those spanning the past 42 NFL seasons -- Chuck Noll from 1969 to '91, Bill Cowher from 1992 to 2006, and Mike Tomlin from 2007 to present. By comparison, Redskins owner Daniel Snyder is on his seventh head coach since buying his own NFL candy store in 1999.

I asked Rooney this week if he hopes to live long enough to fire at least one Steelers head coach, just to see, you know, how it feels?

"I hope not,'' he said, smiling. "I hope not. We've been fortunate. No question about it. We've been able to find three guys to lead the franchise who have all been great guys. They've all had some different strengths, but they've been the kind of people you want to lead your franchise. So we've been very fortunate that it's worked out that way.''

• I had forgotten this until it was mentioned the other day, but I was at the game the last time Aaron Rodgers played well in Dallas. It was really the first time the rest of us got to see Rodgers' potential, when he replaced an injured Brett Favre in the second quarter of a nationally televised Packers at Cowboys game in late November 2007. Green Bay and the Cowboys were both 10-1 entering that game, and Dallas prevailed 37-27.

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But Rodgers made quite the impression in his first real stint of regular-season playing time, going 18 of 26 for 201 yards, with one touchdown, and five rushes for 30 yards. It was the first time you started to think Green Bay knew exactly what it was doing when it took him 24th overall in 2005, and in some ways it was the beginning of the end of the Packers' Favre era.

"I think it was more important for my teammates [than me]'' Rodgers said this week. "I already felt at that point, when I started year three, that I was staring to figure out the offense, had it down, and was playing the way I felt like I was capable of playing. But I think my teammates needed to see if I could make some of the plays on the field that I made that night.''

Rodgers became the Packers' starter in 2008, Favre retired and then was sent, well, packing when he tried to un-retire, and the rest is history. And now Rodgers is back in Dallas, trying to match Favre in terms of winning a Super Bowl in green and gold.

• The Steelers went 12-4 in the regular season, and lost to four playoff teams: the Ravens, Saints, Patriots and Jets. If you're looking for positive omens in Pittsburgh, that's a very welcomed harbinger of Super Bowl success.

The past two times the Steelers have made and won the Super Bowl, in the 2005 and 2008 seasons, they've had exactly four losses to playoff teams during the regular season. In 2005, Pittsburgh went 11-5, losing to playoff teams from New England, Indianapolis, Jacksonville and Cincinnati. In 2008, the Steelers were 12-4, falling only to the playoff-bound Titans, Colts, Eagles and Giants.

• I don't consider Packers coach Mike McCarthy an old-school clone of Lombardi, but clearly he's not loving the Twitter age. Especially after last week's Team Picture-gate in Green Bay.

"I won't even let my daughter have a Facebook account, so I think that tells you what I think about Twitter,'' McCarthy said. "I would not even know how to access a Twitter account right now. I understand that it is an important part of the network (huh?), but that is something personally that I have zero interest in.''

• No more calls in the dumb question of the week contest, we have a winner. Someone asked Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel this week if Pittsburgh could still take the "Team of the Decade'' title away from New England if it won its third Super Bowl on Sunday? My only guess is that it was one of those people who insist the most recent decade really didn't start until Jan. 1, 2001.

• Speaking of Keisel, he's got a great Grizzly Adams beard, I'll grant you that. It's about 400 times the amount of facial hair I could muster if you left me in solitary confinement for 12½ years. But what does it say about us as a sporting public when the beards of San Francisco Giants closer Brian Wilson and Keisel are two of the most popular topics at the World Series and the Super Bowl, respectively?

Then again, I suppose in-depth and serious coverage is challenging in an environment where most issues have to be condensed to 140 characters.

• Thursday night of Super Bowl Week is always time for the EA Sports Madden Party, and from what I understand, the winner of the simulated Super Bowl game that the folks from Madden play has correctly predicted the game's real winner in six of the past seven years.

This year? The Steelers beat the Packers 24-20 in the Madden simulation. When that news was related to Pittsburgh cornerback Bryant McFadden, he was, of course, pleased. McFadden is the reigning Madden champion on the Steelers roster.

"I am the Madden guy,'' he said. "Since my rookie year, when I was drafted in '05, I've been whipping people and taking names and winning all challenges. Now I will say I'm not as good as I used to be. I was flawless at one point. But as you get older, your timing is not what it once was when you were younger. But I'm still the guy.''

We are still talking about your gaming skills and not your football skills, right, Bryant?

• You see him do his now-viral end zone dance in the NFC title game and you think maybe Packers nose tackle B.J. Raji is just a kid who might not be ready for the Super Bowl spotlight. But I spent the first 20 minutes of media day on Tuesday listening to Raji hold court, and I came away impressed by how much he already gets it.

For starters, he took one of the week's biggest stories -- the state of Maurkice Pouncey's ankle sprain, and what it will do the Steelers if he doesn't play -- and put it into perfect perspective. Pouncey, of course, would be Raji's head-to-head opponent on Sunday if he plays (and I still don't think there's any chance he will).

"Let me get one thing straight -- I know that Pouncey is not playing, but the guy that is behind him is no slouch,'' Raji said, of Steelers backup center Doug Legursky. "He is a pretty good player. He's physical. I watched some snaps of his when he was at guard. He is very physical and finishes to the whistle. That's what I give these guys credit for, they're not going to let you get off blocks. You're going to have to tear off blocks. To think that [anyone is] underestimating him, or that he's not a good player would be a sad mistake.''

That's a veteran answer, and I don't think Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers has to worry about Raji this Sunday night after all. Raji's ready for this stage.