- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 24, 2011

Just a few blocks from the NFL’s Park Avenue offices is the National Debt Clock, which keeps tabs on America’s runaway spending. Maybe, in light of the four-month lockout, the league should put up Pulled Hamstring Tote Board, because its players can’t possibly be as ready as they should be for the rigors ahead.

Granted, they gathered for a handful of days in the offseason - at this high school or in that cow pasture - to run through plays and throw the ball around. But left to their own devices, athletes have never been the sternest taskmasters. I don’t know about you, but I’m expecting a training camp filled with tweaks and strains and tears, perhaps an all-time record of them.

It’ll be interesting to see how teams and individuals are affected by the absence of minicamps and OTAs - heck, by the general lack of supervision. We all know how holdouts often perform when, after considerable time away, they rejoin the ranks. They’re rusty, more injury prone and rarely go on to have one of their best seasons. (See Darrelle Revis, the New York Jets’ all-world cornerback, last year.)

Well, we’re dealing with an entire league of players in this situation now (though it wasn’t a situation of their choosing). Let’s not kid ourselves; the first month of the season, in particular, could be ugly - paper-bag-over-your-head ugly.

But enough gloom and doom. All that’s needed, after all, are some signatures, and America’s favorite sport will be back. Just think: For the next decade, you won’t have to hear about antitrust suits and stadium credits, about billionaires haggling with millionaires. You can just concentrate on the good stuff: football.

Other observations about the new collective bargaining agreement and the new NFL world:

• I can’t wait to find out who’s going to give 36-year-old Tiki Barber a chance to make a comeback. I also can’t wait to find out if the former New York Giant still can play. He’s been gone, off in TV land, for five seasons. That’s quite the sabbatical, especially for a running back. FYI: Only two backs in league history have rushed for 500 or more yards at Barber’s age - Marcus Allen with the Kansas City Chiefs in 1996 (830) and John Riggins with the Washington Redskins in ‘85 (677). Of course, they didn’t have the fresh legs Tiki does.

• The 18-game season has been put on hold for the time being, which is great for the players’ self-preservation. But it doesn’t change the fact that we still have four miserable preseason games to suffer through.

• Ten years of labor peace is a boon to the fans. Has any sport ever had a longer CBA? (Answer: Not that I’m aware of.) And as long as revenue growth meets projections, the deal should be good for the players, too. Let’s face it, nobody is going to starve here. The old free agency rules, moreover, have been pretty much restored, granting freedom after three, four or five years, depending on where you were drafted. It’s win-win.

• Maybe the best thing about the CBA is that it reins in rookie salaries, which had gotten ridiculous. Sam Bradford, last year’s No. 1 overall pick, received a six-year, $78 million contract from the St. Louis Rams, $50 million of it guaranteed. The anticipated numbers for Cam Newton, this year’s No. 1, are four years, $22 million (or five and $36.3 million if the Carolina Panthers exercise their option for an additional year) - much saner.

Besides, the bust factor is high for quarterbacks; coaches and general managers will tell you it’s the hardest position to evaluate. So not only has the league been handing these huge deals to fresh-out-of-college QBs, it often has been wasting tens of millions on players who didn’t pan out (e.g. Ryan Leaf, Tim Couch, David Carr, Joey Harrington, Alex Smith, Vince Young, Matt Leinart and JaMarcus Russell). A rookie compensation system will lessen the risk for clubs and leave more money for veterans who have earned the right to be paid well.

• That said, how would you like to be a member of the NFL’s Class of 2011? The union has just agreed to cut your compensation considerably and, because it’s a 10-year labor deal, you’re going to have to play a decade before you can have a say - any say at all - in the CBA you’re playing under. Talk about disenfranchised.

By the way, just 49 of the 246 players from the 2001 draft were still around in 2010, according to my research. That’s how many of this year’s draftees figure to be active when the next CBA is negotiated in 2021 - one in five. It might be the single most bizarre aspect of the new agreement.

• Fewer offseason workouts and less strenuous training camps - no more two-a-days in pads - sound good on paper. But once the season starts, will the result be fewer injuries? That remains to be determined.

And finally …

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