Based on a number of conversations I’ve had with a handful of league sources over the last week and a half, Thursday’s news might have been enough to show the owners’ hand.
In all likelihood, the NFL’s owners have no desire to use their trump card and lock out the players once the collective-bargaining agreement expires March 4.
In its most simplistic form, the owners don’t want a lockout because they’ll lose money.
If you look more closely, though, over the next five weeks, the owners will continue to make concessions that will indicate they’re willing to revert back to the way the league was run in 2010, and the franchise tag — which was in question with the negotiations for a new CBA — is the first domino to fall.
During his season-ending news conference, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick sounded optimistic that there would be some room for negotiations that would allow each team to conduct its offseason workouts. This would happen, Belichick and others have believed, if the CBA expired to help coaches and players move forward through the offseason to make sure the players are conditioned — both physically on the field and mentally in the playbook — to start the regular season as soon as possible if a new CBA was reached later in the summer.
If the owners and the NFL Players Association reach a tentative agreement, there’s no telling whether it will be month-to-month or for the full league year (March 2011 to March 2012). However, league sources believe the owners will welcome the players to work out with open arms, and the players will be more than willing.
The owners have been portrayed as the bad guys through most of this scenario, since they were the ones who opted out of the current CBA and have claimed that they weren’t making enough money. They wanted players to pay all of their in-season travel expenses — such as their flights, police escorts from the hotel to the stadium and locker space — but these were empty threats. All they did was tick off the players and create a bad image in the public and media.
Now, the NFL and its owners are going to start this string of concessions, which started with the franchise tag and will turn into an invitation to start offseason workouts at the team facilities. Once the players begin working out, the owners might be banking on the hope that the NFLPA gets ticked off over a lack of progress with the CBA discussions and stages a strike. Thus, the players would turn into the bad guys in the eyes of the fans. (If the discussions really break apart, some speculate the owners could do something to push the NFLPA in that direction, especially after the players report for workouts.)
Whether or not the NFLPA chooses to go in that direction remains to be seen, but at the very least, Thursday’s news appears to have tipped the owners’ hand. They have no interest in locking out the players.