July 25, 2011
When asking who won and lost the lockout battle, it's easy to start with the fans — ordered to pay for season tickets they didn't know if they'd be able to use, bounced around like kids in a newly divorced family, and invoked by either side only as a bargaining chip, the fans of the country's most popular sport should be forgiven if they come back to the game rather slowly.
Beyond that, here are a few names who wound up on either side of the point total. Some legacies were enhanced by the lockout, and other figures took a serious hit.
To put it in sports terms, the executive director of the NFL Players Association, whose current contract is up in March of 2012, had one of the best contract years in recent history. Not only did he hold the owners to the fire in a way no other union head ever has, he understood from the start that litigation was the one way to facilitate the journey to a new CBA. And in the end, it was his calm but strong hand that led the players back to the table after the owners' ratification/press conference stunt. After the CBA was signed, Smith said, "Our guys stood together, when nobody thought we would." The union stood strong, and he's the primary reason.
Through all 132 days of the lockout, Breer was the reporter extraordinaire, standing up to the old mailman's credo of rain, snow, and everything else. He was a constant on the NFL Network, and his tireless persistence and near-constant bursts of information from the front (or, in this case, the NFLPA offices) kept a lot of people together during a crazy time. He's also a must-follow on Twitter.
One of the lawsuits that had to be settled for the new CBA to truly go forward was the collusion suit that resulted from the six-year free-agency rules in the uncapped year of 2010. All of a sudden, a run of restricted free agents didn't see too many other offers in a scenario that reminded many of the stilted free agency that marked Major League Baseball, when the owners all conspired to break free agency by refusing to make a move. But with the new CBA taking the free-agent eligibility back to non-contracted players with four accrued league years, over 400 players (almost 1/5th of the league) will go on the open market this week.
In one way, nobody lost more through this entire process than Kraft, the beloved owner of the New England Patriots. His wife of 48 years, Myra Hiatt Kraft, lost a long battle with cancer last week. And through the emotional toll of his wife's illness, Mr. Kraft was the glue that held negotiations together — the voice in the middle between the hawks and doves. When Colts center Jeff Saturday(notes) embraced Kraft at Monday's CBA announcement and said that Kraft was the man without whom a deal would not have been made, he wasn't providing lip service. Kraft was already a highly respected member of the owners' group, and the work he did over the last six months — especially under such trying circumstances — will not soon be forgotten.
The NFL commissioner can bask in the glory of a new CBA for a few days, but he's got a lot of work to do, and a lot of damage control to deal with. Through the negotiating process, he proved to be little more than a functionary at times — talking terms before the lockout when he didn't have the authority to make a deal, and there were times when different owners and NFL lawyers ran unfettered like hyper-destructive 5-year-olds through the process. You don't do stuff like that to Pete Rozelle or Paul Tagliabue, and the difference in authority was clear.
However, Goodell's biggest problem going forward will almost certainly be the ambivalence the players feel toward him. Not just the ones on the hook for thousands of dollars in fines, like Pittsburgh linebacker James Harrison(notes), but straight arrows like Atlanta receiver Roddy White also feel that Goodell has gotten carried away with overall discipline. Goodell's got a lot of work to do to repair his reputation, and there are no more labor stories to distract people from the message.
The NFL doesn't have many ties to its founding small towns, aside from the Green Bay Packers and the fact that the Hall of Fame and introductory game for each season is based in Canton, Ohio. The Hall induction ceremonies will go off without a hitch in early August, but the canceled game was a point of annual pride (not to mention revenue) for the city. When Goodell will move heaven and earth to insure that his beloved international games go off each year, it's hard to believe that he couldn't find a way to make it up to a city that is the heart of the game in a lot of ways.
Team and league employees
After the lockout happened, and NFL teams put it out there that they were going to lose money hand over fist, several of those teams laid off employees and put many others through salary cuts. The same happened to several employees at the league office. Some teams, like the Atlanta Falcons, Miami Dolphins, Kansas City Chiefs and Buffalo Bills, have said that they will make their employees whole, but shame on them for shaving off a few hundred thousand dollars in the first place in America's one true recession-proof business … especially at the same time the owners were trying to hoard and hide $4 billion in TV money to fund an extended work stoppage. Kudos to the many teams who refused to take such short-sighted action -- the ones who kept their employees whole through the lockout.
Of course, rookie players will be affected by the lack of OTAs and minicamps; there's just no way to replicate that kind of NFL experience when you've never had it before. And at least drafted rookies got the playbooks of their new teams; it's the undrafted kids who have reason to worry. With such a short time between the end of the lockout and the start of the preseason, you can bet that teams will place a premium on NFL experience, even if it's not a match for young athletic talent.
Coaches in their first year in new locales and first-year coordinators will also be negatively affected. Imagine you're John Fox, new coach of the Denver Broncos. In very short order, you have to make enormous free-agent and trade decisions with little but game tape with which to analyze your new players. The St. Louis Rams went all-out to hire Josh McDaniels (the man Fox replaced in Denver) to take Sam Bradford(notes) to the next level, but McDaniels hasn't been able to spend much time with Bradford at all. This is why new coaches generally get one extra minicamp, and you're going to see the difference in teams run by new leaders.
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