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NFL faces uncertain offseason as labor strife complicates trades, free agency

By Mark Maske and Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, January 30, 2011; 12:38 AM

As the Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers prepare for next Sunday's Super Bowl, the offseason has already begun for 30 other NFL teams. That means evaluating rosters, scouring the free agent and trade market, and preparing for the draft.

But this year is far more complicated than usual, with the possibility of labor strife in the coming months threatening to turn the normally orderly NFL offseason calendar into chaos.

The uncertainty over a new collective bargaining agreement between team owners and the players' union looms over the planning of every club, none more so than the Washington Redskins, who were expected to be among the most active NFL teams in free agency and the trade market because of their numerous and disparate needs.

"It's a question that I think everybody's asking themselves in the NFL," Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan said earlier this month. "With the new CBA, exactly what direction are you going to go? I can't tell you for sure right now."

Players and union officials have said they expect the owners to lock them out, but no one really knows for sure. One thing is certain: Even if the current collective bargaining agreement expires March 4, there will be a draft in April.

Beyond that, how this offseason will unfold on the player-acquisition market is unknown - leaving teams to prepare to build their rosters under old rules and previous timetables, knowing that a work stoppage could put everything on hold and a new agreement could change those rules.

"We have to be prepared for free agency," Redskins General Manager Bruce Allen said. "We have to be prepared for the end of the league year on March 4, and that's what we're working to. If someone's going to change the rules, I'm sure I'll get an e-mail, and then we'll adjust."

Free agency usually would begin in March. But it's not clear what the rules for free agency will be this time. If the sport shuts down because of a lockout, there won't be a free agent market for the foreseeable future.

But until a lockout is certain, front office staffs and coaches are, to a certain extent, guessing what will happen on time, what will be delayed, and when they might be able to assemble a final list of players to bring to training camp.

"What we're doing is just saying we're going to do it as business as usual," Indianapolis Colts President Bill Polian said. "And then, what adjustments we might have to make on the back end will take care of themselves. . . . Once we know what the landscape is, then we go from there."

Redskins hampered?

The landscape, though, is murky, and it could prevent deals both large and small.

This is where the Redskins, in a normal offseason, could be a factor. The coaching staff has already identified a vast array of needs and, in part because the team doesn't have picks in the third and fourth rounds of the draft, officials expect the Redskins to be active in a free agency period that could be unlike any the league has seen.

"There are 400 free agents out there," Shanahan said. Among the most prominent veterans eligible for unrestricted free agency are quarterbacks Peyton Manning of Indianapolis and Michael Vick of Philadelphia.

Actually, according to the league, 495 players would be eligible for unrestricted free agency if there is a labor settlement that restores the free agency requirement to what it was - four seasons of the NFL service time - under the sport's previous system. In a typical year, just more than 300 players are eligible.

But if there's a lockout, signings will cease, making it imperative for teams to move quickly on their own players, stars or not.

"We're trying to sign a lot of our players that are free agents as well," Shanahan said. "Hopefully, we'll get them back on our team. . . . It's not always the starters that are important. It's backup players with the right character that you know give you a chance to win down the line."

It's possible that the March deadline for a new labor agreement before the current deal expires - and thus, the potential start of free agency - could be pushed back if the two sides are making bargaining progress.

In the meantime, there is little for teams to do but prepare as usual, but for a variety of scenarios.

"You decide which of your own players you want to bring back. You don't know the system but you just have to make sure all your meetings are done, all your evaluations are done and you're ready to go on March 4," said Charley Casserly, the former general manager of the Redskins and Houston Texans. "Then from that point on, you just have to be flexible."

Brave new world

If there is a labor settlement in the coming weeks, the salary cap potentially could return - although Gene Upshaw, the late executive director of the NFL Players Association, often said that the salary cap never would return if it was allowed to go away - and the requirement for unrestricted free agency might be restored to four seasons instead of six. There also could be a rookie wage scale, as the owners have proposed to the union during negotiations.

Some observers say if there is a lockout, there's no reason to believe it would end before late summer or early fall, when the pressure to resolve the dispute would increase as the scheduled opening of the regular season in September nears. Under those circumstances, the league and union probably would have to make arrangements for an abbreviated free agency period before teams would begin to prepare for the season.

"You could be looking at signing all these players in a two-week window," Shanahan said.

The prospects for a whirlwind free agency period at the end of an extended lockout would mean players who change teams would have little time to become acclimated to their new surroundings. The situation wouldn't be ideal for the players or the teams, like the Redskins, that might pursue major personnel overhauls.

"There won't be that much of a difference from this team to that team, in terms of your plan or how smart you are," Casserly said. "But there are some teams with very few free agents and a coaching staff that's been kept intact. Those teams will have a tremendous advantage heading into next season if this thing ends with a mad rush at the end."

A settlement by March and a lockout aren't the only possible endgames. The players could decertify the union, a move that could prevent a lockout and enable the players to potentially file an antitrust lawsuit against the owners. It's not clear what the rules for free agency would be in that case, but teams would likely be able to make offseason moves while waiting for labor issues to be settled through potential litigation.

There also has been speculation that the owners could declare an impasse in negotiations and unilaterally implement a new economic system consistent with their latest offer to the players in collective bargaining. It's not clear what the system for free agency would be under that scenario.

The two sides conceivably could leave the current uncapped system in place and continue their labor negotiations without a work interruption. But that seems unlikely, given the owners' stance that the sport's current economic system is flawed.

If a labor confrontation ensues, the draft might be about the only thing on the NFL's offseason calendar that is relatively unaffected.

"We're hoping that it gets resolved," Shanahan said. "My plan is the same as it's always been and if it changes, it changes."

maskem@washpost.com svrlugab@washpost.com

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