INDIANAPOLIS – As the calendar moves closer to late July, when NFL training camps generally start, there is one critical question facing the league in its hope to have an uninterrupted season: How fast can teams get players signed and ready to go, assuming there is a collective bargaining agreement between the owners and the players?
With that in mind, Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay and NFL general counsel Jeff Pash have pointed to Independence Day as an important date for fans to circle. If the league and the players are at least on the way to a new CBA by that point, then there's good chance the season will come off without a hitch.
If not …
"Well, I don't really want to be thinking about that one," said Irsay, whose Lucas Oil Stadium is scheduled to host Super Bowl XVLI in February. "I'm trying to be as optimistic as possible that we'll get a deal done."
Several general managers said that getting a deal done by the early part of July would be necessary because of the time needed to sign free agents, draft picks and undrafted players in advance of training camp.
"You do it in whatever time they give you, but two or three weeks would be enough probably," New Orleans Saints general manager Mickey Loomis said during this week's league meetings. "You could do it in less time, but with all the physicals and paperwork – and figuring out who you're going to get if you don't sign the first guy you want – you'd hope for as much time as possible."
If there is a silver lining to the figurative cloud that passed over the league's meetings, it is that there's still enough time to get a deal done to save the regular season and even training camp. It's just that some people are going to have to work really fast.
Besides Loomis, several general managers said this week that it would take the league roughly 10 to 14 days to get ready once an agreement between the owners and the players is reached. That's the time it would take to get players signed so that training camp could start.
"Two or three weeks is enough time," said St. Louis Rams GM Billy Devaney. "A lot of the stuff that goes on with negotiations that takes too long already just gets shortened."
Another GM, who didn't want to be identified, said all the signings and other preparation could be done in as little as seven to 10 days. The bottom line is that while everything could be settled quickly, there is at least some lag time the teams would need to set their rosters. Some teams would be less ready than others, but getting the job done quickly is feasible.
"Some of it depends on where you are as a team," Devaney said. "Some teams have a pretty well set roster right now. Other teams are much more in a building stage."
For example, the New England Patriots have 20 of their 22 starters from last season already under contract. The Carolina Panthers have only 12. Throw in the fact that the Panthers have a new head coach in Ron Rivera, and Carolina could be a team that struggles with a shorter period of time before training.
Regardless, the hope of most owners is that their teams will have a reasonable amount of time to get ready and, more important, a full training camp to recover from a lost offseason of workouts, minicamps and other training activities.
"We've lost a lot of preparation time already and it's going to have an effect," said New York Giants owner John Mara. "You can't replace that, but we're all hoping for at least a full training camp."
In the meantime, the immediate focus is on the June 3 lockout hearing in front of the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis. A decision from the three-judge panel in that court will likely take at least two weeks and perhaps as long as a month. Though the Eighth Circuit has acknowledged that this case has a time-sensitive element to it, it's unlikely the court would give an immediate judgment or issue a ruling from the bench (an immediate verdict).
Attorney David Boies, the NFL's lead representative at the Minnesota District Court for the lockout case, said he has argued approximately 250 cases in front of state or federal appellate courts during his 45-year legal career. Only one time has a panel of judges issued an immediate verdict in a case.
"It can happen but it's an extremely rare situation," Boies said.
Once that decision comes, either the players or the owners will have the expected leverage to force a deal – but the sides will likely need at least a week to haggle over the details of a new pact and then will have to draw up the agreement. Considering that, an agreement by the Fourth of July would be unlikely; but at least having talks is possible.
"I've been telling all my players they shouldn't expect anything to really happen in June – and it will probably go into July in the best-case scenario," agent Drew Rosenhaus said this week.
Considering that, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell's confidence in playing an uninterrupted season seemed to teeter for the first time as he discussed the league's continuing labor problems Wednesday. For instance, this week the league canceled its annual rookie symposium, an off-field training and seminar session for incoming players.
"We are getting close enough now where those will have to be considerations," Goodell said. "Obviously, we prefer to get a negotiated agreement that we don't have to make those decisions."
Goodell then added that the league is looking at all sorts of scenarios about when the season might start.
"We have contingency plans for our contingency plans," he said, only part-joking.