After months of fans trying to figure how a bunch of rich footballers and their even richer owners could possibly be bickering about money, the NFL floodgates got ready to be released Monday as fans cheered and owners, coaches, and fantasy football players got ready for a historic roster scramble to put together a Super Bowl winner. Rookies must be signed, free agents wooed, and trades made – many in the space of a week – if teams don't want to fall behind.
Yes, you know football is back when discussion heats up over whether Brett Favre will un-retire again. Will he go to the Eagles to replace Kevin Kolb as Michael Vick's backup? His agent says no. Finally, discuss.
The four-month lockout had plenty of acrimony, muscle-flexing, and bad-mouthing.
But soon after NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and players' union executive director DeMaurice Smith ditched the lawyers and began free-flowing conversations on the phone, the league and players crossed the goal line on a fruitful 10-year deal: A compromise on revenues, a "legacy fund" for retired players, a road map for continued growth for the league, and more money in the pockets of players, without whom football in America would be of the flag variety.
So let's get the most important question out of the way first: Who won the Lockout Bowl, the players or owners?
In the owners' favor: They get 53 percent of league revenues (up from 47 percent), new franchise tag rules to hold on to key players, and they do not have to pay $320 million in unpaid benefits.
In the players' favor: No 18-game season (at least until 2015), a shorter, less intense preseason, more benefits for retirees, and a hard salary floor requiring clubs to pay 99 percent of the cap in the first two years of the contract and 95 percent each year thereafter.
"On the face of it, the league wins, it was their lockout and their proposal got settled first," says Professor LeRoy.
But players, too, made headway as savvy bargainers. "There's a surprising degree of compromise in the reported terms, and I think that indicates the league's view that labor peace has value to the industry," he says.
But are owners and players really ready for some football, with the first preseason game up in just over two weeks?
There's still work to be done. The league's 1,900 players should begin the process of recertifying as a union Tuesday. (Players decertified before the lockout so they could take the league to court.) While final details are being worked out, it's likely that some teams will begin opening training camps Monday, and free agency could start as early as Tuesday.
On that note, more than 1,000 signings are expected in a manner of days, with players like Santonio Holmes and Nnamdi Asomugha on the auction block. The quick ramp-up is likely to have an impact on gridiron performance for some teams.
"We'll be cramming two months of an offseason program into seven days,'' one coach told Sports Illustrated's Peter King. "If you're not making major changes on offense or defense, and you're in a division with lots of change, that should mean a couple of wins for you.''
But insiders also note that players and teams got together before the lockout, during the February combine, which means a lot of deals are matters of getting players into a room to sign.
Returning to the field "has been thought through well in advance, and I think the fact that the reported terms reflect a compromise indicate that this process has been in the making for quite some time, and, therefore, agents and athletes and teams are very well prepared to move forward," says Mr. LeRoy.
Issues kicked down the road?
Now with a big general deal almost done, players and owners are ready to ride together into the sunset, right? Hardly. Certain issues can only be solved after the players' union has recertified. They include: new drug-testing rules, rules for discipline on big hits, and player discipline.
On the other hand, half of the fun of football is talking about football, and it's easier for fans to line up opinions behind hard-hitting issues facing the game than trying to pick sides in a revenue battle, which is what the lockout really came down to.
What did fans miss?