NFL Nation: NFL lockout

AFC North free-agency breakdown

July, 25, 2011
7/25/11
3:29
PM ET
» NFC: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South » Unrestricted FAs

A look at the free-agent priorities for each AFC North team:

Baltimore Ravens

1. Sign guard Marshal Yanda: The Ravens are already struggling on the offensive line, and losing Yanda at right guard would be a big blow. Baltimore doesn't have quality backups behind Yanda, and the right tackle spot is wide open as well. Yanda will not come cheap. He is versatile and played guard and tackle for the Ravens, which will help his stock on the open market.

2. Find a pass-rusher: Baltimore has many strengths on defense, but rushing the passer isn't one of them. The Ravens registered just 27 sacks last regular season. Pass-rushing help most likely will be needed at outside linebacker in Baltimore’s hybrid defense. The problem is that teams do not let go of players who can get to the quarterback, so it’s a very thin crop this year. If the Ravens can just get a player who can add six-to-eight sacks to the pile to help Pro Bowl linebacker/defensive end Terrell Suggs, that would help tremendously.

3. Extend defensive lineman Haloti Ngata's contract: Make no mistake, this is the top priority for the Ravens this summer. But the reason this is listed third is that the Ravens put the franchise tag on Ngata before the lockout, which buys them time to get to these negotiations once a fast and furious free agency is complete. Hundreds of players without contracts will be signed in a matter of days. So the Ravens need to focus on those players first before they are left behind. Ngata will get his money before the regular season -- and plenty of it.

Top five free agents: G Marshal Yanda, S Dawan Landry, OT Jared Gaither, CB Josh Wilson, FB Le'Ron McClain

Cincinnati Bengals

1. Determine the futures of RB Cedric Benson and CB Johnathan Joseph: The Bengals have two important starters set to hit the open market in Benson and Joseph. Benson was expected to be a big part of the Cincinnati's new West Coast offense until his recent arrest for alleged assault put his future with the team in question. First year offensive coordinator Jay Gruden wants to implement a power running game, which fits Benson's style. But if Benson is facing a suspension to start the season, it would make more sense for Cincinnati to spend money on a player who can help them for all 16 games. With Joseph, the Bengals didn't seem interested in paying the cornerback market value, which can range between $8-$10 million per season. The new collective bargaining agreement may include mandatory spending to the salary cap, which will force Cincinnati to spend big in free agency. If that's the case, Joseph becomes a much better possibility to return.

2. Find a veteran quarterback: Franchise quarterback Carson Palmer said he's not returning. So the Bengals must find a veteran free agent at the position. Cincinnati would be skating on very thin ice if it went into the season with rookie Andy Dalton as starting QB and Jordan Palmer and Dan LeFevour as backups. The trio has zero NFL starts. Don't expect the Bengals to search for an expensive, big-name starter. Most likely the team will get a career backup with some starting experience to support Dalton. A couple of names to consider are Bruce Gradkowski and Jim Sorgi.

3. Make roster cuts: The Bengals have plenty of cap room, so they don't have to slash salaries right away. But there are several players on the chopping block whose production no longer matches their big contracts. Receiver Chad Ochocinco, 33, is making $6.5 million and is coming off his second poor season in three years. The Bengals are also getting younger at the position and drafted A.J. Green as his replacement. Defensive linemen Robert Geathers and Antwan Odom have high salaries in 2011, but have been plagued by injuries and poor production. Look for Cincinnati to cut at least one of these players, because second-year defensive end Carlos Dunlap looks poised to take over a starting role permanently.

Top five free agents: CB Joseph, RB Benson, LB Dhani Jones, WR Terrell Owens (injured), RB/FB Brian Leonard

Cleveland Browns

1. Sign a defensive end: The Browns will have a very young defensive line, probably including rookie starters Phil Taylor, a first-round pick, and Jabaal Sheard, a second-rounder. Therefore, it's important that Cleveland adds experience up front to relieve some of the pressure. Two very good free agents who can help are Ray Edwards and Charles Johnson. Both have starting experience and ability to get to the quarterback.

2. Find a starting safety: The Browns have two good, young pieces in the secondary in cornerback Joe Haden and safety T.J. Ward. But they're missing another safety to help fill out the back end. Abram Elam, a favorite of former Browns head coach Eric Mangini, has been average. Now that Pat Shurmur has taken over, don't expect Elam to return. Fortunately for Cleveland, safety is one of the deeper positions in free agency. Quality candidates include Quintin Mikell, Donte Whitner and Eric Weddle.

3. Cut QB Jake Delhomme: The Browns are on the hook for $5.4 million if they keep Delhomme this season. Cleveland likes his leadership in the locker room, but he's too expensive for a third-string quarterback. The Browns made their choice for backup quarterback before the lockout when they signed Seneca Wallace to a three-year extension. Wallace knows the West Coast offense better than anyone on the team, and the Browns believed that knowledge was more valuable behind second-year quarterback Colt McCoy.

Top five free agents: FB Lawrence Vickers, LB Matt Roth, S Elam, CB Eric Wright, DL Robaire Smith

Pittsburgh Steelers

1. Make roster cuts: The Steelers are expected to be well over the cap when the final numbers are determined. So their first priority will be to free up space to sign free agents and draft picks. Some solutions could include cutting veteran tackle Flozell Adams ($5 million) and receiver Antwaan Randle El ($2 million). Restructuring the contract of defensive end Aaron Smith is another possibility. The Steelers must free up money first before they make other tough calls.

2. Sign a starting corner: This could mean re-signing Ike Taylor or signing a player from outside the organization (Carlos Rogers or Richard Marshall). But it's important for the Steelers to land a starting-caliber corner in free agency. Pittsburgh's secondary struggled against good quarterbacks last season. Teams will continue to attack Pittsburgh through the air until the team proves it can slow multiple-receiver sets. To do this, the Steelers must have at least three solid corners. Bryant McFadden is the only corner under contract with starting experience.

3. Sign a kicker: No one cares about kickers until you need one in an important spot. The Steelers are in the market for a kicker after cutting Jeff Reed last season. Shaun Suisham filled in last season and did a decent job, but he's also a free agent. Kicking in Heinz Field can be tough, especially late in the season when inclement weather and soggy field conditions play major roles. Pittsburgh must make sure its new kicker can handle it.

Top five free agents: CB Taylor, OL Willie Colon, CB William Gay, RB Mewelde Moore, DL Chris Hoke

Video: Countdown to lockout ending

July, 18, 2011
7/18/11
10:24
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Sal Paolantonio and Adam Schefter discuss the latest news on the NFL lockout.

Five rookie free agents to watch

July, 12, 2011
7/12/11
4:00
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With the NFL lockout possibly reaching its conclusion, it's time to look ahead to what should be a very wild period in free agency.

Part of it will consists of rookie free agents who went undrafted this past April. Every year, several college players who were overlooked surprise and contribute during their rookie seasons.

Here are five rookie free agents to keep an eye on:

[+] EnlargeNoel Devine
AP Photo/Keith SrakocicNoel Devine amassed 936 yards on 209 carries and scored six touchdowns for the Mountaineers last season.
Noel Devine, RB, West Virginia

Skinny: Devine is a small (5 foot 8, 180 pounds), shifty back with good acceleration. He displays good vision and runs through a surprising amount of tackles for a player his size. Devine is scary in the open field and may be able to help a team on third down.

Possible AFC North fits: Pittsburgh Steelers, Cleveland Browns

Jeron Johnson, S, Boise State

Skinny: A hard-hitting safety with a lot of college experience, Johnson was projected to go in the fifth or sixth round but was overlooked. He is a solid tackler who has a chance to earn a backup job and help right away on special teams.

Possible AFC North fit: Cincinnati Bengals

Dane Sanzenbacher, WR, Ohio State

Skinny: Size and speed are question marks, but Sanzenbacher displays good hands and is reliable. He is more quick than fast and he has the ability to separate with good routes. Sanzenbacher is a natural leader and was a captain at Ohio State.

Possible AFC North fit: Browns

Mark Herzlich, LB, Boston College

Skinny: High-character player who survived cancer and long odds to earn a shot at the NFL. Herzlich has a good motor, size and toughness to play the linebacker position and was once a sure prospect before major health issues hindered his chances.

Possible AFC North fits: Steelers, Browns, Baltimore Ravens

Jeremy Ross, WR/KR, Cal

Skinny: Ross played receiver, running back and returned kicks at Cal. He needs to find a natural position in the NFL, but has good speed (4.4 to 4.5) and his return ability gives Ross a chance to make a team.

Possible AFC North fit: Ravens
Ward
Ward
Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Hines Ward was arrested and charged with drunken driving early Saturday morning in Georgia. Ward was released on $1,300 bond.

Here are some thoughts on Ward's arrest:
  • This was a surprisingly irresponsible move by Ward, who is 35 and has been a consummate professional with the Steelers. Ward is entering his 14th season and has stayed out of trouble during his career. Ward recently gained a lot of popularity for his success winning "Dancing With The Stars." Now, his name is in the news for the wrong reasons.
  • It's too early to speculate whether the NFL will come down on Ward. The league is in the middle of a lockout and may look into Ward's case once it reaches a new collective bargaining agreement. Ward does not have prior off-the-field incidents, which helps his case.
  • For the third year in a row, the Steelers fail to make it through the offseason without an off-the-filed incident involving a star player. Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was accused of sexual assault two years in a row in 2009 and 2010. This year Ward is being charged for driving under the influence. Ward's situation does not compare to Roethlisberger's, but it still puts a bad light on the Steelers and their team captain.

Video: NFL, players continue talks

July, 1, 2011
7/01/11
6:20
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ESPN's Chris Mortensen updates the negotiations between the NFLPA and the NFL. The talks will resume next week.
Osi Umenyiora is so mad at New York Giants general manager Jerry Reese for not giving him a new contract, he's apparently taken his case to court. ESPN's Adam Schefter reports that Umenyiora, in a sworn affadavit to be filed next month in federal court, says Reese reneged on a promise he made to him in 2008 that the Giants would give him a new contract or trade him to a team that would:
Umenyiora
"Mr. Reese told me that two years from the start of the 2008 league year, if I was currently playing at a high level, we'd either renegotiate my current contract so that it would be equal to that of the top five defensive ends playing or I would be traded to a team that would do that," the affadavit reads. "Before leaving the meeting, I asked Mr. Reese twice if he was absolutely sure that would be the case. He then told me that he was an honest and church-going man and that he would not lie, which I believed to be the case. Under the penalty of perjury these statements are true and accurate."

The complaint is part of the NFLPAs antitrust suit against the league, which is of course a central part of the ongoing lockout and labor dispute. Umenyiora is one of the named plaintiffs in that suit, along with Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Peyton Manning and others, and this is apparently the reason why.

But ... come on.

I mean, I totally get how this illustrates what the players are up against in a league that doesn't offer guaranteed contracts and restricts free agency to the extent that the NFL does. It's a prime example of a conversation that has no doubt gone on hundreds and hundreds of times between players and coaches and/or GMs. And since one of the points of the antitrust suit is to shine a light on what the players consider unfair labor practices by NFL teams, it obviously belongs here.

But ... come on! Doesn't this make Umenyiora look a little dopey? "Honest and church-going man?" Really? This is what we're basing our career hopes and decisions on? I feel for Osi, I really do. NFL players are way behind other pro athletes when it comes to freedoms and earning potential. Too often, they're left to do nothing but take a man's word that they'll be taken care of. But when that's all you've got, you've got pretty close to nothing. Until you have a contract in writing, I'm not sure you have the kind of complaint with which a court is going to want to help you.

Upshot of all of this, of course, is that it casts major doubt on Umenyiora's future with the Giants. But I think there was already some doubt about that, no?

Oh, and if Osi ever does find himself in court, he'll be glad Eagles RB LeSean McCoy isn't on the jury. Upon seeing Adam's tweet about this story, McCoy (@CutOnDime25) tweeted: "Overrated n soft 3rd best d-line on his team honestly."

Zing!

Video: Where the lockout stands today

June, 4, 2011
6/04/11
2:52
PM ET

Friday's edition of "Outside the Lines" examined the latest legal wranglings of the NFL lockout. ESPN labor analyst Andrew Brandt reported from St. Louis, where a federal appeals hearing was held.

Video: Players question legality of lockout

June, 3, 2011
6/03/11
7:25
PM ET

Sal Paolantonio and Andrew Brandt with the latest on the NFL lockout.
KolbDoug Benc/Getty ImagesKevin Kolb has no idea if he's going to remain in Philadelphia or be traded.
The NFL lockout has put players and owners in limbo. The ripple effects are also felt by people whose lives or businesses touch their teams. Here are their stories:

Kevin Kolb does not want to be a problem, and he surely never sought to become a face of the NFL lockout. But while most NFL players are just waiting to be told when to go back to work at their respective teams' facilities, Kolb finds himself in a more complex and uncertain situation. He wants to know where he's going to work. He wants to know where he's going to live. And he wants to know how much he's going to get to play.

"You could keep going down the questions. There's a list of questions," Kolb told reporters when he showed up for a workout last week with other Eagles players in South Jersey. "Nobody knows the answers."

A year ago, Kolb was the talk of Philadelphia. With Donovan McNabb traded out of town, he was the heir apparent and the starting quarterback. But he got hurt in the first game, Michael Vick replaced him and the rest is electrified Eagles history. By the end of the season, Vick was the man and Kolb let it be known that he would appreciate it if the Eagles would trade him somewhere so he could get a shot at being a starter again.

Instead of telling him "no," the Eagles decided to test the Kolb market. They found that teams were interested. So at this point, Kolb has reason to believe that he might get his wish. He even told of a text message he got from head coach Andy Reid during a break in the lockout that said, "I'll do what's best for you."

But while that text may have made him hopeful, it didn't answer any questions. Kolb still doesn't know where he'll be playing, where he'll be living or whether he's going to be a starter or a backup in 2011. And there's no way for him to know until the lockout is over.

"Does anybody know right now? It's kind of radio silence, it seems like," Kolb said. "I just don't want to get my mind set on one thing or one team or one place to live, and then something different happens."

Word is, as you've surely heard, Arizona is interested. But that's no done deal, and the longer the lockout goes, the more the Cardinals and other potential Kolb suitors may have to scale back and make other plans. Kolb could end up staying in Philly -- a possibility he's considered.

"I want my opportunity. If the situation can't be avoided, I'm not going to sit there and be a turd," he said. "That's not my style. I think that I've voiced my opinion, and there's nothing more I can do. Just like always, whatever situation arises, I'll just have to roll with the punches."

Right now, all he wants to know is which way to roll.
No individual coaches were named Wednesday when the NFL Coaches' Association filed a brief in support of the players in the 8th Circuit Court. But at least one group of coaches wants to make sure nobody thinks they're connected with it. In a statement released Thursday, the Washington Redskins' coaching staff distanced itself from the Wednesday brief and made it clear that it supports the position of the owners in their labor dispute against the players.
"The Washington Redskins' coaching staff has not given its backing to the brief filed with the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals on behalf of the National Football League Coaches Association," the statement reads. "Our former representative, Kirk Olivadotti, is no longer with the organization and no member of our coaching staff was consulted prior to this action being taken.

"We stand united with our ownership and the brief does not reflect our thoughts on the matter. We, like everyone else, are hopeful that we can return to playing football. We look forward to a new CBA and welcoming back our players as soon as possible."

The statement is hand-signed by every member of the Redskins' coaching staff except head coach Mike Shanahan. A Redskins team spokesman told me the reason Shanahan didn't sign the document is because his title is Executive Vice President, and as such he represents team management (which I guess doesn't have to explain which side of the dispute it's on). Shanahan's son, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, did sign the document, as did defensive coordinator Jim Haslett and the rest of the staff.

The brief the NFLCA filed Wednesday specifically pointed out the damage it believes the lockout is doing to the staffs of the eight teams that have new head coaches this year and the "three additional coaches who have only spent one season with their teams." Shanahan and the Redskins' coaches fall into that latter category, but clearly, they don't want anybody to think they had anything to do with Wednesday's brief.

It'll be interesting to see if any other coaching staffs make a point of saying whether they do or don't support the NFLCA brief. Coaches have, after all, been caught in the middle of this whole thing.

Lockout will hurt the Redskins

May, 26, 2011
5/26/11
11:59
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Mike Shanahan Geoff Burke/US PresswireThe lockout threatens to disrupt the momentum Mike Shanahan built heading into the offseason.
The Redskins are a critical part of NFL labor strife lore. Under Joe Gibbs, they survived the strikes of 1982 and 1987 better than any team in the league, winning the Super Bowl at the end of each of those disrupted seasons. The New York Times did a big story on this a couple of months back, examining the reasons Washington was able to go 8-1 in '82 and 3-0 with replacement players in '87 and weather those labor storms to become champions. Not coincidence, say those who were involved, as much as it was about Gibbs and the way the veteran cores of those teams held things together.

Knowledge of this history has led some to suggest (facetiously, of course) that 2011 could be the Redskins' year. Hey, they always win the Super Bowl when there's a work stoppage, so this is just what they need, right? If there'd been a lockout two years ago, Jim Zorn would be wearing a ring right now and Mike Shanahan would be coaching the Cowboys. Or something like that.

Well, unfortunately for the Redskins, while history may well be on their side, reality is not. Not this time. Given their current circumstances, the Redskins are surely more likely than any other NFC East team to suffer damage as a result of the lockout. Given where they are right now in the development of their franchise, the Redskins might be hurt worse by this lockout than any team in the whole league.

This is a critical season for Mike Shanahan as Washington's coach. Sure, it's only the second year of his five-year deal, and for that reason job security is the last thing he's worried about. But this year is critical for other reasons -- reasons that pertain to Shanahan's goal of building the Redskins back into contenders.

Shanahan's first season was a bumpy one, and his midseason handling of Donovan McNabb and the quarterback situation in general raised eyebrows among people who'd expected a man with his résumé to deal with such things more artfully. But on balance, the 2010-11 season served a key purpose for Shanahan. It established him as the unquestioned leader, face and voice of the franchise. The skirmishes with McNabb and Albert Haynesworth were merely the most public manifestations of Shanahan's assertion of himself. Zorn had been weak and overmatched in the head coach role, and it was important for Shanahan to establish right away that he would be neither.

Critical to that effort was the subversion by team owner Daniel Snyder of his own out-front persona. As a condition of taking the job, Shanahan insisted that he be given control over football matters and that Snyder not meddle in personnel decisions to the extent that he had in the past. Against all expectations, Snyder actually pulled this off. The 2010-11 season was his quietest as Redskins owner, and his disappearance into the background helped Shanahan do the things he needed to do in order to deliver his new-sheriff-in-town message.

[+] EnlargeDaniel Snyder
AP Photo/Paul SancyaDaniel Snyder has stayed out of the limelight since Shanahan came aboard.
The lockout could wipe out some of that momentum. Shanahan's assertion of leadership and Snyder's step into the background are vital to the Redskins' near-future success, but one year wasn't enough to lock those things in. With Shanahan unable to coach, the risk rises that he ends up starting from or near scratch once his players return to Ashburn. With Shanahan and GM Bruce Allen unable to make personnel moves, the risk rises that Snyder gets itchy and impatient and backslides into his old ways. He could decide to go nuts once free agency opens against the advice of the football minds he hired and promised to leave alone. Not saying this is what will happen, mind you, just that the "pause" button the league has pressed on its offseason increases the risk.

It's also preventing the Redskins from doing a number of vital housekeeping things. They need to move on from McNabb and figure out what their 2011 quarterback situation really is. If it really is John Beck, then he'll need to know he's not just a Shanahan smokescreen and get in to practice huddles so his teammates know it, too. If it's to be Carson Palmer or someone not currently on the roster, then they need to get on with that as well.

They need to resolve the Haynesworth situation, of course. He needs to go, certainly, and dispatching him will be as cathartic a move as Shanahan's ever made. But the lockout will end with Haynesworth still on the team, along with all the distractions he brings, and his mere presence will be a story for as long as it takes them, post-lockout, to get rid of him.

They need to keep working on Jim Haslett's 3-4 defense, because as we discussed here Monday the second year is a crucial one for the install of a 3-4. They need a nose tackle, and they need to know how realistic it is to get someone like Aubrayo Franklin in free agency -- a move that probably would help them more than a splashier play for someone like Nnamdi Asomugha, though they need to know about him, too. And as they've seemed to since the Art Monk days ... sheesh, they still need help at receiver.

The Redskins have a lot they need to do -- more than most teams, really, given where they are in this particular chapter of their history. Because of that, when I'm asked which team in this division I think will be hurt most by the lockout, my answer's easy. This won't be 1982 or 1987 for the Redskins. This year's work stoppage is a huge problem for them.
So this story's out there now, citing an NFL source saying Eagles senior staffers will be taking 25 percent pay cuts on or about June 11. And just a couple of days after we were praising the Eagles for being one of those seven teams that have pledged not to cut coaches' pay during a time in the lockout when neither they nor any other team has yet lost a penny of revenue.

Anyway, the Eagles say they'll be making no official comment on this report, and the people I've talked to down there say nothing's changed, nobody's pay has yet been cut and no final decisions on this have been made. The Eagles told their staff in February that they would not cut anyone's pay until mid-June, at which point they reserved the right to re-evaluate if the lockout was still continuing, which we now know it will be.

It's still curious that teams would make these kinds of decisions in June, by which point they still won't have lost any money as a result of the lockout. But some reasons for the timetable are starting to come into focus. For instance, lots of talk lately about the Eagles having to decide by mid-June whether they're going to have training camp at Lehigh University this year as they always do. Apparently, that's the time by which Lehigh needs an answer, so they can figure out if they can use their facilities for another purpose. That kind of stuff is probably starting to happen for teams -- figuring out how much of training camp is going to be lost, etc. -- which may be why you're starting to see talk about decisions on pay cuts, etc being made in the coming weeks.

For the record, I still think it's unconscionable for team owners, who came up with the lockout idea as a means of establishing bargaining leverage against the players, to punish employees who aren't players as part of the scheme. But it looks like almost all of them are going to do it anyway. Maybe they think they can make the players feel guilty, though I don't know why they'd expect another group of people to feel an emotion they apparently can't feel themselves.
According to Greg Bedard's Sunday notebook in the Boston Globe, only seven of the NFL's 32 teams have pledged not to cut coaches' salaries this offseason. Three of those seven -- the Cowboys, Eagles and Giants -- play in the NFC East. The other four are the Steelers, Seahawks, Raiders and Colts, so our division here clearly wins this particular battle of class and dignity.

We've touched on this topic a few times already, but it's utterly unconscionable for NFL teams to be cutting employees' pay, laying people off and imposing furloughs at this point in the lockout. Not one single dime of revenue has been lost or will be lost until games are canceled. If anything, teams are saving on overhead this time of year by not having to pay workout bonuses or open their facilities for offseason practices. (Seriously -- can you imagine how much teams normally spend just to feed their players between OTAs?)

Sure, you can argue that the coaches aren't "working" to the extent that they would be this time of year if they actually had players around to coach, game plans to install, etc. And you may even be able to convince yourself you're justified in cutting their salaries based on such an argument. But the coaches don't fit squarely into either side of this dispute. And as Larry Kennan, the director of the NFL Coaches Association, points out in Greg's note, they're still going to work and putting in hours. You'd think teams would make the no-pay-cut promise just to build good will, or to try to get the coaches on their side. Again, no one's lost any money yet. These teams don't have to cut anyone's salary if they don't want to.

Yet NFL owners, who have imposed the lockout as a means of pressuring the players into making bargaining concessions, are cutting nonplayer salaries all over the place simply because they feel they have cover, and saving a few bucks now might help if and when the lockout extends into the season. They should be ashamed of themselves, but shame appears to be in short supply right now. Good for the Cowboys, Eagles and Giants for not engaging in this unforgivable behavior.

Video: Lockout panic meter moves needle

May, 20, 2011
5/20/11
12:03
PM ET

"SportsCenter" has a panic meter for the chances the NFL will miss regular-season games because of the lockout. Considering the leverage of both sides, ESPN's Adam Schefter places the needle halfway to certainty.

Schefter explains why he believes there won't be a labor settlement until mid-July at the earliest and says it's "looking increasingly unlikely" training camps will open on time.
People on both sides of the NFL's labor dispute have good things to say about Giants owner John Mara. He's the rare non-polarizing figure in the lockout. Representatives from the players' side have told me multiple times that they felt respected by Mara (where they haven't always felt that way about other owners, such as Jerry Richardson or Jerry Jones), and that when he was in the room there was an atmosphere they believed could facilitate progress.

[+] EnlargeJohn Mara
AP Photo/J. Scott ApplewhiteIn a letter posted on the team's website, John Mara stated that the league's owners never intended to lock out the players.
Today, Mara posted a letter on Giants.com entitled "Time to Get Back to Football." It's a long letter, effectively re-stating the owners' oft-stated case that (a) the league's economic system is out of whack, (b) the players walked away from the bargaining table March 11 and (c) the path to peace is through collective bargaining and not litigation. There's a bunch of stuff about how the players want to get rid of the draft, the salary cap and other things, which probably isn't true but which the players made fair game by putting it in their antitrust suit. But basically, Mara is making the same old owners' point that they hate the fact that this dispute is in court rather than at the collective bargaining table.

"We locked out the players this year only after they walked away from negotiations and sued," Mara writes. "A strike or lockout is a last resort to force a resolution. Our end-game has always been a balanced collective bargaining agreement that helps us grow and improve the game."

This is the league's party line -- that they never intended to lock out the players and that it was the players who blew up negotiations when they decertified the union and filed suit March 11. But it's not honest. The players believe the NFL has been planning to lock them out for more than two years. They have evidence, which has been seen by judges in the TV money case that's still pending in U.S. District Court, that proves this.

There is little doubt that the league's strategy all along was a lockout, which is why the owners engaged in no serious talks until a couple of weeks before that March 11 deadline. They can act aghast and upset that the players walked away and sued, and that act plays well among a public that's inclined to disdain lawsuits, but they're not being 100 percent honest if they say the lockout was a "last resort" they imposed only after the decertification. The players decertified and sued because they knew they were about to be locked out and they believed that was the only way they could fend off the lockout.

But the owners and the league are smart to put Mara out front on this. He's universally liked and respected. So when he's the one spouting the party line, people might be inclined to think that's not what they're getting. Or that the NFL's party line has more merit than that of the players. But in the end, this is just more of the same rhetoric. And whether the owners like it or not, nothing's going to change on any of this until all of the court cases are won and lost and each side takes stock of how much leverage it has left.

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