INDIANAPOLIS – Jim Harbaugh pondered the question, even smiled at it, but the San Francisco 49ers’ first-year coach wanted no part of its gloomy hypothesis.
Walking Thursday afternoon through an otherwise empty corridor at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indy, where he and the rest of pro football’s powerbrokers have gathered for the NFL scouting combine, Harbaugh was asked about the prospect of his first offseason as a big-league mentor without any access to players, even the ones the team is preparing to draft in April.
49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh responds to a question during the scouting combine.
(Darron Cummings/AP Photo)
With a lockout looming at midnight on March 4, the prospect that owners and the NFL Players Association won’t settle their vast differences and agree on a new collective bargaining agreement until summer – or perhaps even past the projected starting point of the 2011 regular season – is one that all NFL coaches must confront. Those who are new to the job, and especially those with unsettled quarterback situations, should be especially dreading such a scenario. Harbaugh, however, prefers not to go there.
“I don’t want to talk about hypotheticals,” he said. “I’m an optimist. I believe we’re going to have an offseason, that we’re going to have minicamps and OTAs and free agency and training camp and a preseason. I hope that’s the case. If not, we’ll all have to adjust.”
You may be shocked to discover that I do want to talk about a certain hypothetical situation. And unlike Harbaugh, I’m a pessimist when it comes to the current labor landscape. I think the owners will lock out the players when the CBA expires a week from Friday morning, and I can’t see the union blinking until the regular season approaches and game checks are threatened. Players won’t be in a rush to report for offseason training activities, or even training camp, and I think it’s possible that the standoff could bleed into September, perhaps even longer.
If there’s a lockout, there will be no free agency, and coaches won’t be permitted to have any contact with players on their rosters. The draft will commence as scheduled at the end of April, but rookies won’t be able to sign contracts until there’s a new CBA, and there won’t be the usual procession of rookie minicamps – or any other organized offseason activities.
If a settlement comes anytime from late August on, the likeliest scenario is a crash free-agency period – expect most players to accept one-year deals from their current teams and forestall the process until 2012 – and an abbreviated training camp that would last 10 days or so. Then the regular season would begin, and teams like Harbaugh’s Niners will be at a decided disadvantage.
In addition to losing out on an opportunity to acclimate players to his system, Harbaugh would have a hard time upgrading the quarterback position, a major weakness for the Niners in recent years. That, I believe, is why Harbaugh has smartly made an effort to create an environment in which Alex Smith could return to the team in 2011.
Smith, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 draft, appeared to be on his way out of San Francisco after yet another string of choppy performances last winter. An unrestricted free agent, Smith, after San Francisco’s regular-season finale, openly scoffed at the notion that he might re-sign with the team.
Yet Harbaugh, both publicly and privately, has gone out of his way to praise Smith on numerous occasions over the past several weeks, including Thursday. Many Niners fans think Harbaugh has lost his mind; to me, he’s displaying a grasp of the bizarre labor landscape. I believe Harbaugh, a.k.a. Mr. Sunshine, is sincere when he says he wants Smith to return – but I also think his unabashed support is a reflection of his limited options in the event of a protracted work stoppage.
“That’s not what I’m doing,” Harbaugh insisted. “That’s not how I’m thinking. It’s as simple as making the evaluation and stating what I believe. We’ll get the best quarterbacks out there to take to training camp, and we will throw the balls out there and they will compete for the job. To me, quarterback is a position like any other. It’s not anointed. It’s earned.”
Harbaugh said the team is in contract discussions with Smith’s agent – a deal in the next week would potentially empower Smith to gather teammates during a lockout for informal workouts, during which they could become more familiar with Harbaugh’s playbook. In other words, trying to re-sign him is a smart business move, even if it makes many 49ers fans cringe.
“I understand that there may be people that think that [it’s a bad idea], people that are passionate about the football team,” Harbaugh conceded. “But I’ve got to do my job.”
Precisely, and he happens to have a tougher job than most of his peers. Here’s a team-by-team assessment of how a long lockout could impact each respective franchise for 2011, beginning with the organizations best equipped to handle such a disruption:
Falcons QB Matt Ryan
(Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Atlanta Falcons: Coming off a fantastic regular season (before a playoff flameout against the Packers), the Falcons have entrenched leaders in coach Mike Smith(notes), coordinators Mike Mularkey and Brian Van Gorder and quarterback Matt Ryan(notes). They’ll miss QB coach Bill Musgrave (now the Vikings’ offensive coordinator), but Ryan is mature enough to handle the transition to Bob Bratkowski.
Chicago Bears: As brutally as the 2010 season ended – a home NFC championship game defeat to the rival Packers that left fans and some NFL players questioning quarterback Jay Cutler’s(notes) toughness – this team is set up well for a rebound. Coach Lovie Smith got a contract extension; Cutler has grown increasingly comfortable in offensive coordinator Mike Martz’s system; the Bears hung on to offensive line coach Mike Tice, who did a masterful job with his beleaguered unit last season; and there is defensive continuity with coordinator Rod Marinelli and veteran leaders Brian Urlacher(notes) and Lance Briggs(notes).
Green Bay Packers: Coming off a Super Bowl victory, the Packers’ most pressing issue may be an embarrassing surplus of talent. Obviously, that’s a good problem to have. After winning a Super Bowl without injured standouts like Ryan Grant(notes), Jermichael Finley(notes) and Nick Barnett(notes), the Packers should trot out an even better lineup at the start of 2011. Mike McCarthy, Dom Capers and Aaron Rodgers(notes) remain large and in charge.
Indianapolis Colts: No team has handled offseason upheaval as seamlessly as the Colts in recent years, and Peyton Manning(notes) has a lot to do with that. In this case, after reaching the playoffs despite a slew of injuries, Manning should hit the ground running with minimal disruption. Coach Jim Caldwell and coordinators Clyde Christensen and Larry Coyer return as well.
New England Patriots: The Pats got spanked by the Jets in the playoffs, but they had a wildly successful season that was probably a year ahead of schedule. The roster is full of young, ascending players and as long as Bill Belichick and Tom Brady(notes) are occupying the two most important leadership positions, this franchise should continue to hum.
New Orleans Saints: Drew Brees(notes) is an engaged, invested union man – but he’s also an exacting quarterback who demands that his teammates adhere to a high standard of preparation. It will be interesting to ponder the push and pull in Brees’ brain as the labor battle drags on, but in the end he’ll find a way to have his guys ready to play. No coach and quarterback are as simpatico as Brees and Sean Payton, and there are no worries on the defensive side of the ball with hyper-intense Gregg Williams in charge.
New York Giants: Tom Coughlin’s job security may be a bit shaky heading into 2011, but he’ll field a team quite familiar with his program. Offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride has been a constant during Coughlin’s tenure, and defensive coordinator Perry Fewell – despite having been a candidate for several head coaching jobs – is back for a second season. And quarterback Eli Manning(notes) is, well, Peyton’s kid brother, and he’ll be prepared once the games begin anew.
Pittsburgh Steelers: After a tumultuous 2010 offseason, the defending AFC champs are poised to run on auto-pilot, assuming there’s no more drama from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger(notes). Coach Mike Tomlin will return with coordinators Bruce Arians and Dick LeBeau, and the Steelers even kept highly regarded linebackers coach Keith Butler from potentially leaving to become the Cardinals’ defensive coordinator. Wideout Hines Ward(notes) has no plans to retire, and outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley(notes), who has been seeking a long-term deal for the past year, quickly signed his one-year contract after the team franchised him earlier this month.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: One of 2010’s pleasant surprises, the Bucs are poised for a playoff run in 2011. Third-year coach Raheem Morris has his young team playing hard and buying into his leadership style, and Tampa Bay smartly re-signed its longest-tenured veteran, cornerback Ronde Barber(notes). Most important, third-year quarterback Josh Freeman(notes) is a budding star who has a great grasp of the team’s offense and is unquestionably The Man in the locker room.
Ravens QB Joe Flacco
(Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Baltimore Ravens: There is plenty of continuity for the team that has flirted with an AFC title for the past three seasons, except in one crucial area. When coach John Harbaugh fired quarterbacks coach Jim Zorn, it upset Joe Flacco(notes) – the starter at the team’s most important position since Harbaugh arrived before the ’08 season – so much that he spoke out publicly against the move. The hope is that offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and Flacco will become BFFs by the start of next season, or at least develop a better working relationship. A protracted lockout would make that virtually impossible.
Dallas Cowboys: When Jerry Jones elected to keep Jason Garrett as coach after half a season of interim duty, he struck a blow for continuity. Tony Romo’s(notes) return from a season-ending collarbone injury should be smoothed by the presence of his longtime offensive coordinator as Dallas’ head coach, and the Cowboys seemed to respond to Garrett’s firm leadership style through the second half of 2010. The defense wouldn’t fare as well in a lockout, as brash new coordinator Rob Ryan could use some time to acclimate Dallas’ players to his system.
Detroit Lions: After some very close calls, the Lions finally began resembling a breakthrough team toward the end of 2010 – confirming what opposing players and coaches had suspected for some time. This team is much better than most fans realize. That said, the Lions could sure use another offseason to absorb third-year coach Jim Schwartz’s teachings. This is especially true for potential franchise quarterback Matthew Stafford(notes), the No. 1 overall pick in the ’09 draft, whose growth has been stunted by a succession of injuries. It will be hard for Stafford to step in following a lost offseason, but the Lions might be good enough to stay afloat until he finds his groove.
Jacksonville Jaguars: The Jaguars had a promising 2010 season, and quarterback David Garrard(notes) seemed to salvage his status as the team’s starter after his career appeared to be in a downward spiral. But the Jags, for the most part, are young and raw, and coach Jack Del Rio could sure use a productive offseason to prime his players for 2011.
Kansas City Chiefs: When news broke that offensive coordinator Charlie Weis would depart for a similar gig at the University of Florida, it may have hampered the team’s preparation for a playoff defeat to the Ravens. And Weis’ absence may not hurt K.C. all that much in 2011, given coach Todd Haley’s strong background as a play-caller and offensive strategist (and his apparent willingness to serve as his own coordinator). However, given K.C.’s youth and Matt Cassel’s(notes) continued development following a huge jump from his ’09 performance to a Pro Bowl 2010 season, a protracted lockout would be a bummer.
New York Jets: If you’re hoping the Jets make the kind of splashy offseason acquisitions they did in 2010, you’ll be out of luck if a lockout comes. That said, this team is pretty good as is, and with continuity among Rex Ryan, his coaches and young quarterback Mark Sanchez(notes), there aren’t a lot of weaknesses, either.
Oakland Raiders: At first glance, the Raiders seem like the type of team that would be brutalized by a wiped-out offseason. There was a coaching change from Tom Cable to Hue Jackson, with defensive coordinator John Marshall also getting cast aside, and the team got shaky quarterback play out of Jason Campbell(notes) in 2010. However, most football people believe Jackson – who worked wonders with the team’s offense as a first-year coordinator last season – will be a huge upgrade over Cable, and I expect Campbell to show marked improvement in his second year in the system. Though the team hasn’t officially hired a replacement for Marshall (former Oakland defensive coordinator Chuck Bresnahan was hired as "defensive coach" and could return to his previous role), I believe that whoever ends up in that spot will be more successful than his predecessor. “I’m the defensive coordinator,” Jackson said Thursday, barely suppressing laughter. Cool, I can live with that. And the Raiders have some serious talent on both sides of the ball, even with the departure of star cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha(notes).
Philadelphia Eagles: Michael Vick(notes) should be even better in 2011 than he was in 2010, which is a scary concept – and enough to make Andy Reid a much more mellow man than he has been in several offseasons. However, Reid switched defensive coordinators, firing Sean McDermott and hiring dark-horse candidate Juan Castillo, and the Eagles’ players on the other side of the ball may struggle through an adjustment period if there’s no offseason activity.
San Diego Chargers: Coach Norv Turner and quarterback Philip Rivers(notes) are the AFC’s answer to Payton and Brees – from a football standpoint, they finish one another’s sentences without even realizing it. Yet the departure of outstanding defensive coordinator Ron Rivera (who has his own issues as the Panthers’ head coach, as you’ll read below) and the hiring of Greg Manusky as his replacement means San Diego’s defenders, like Philly’s, could really use some exposure to the new boss and his teachings.
Bills QB Ryan Fitzpatrick
(Nick Laham/Getty Images)
Buffalo Bills: The good news is the Bills have continuity. The bad news is they were lousy in 2010. Any hope that the team can draft, trade for or sign a quarterback to replace Ryan Fitzpatrick(notes) as the 2011 starter would be severely dampened by a protracted work stoppage. It looks like coach Chan Gailey will ride with Fitzpatrick for another season, though that isn’t necessarily a terrible thing.
Cincinnati Bengals: I ran this ranking by coach Marvin Lewis at an Indy restaurant Wednesday night, and let’s just say he didn’t spend a lot of time trying to talk me out of it. Lewis has a mess on his hands, with longtime quarterback Carson Palmer(notes) threatening retirement if he doesn’t get dealt by Bengals owner Mike Brown(notes). However, Brown doesn’t seem receptive to the idea, and a shutdown in business for part or all of the offseason would make a move impossible. So Lewis will enter 2011 with a new offensive coordinator (Jay Gruden, who replaces Bob Bratkowski) and, in all likelihood, a quarterback who isn’t currently on his roster. On a positive note, the Bengals’ defenders are well-versed in coordinator Mike Zimmer’s system.
Houston Texans: Owner Bob McNair erred on the side of continuity in retaining coach Gary Kubiak, and the team’s offense should be in fine shape to withstand a work stoppage under the leadership of productive passer Matt Schaub(notes). Defensively, the Texans went for an overhaul, bringing in Wade Phillips to replace Frank Bush and switching to a 3-4 scheme. That’s a tough transition in normal times; without an offseason, it figures to be a brutal one.
Miami Dolphins: After an aborted wooing of Jim Harbaugh, Dolphins owner Stephen Ross pledged allegiance to coach Tony Sparano and pretended the whole silly episode never existed. However, throwing around the term continuity is a stretch here; it may be as off-target as some of the throws from incumbent quarterback Chad Henne(notes). Offensive coordinator Dan Henning’s departure and the hiring of former Browns offensive coordinator Brian Daboll as his replacement means there will likely be some choppiness if the offseason is wiped out.
Minnesota Vikings: Leslie Frazier was impressive as the team’s interim coach through the final six games of 2010 and is viewed as a potential star. But the Vikings have a slew of potential free agents, and there could be quite a bit of abrupt roster turnover upon the signing of a new CBA. It’s tough to believe that Tarvaris Jackson(notes) or second-year quarterback Joe Webb(notes) is in position to have a productive season as Brett Favre’s(notes) replacement, and Bill Musgrave, the team’s new offensive coordinator, will be installing a new system for someone to run. Defensive coordinator Fred Pagac filled that role for Frazier at the end of 2010, but he’s still relatively new to the job.
St. Louis Rams: Offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur got the Browns’ head coaching job, and Steve Spagnuolo hired former Broncos coach Josh McDaniels – meaning second-year quarterback Sam Bradford(notes) will have to learn a new system. In other words, Bradford and his young receivers (among others) could really use an offseason.
Seattle Seahawks: If the first 7-9 playoff team in NFL history hopes to build upon its momentum, it will likely have to do so with longtime quarterback Matt Hasselbeck(notes) as the starter. The second year of the Pete Carroll era will feature a new offensive scheme, with Darrell Bevell (formerly of the Vikings) replacing the fired Jeremy Bates. That’s four coordinators in four seasons for Hasselbeck, if he (and not Charlie Whitehurst(notes), J.P. Losman(notes) or someone not currently on the roster) ends up being the man.
Washington Redskins: Two words – Sexy Rexy. That’s right, 'Skins fans, it looks like Year 2 with Mike Shanahan will proceed with Bears castoff Rex Grossman(notes) running the offense, as the Donovan McNabb(notes) disaster will end with the former Eagles standout being released or traded. Grossman is familiar with offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s system from their time together in Houston, so that will help, but in normal times the Redskins would go out and get a more proficient replacement.
Praying for a new CBA
Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt checks a play with QB Derek Anderson.
(Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)
Arizona Cardinals: John Skelton(notes). Max Hall(notes). No, Derek Anderson(notes) – it’s not funny. If the Cards can’t get a quarterback via free agency, coach Ken Whisenhunt’s only option outside of the returning cast would be to draft somebody and hope the rookie can start, possibly without the benefit of any offseason tutelage. Whisenhunt also has a pair of new coordinators in Mike Miller and Ray Horton. Not ideal.
Carolina Panthers: As he dives into his first NFL coaching job, Ron Rivera could use some luck (just as he could have used some Luck, as in Andrew deciding to leave Stanford). If the Panthers do take a quarterback with the first overall pick in April’s draft, it’s hard to imagine that he’d open the season as the team’s starter in the absence of an offseason program. Translation: Jimmy Clausen(notes) and Matt Moore(notes) are Rivera’s likely options. On a positive note, there’s a decent chance the Panthers will be in position to draft Luck first overall next year.
Cleveland Browns: On Wednesday, Browns president Mike Holmgren referred to second-year quarterback Colt McCoy(notes) as "The Guy." But McCoy spent the offseason before his rookie campaign as the designated third-stringer, and he could use the benefit of extended work with Shurmur, his new coach and offensive coordinator. The same goes for the Browns’ young defensive players and new coordinator Dick Jauron. An extended lockout could stunt a lot of people’s growth in Cleveland.
Denver Broncos: It’s still unclear who the Broncos regard as their quarterback of the present – new coach John Fox talked up Kyle Orton(notes) on Thursday, but other organizational sources believe the plan is to hand the offense to second-year passer Tim Tebow(notes). If so, the lack of an offseason would be a huge problem. The transition from McDaniels, fired late in the 2010 season, to Fox should be a very, very good thing for this franchise, but the presence of new coordinators (Mike McCoy, Dennis Allen) could make for a bumpy beginning for the newly installed John Elway regime.
San Francisco 49ers: Jim Harbaugh’s new coordinators, former Stanford assistants Greg Roman and Vic Fangio, are undoubtedly rooting for a quick settlement. So should be the quarterback the Niners are likely to select with the seventh overall pick. Smith? Not so much.
Tennessee Titans: Rookie coach Mike Munchak insists his team is “not rebuilding,” but I think he’s not realistic. Having already affirmed its organizational intent to cut ties with Vince Young(notes), Munchak is looking at 38-year-old Kerry Collins(notes) as his most viable short-term option at quarterback. As the franchise prepares for life without Jeff Fisher for the first time since 1994, Munchak and new coordinators Chris Palmer and Jerry Gray face a daunting transition that would be negatively impacted by an extended work stoppage. And if an 11th hour settlement somehow makes Harbaugh’s vision of an uninterrupted offseason come true? They’ll be dancing in Music City.