It has been an arduous path the NFL and its players have traveled these past four months. It has been at times ugly, unnerving, nasty and unsettling. Labor disputes always are, and this one has been no exception.
Both sides took hits and neither will walk away unscathed now that they have finally agreed to a new collective bargaining agreement.
That the NFL Players Association had to decertify, that the owners had to lock out the players, that there had to be a halt to league business was just silly when everyone was making money hand over fist.
The league was healthy, not broken. This dispute was about greed, plain and simple. It was not about putting the best product on the field or playing for the love of the game. It was about money, and how much everyone got.
Of course, the answer is that the players and the owners will continue to print money. The television contracts will only get larger. The fan interest will only grow. The stadiums will continue to be packed (most of them), and the merchandise will continue to fly off the shelves.
The NFL is a $9.3 billion business today. Who knows what it will be in 2020, but it will not be less. It will be more, potentially much more. So there had to be a way the two sides could come to an agreement. There had to be football in 2011. And ultimately, now, there will be.
As we prepare to finally discuss football, free agency, trades and training camps, it is worth a look at the winners and losers of the past four months.
• The owners and the players. Call it a tie. Each got a little something they wanted, and most important, each will get a lot of money. The owners now will keep 52 percent of the revenues, not the 47 percent from the previous collective bargaining agreement that so rankled them, but they also will have to operate with a $120 million salary cap, with an additional approximately $20 million for benefits, and have a guaranteed spend. That guaranteed spend was important to the players, and they got it.
In the end, the owners and players are splitting more than $9 billion. No one is losing.
• Roger Goodell and DeMaurice Smith. Sure, both men took hits, and the rhetoric, at times, was ugly. But the two men were able to keep their constituents together. Neither had massive factions develop, and Smith put together a sharp executive committee to negotiate.
Although they probably never will have the close, collegial relationship Paul Tagliabue and Gene Upshaw enjoyed, Goodell and Smith worked together to close the deal and keep the owners and players from losing games. That was the ultimate goal.
• The lawyers. Goodell was right when he kept hammering home the point that a new collective bargaining agreement would not be negotiated in the courts, it would be negotiated at the table. The various court cases created leverage for each side, but ultimately it only benefitted the lawyers, who earned hundreds of millions of dollars in legal fees.
• Veteran players. Life just got a little easier for them.
Minimum salaries will be increased, so that is a win. Also, the offseason got five weeks shorter, and easier. Coaches cannot make players report to team facilities until late April. There will be four fewer organized team activities, fewer full-contact practices in the preseason and regular season and a lower limit to the amount of practice time and contact.
These will be welcome changes, particularly to the older players. Coaches like practices in full pads. Players, not so much.
• The city of Indianapolis. All that was at stake for Indy was the projected $400 million economic boost from hosting Super Bowl XLVI on Feb. 5 at Lucas Oil Stadium. The league had asked the city to keep two weeks open, in the event they had to push back the date for the Super Bowl. Now, the city can welcome upward of 150,000 cash-carrying people who will descend upon Indianapolis, stay in its hotels, eat in its restaurants, drink in its bars and ride in its cabs.
• The plaintiffs in Brady v. the NFL, particularly Logan Mankins and Vincent Jackson. They got nothing for putting their name on the lawsuit filed against their employer, not money nor leverage nor freedom. To hear Mankins' agent tell it, they did not even get clear communication from the union's lawyers, particularly Jeff Kessler.
Mankins and Jackson have been portrayed as greedy, asking for a cash settlement for their efforts. Frank Bauer, Mankins' agent, told ESPN senior NFL analyst Chris Mortensen that Mankins has not made monetary demands.
"We haven't talked to Jeff Kessler," Bauer said. "There has been no communication, but it's irresponsible to report Logan has made monetary demands. Are we disappointed there has been no communication? Hugely. He trusted the union and Kessler to fight for Logan Mankins and the other players."
• The first-round draft picks. Oh, to be Sam Bradford, the last No. 1 overall pick to land the monster first contract. Last year, without ever having thrown a pass for the St. Louis Rams, Bradford got a six-year, $78 million contract with $50 million guaranteed. Cam Newton, this year's No. 1 overall pick, will make roughly half that in his first contract with the Carolina Panthers.
The first-round picks will not really cash in until their fifth year, when the teams will have the option to extend the first-rounder's contract at what the league called "agreed-upon tender amounts." That is not Bradford or Matthew Stafford money, not even close.
• As a result, the agents. Because the rookie contracts will be significantly less, so too will be the agents' haul. Also, the new deal will reduce agent fees for rookie contracts from a maximum of 3 percent to a maximum of 2 percent beginning in 2012.
So not only will the agents be taking a percentage of a smaller contract than they had in the past, that percentage will be even smaller. For agents, this is very, very bad news.
• The Hall of Fame game. It has been canceled. Good news for the Chicago Bears and St. Louis Rams, who will not have to rush to get ready for the Aug. 7 game, bad news for the city of Canton and the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Now all 32 teams will play four preseason games apiece, not five, as the Bears and Rams would have done had the game been played.
It is only fair, after an irregular offseason, that the teams open training camps at the same time and play the same number of games.
• The fans. Yes, there will be football in the fall, but the fans had to listen to all of this nonsense for more than four months.
The draft was not as fun because no trades involving players could happen. There were no practices or signings or depth charts, no look at how the draft picks will fit in.
In essence, the NFL has been the No Fun League.
Ashley Fox covers the NFL for ESPN.com.