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Who Does The NFL Work Stoppage Hurt The Most: Rookies, Free Agents Or Fans?

All signals point to the fact that the protracted NFL labor dispute between the owners and the players is about to come to a close, but at what cost to the teams, players and the fans?

NFL Labor Talks
NFL Labor Talks

If everything we're reading and hearing in the sports media is true, the protracted labor dispute between the NFL owners and the players should be settled very soon - possibly by the end of this week - and we can finally get on with the business of pro football and a 2011 NFL season. Could we really be that lucky?

To be perfectly blunt, all of the posturing and politicking that has been going on between the two far-from-deprived sides in this sickening dispute, which has gone on for four-plus months now, has made for a distracting offseason sideshow that is certain to have residual ramifications both on and off the field this fall or whenever all of this garish behavior and insatiable greed comes to an end, if only for this contract period.

When the green light finally flashes - and it will because neither side stands to benefit from the lost revenue resulting from cancelled regular-season games, let alone lost preseason income - there is going to be a flurry of activity and player movements the likes of which we've not witnessed in two decades, since the last two NFL work stoppages five-years apart (1982 and 1987) in the 1980s.

The owners have had the players locked out of team facilities since March of this year. That means no rookie camps, spring workout sessions or organized training activities (OTAs) of any kind since the lockout took effect. No official communication of any kind between the coaches and the players. There are numerous reported cases of players taking on a leadership role and getting members of their respective teams together for informal workout activities, but none of these unofficial practice sessions take the place of the real thing.

There is a school of thought by some that all of this non-productive, lost work time is going to be more harmful to all of the free-agent players in-waiting who are looking to change uniforms and team environments than first-year players who have to come in and learn new systems and how to play at an entirely different level.

This year's crop of potential free agents, which numbers several hundred strong, find themselves helplessly frozen and unable to engage in any formal discussions with potential suitors of their talents, and vice versa, as long as the labor talks are unresolved and the lockout remains in place. Of course, some of these restricted and unrestricted free-agent players will likely come to terms with the present teams, but that still leaves a literal parade of players on the move, all seeking more money and a place to call home when the floodgates open.

It's going to resemble something like the Oklahoma Land Rush of the late 1800s when all of these expected free agents hit the open market. If the rumors are true that the parties are very close to reaching a deal on a new collective bargaining agreement, that leaves minimal time for players who are inclined to exercise their free agency to talk with prospective new teams (which they haven't been allowed to do under the terms of the lockout), agree to contract terms, get into training camp and get acclimated to their new clubs

Unfortunately, the first-year players entering the league as rookies this season are faced with much the same ordeal. Very few are under contract and hardly any of the players selected in the NFL draft in April have had more than a draft-day introduction to the teams that selected them. Again, because of the lockout imposed by the NFL owners, contact and discussions with all players, including the rookies, has been prohibited.

It's true that free agents seeking and landing with new NFL teams will have to go through an adjustment period, the time frame of which will be considerably shorter than would otherwise have been the case under normal, non-strike conditions. The one huge difference that the existing NFL players have going in their favor over the rookie crop, however, is that most have been in the league for a few years and are familiar with the way things work and what they need to do to get acclimated to new systems, coaches and teammates and prepared for the season.

For the young players about to get their first taste of professional football and the National Football League, the entire experience and period of learning and adjustment is a world apart from what most free agents will go through.

The protracted NFL work stoppage that began in the winter months and is still in process as we head into the dog days of summer is going to take a toll on every NFL team, and it will be most noticeable in the preseason (assuming, of course, that there is one) and in the early stages of the 2011 season. Those teams, however, that have brought in new coaches with new systems and schemes and different styles of play, have a number of free-agent departures or a influx of young, new talent will feel the aftereffects of the NFL players' strike worse than the others.

Take a team like the Carolina Panthers, for example, who have a new head coach and are counting on some of their 2011 draft picks, including Heisman Trophy winner and No. 1 pick QB Cam Newton, to start making contributions to their team as early as this season. The lost time this spring and summer could prove to be devastating this season to teams like the Panthers. The learning curve is just too steep.

Whatever it is - and it will probably be a little bit different for all 31 NFL teams - we're about to find out for ourselves what the real cost all of the haggling, posturing and gamesmanship, and most of all the lost time in the classroom and on the practice field, of the NFL labor dispute will have on the quality of the game we can expect to see starting with the new season in September.

I can imagine that it will be about as ugly for some as this spring and summer have been for NFL fans.