The good news is that the NFL lockout is finally, mercifully, over.
The bad news is that we are headed toward the worst season -- or, at a minimum, the worst September -- of on-field NFL action (excluding the replacement players of 1987, of course) most people have ever seen.
A drop-off in quality is an unfortunate byproduct of the lockout, but it is also inevitable because of the relative lack of practice time teams have this year as compared to others.
In previous campaigns, teams had three separate and distinct opportunities to install their offensive and defensive packages. This year, that's just not feasible.
Offseason learning usually starts with the first minicamp after the draft in late April or early May. That's when the rookies and new players get their first look at the playbook and teams typically install most of their base offenses and defenses. This is especially important for teams with new head coaches or new offensive or defensive coordinators, because the material they are presenting during those initial five practices is new to everybody, even the returning veterans.
Teams also didn't have the benefit of OTAs (organized team activities), which usually take place a couple of weeks after those post-draft minicamps. It's pretty much standard protocol that during that time teams re-install the basic offensive and defensive plays from the minicamp during the first couple of practices and then start to work on some of the variations of those base packages.
In normal years, training camp is the third and final opportunity to go over all of the installation.
That repetition and the time spent painstakingly going over all the details of the core runs, pass protections, blitzes and coverages is what makes them professionals and able to perform at such a high level. That inordinate amount of meeting time is a big reason there are so few mistakes in the NFL as compared to the college game.
Unfortunately, that simply won't be possible this year. Not only are teams losing the benefits of a full offseason, but they are also limited in the amount of time they are allowed to spend on the field during training camp. Two-a-day practices are a thing of the past, as players, per the new CBA, will be allowed on the field for a total of 3½ hours per day, and one of the two practices can not include any padding whatsoever, including helmets.
Look for teams to try to scale down their playbooks to make sure their players can efficiently run a handful of plays instead of trying to implement the full scope of a given offense or defense and taking a chance that there could be a lot of mistakes. Even so, not having the repetition of going over the basics and installation three separate times throughout a full offseason will absolutely have an impact on the on-field product, especially for those teams that have new coaches, coordinators and quarterbacks.
Whether the mistakes and sloppy play will be noticeable to the casual observer or the untrained eye remains to be seen, but the issues certainly will be there. It probably will be most notable when it comes time to protect the quarterback. Pass protection is a complicated process that involves the linemen, running back, quarterback and receivers all being on the same page and working in concert. If just one of those players makes a mental error on a given pass attempt, it could spell doom for the play and the quarterback.
Because of this lack of prep time, most league observers expect teams to be even more blitz-happy on defense in September than they already are. There is no mercy in the NFL and weaknesses are attacked vigorously, as they should be.
That's yet another reason that teams that took quarterbacks high in the draft -- such as the Panthers, Titans, Vikings, Jaguars, Bengals and 49ers -- will have to think long and hard before playing their rookie QBs in the opening month. The last thing any of them need is for their quarterback to get hit so much he gets shell-shocked and loses his confidence.
So be excited, and rightfully so, that football is back. Just don't expect September football to look exactly like the NFL you have come to know and love.
From the inbox
Q: I'm a sports medicine doctor in the UK and have a question about concussion and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. I'm writing a paper looking at ways to reduce concussion rates and potentially the risks of developing this awful condition. I've thought about banning helmet hits in training, and potentially sticking to a two-point stance to allow more blocking with arms and torso within a game situation. Also, would banning the wearing of helmets lead to improved technique in tackling, less head-to-head contact and actually less head injuries as with rugby over here? What would you do?
Gurjeet in the UK
A: Well, they are already looking into less contact during practices and training camp, and I think that could help the situation. The more contact and hits to the head, the more likely players are to get concussions or begin to develop CTE. The less contact the better. Seems pretty simple. I don't like the two-point stance idea that I have heard discussed, because it is a game of leverage and each player would still be looking to get lower than his opponent, so I would envision very lowly crouched players if two-point stances were mandated. That wouldn't help and, in fact, could make the situation worse. There is no question that helmets make players more comfortable using their head and face when making a tackle than they are in other sports like rugby. On the flip side, it is my understanding that there are a lot more shoulder injuries in rugby. It seems like that would be preferable to head injuries, but I highly doubt banning helmets would ever happen.
Q: Without the CBA, why was this year's draft valid?
Jim in Dickinson, N.D.
A: The last event that was covered under the previous CBA the owners opted out of was the 2011 draft. That's why it was valid, and that is why the NFL still held it, even though there was a lockout. There is still a debate, however, about whether the league will have a supplemental draft for a player such as Terrelle Pryor and whether he qualifies for the somewhat ambiguous "extenuating circumstances" situation it looks for in terms of supplemental draft eligibility.
Q: I read somewhere that the Cardinals pay their undrafted rookie free agents better than most teams do. I was wondering if you knew how much an undrafted rookie makes his first season?
Lee in Chandler, Ariz.
A: Undrafted rookies always make a minimum salary for their first three years, so the only difference between any of them in terms of compensation is their signing bonuses. The signing bonuses for undrafted rookies can typically range from nothing all the way up to $25,000, but they most often are between $2,500-$10,000. However, one of the new rules in this new CBA -- which I don't really understand, and definitely don't agree with -- is that teams are limited to only doling out $75,000 total for these signing bonuses. Especially this year, with teams allowed to bring in 90 players for training camp, that dollar amount is very limiting.
Ross Tucker, who played on the offensive line for five teams in a seven-year NFL career, writes regularly for ESPN.com.