- Associated Press - Saturday, March 12, 2011

Pro football hasn’t quite fallen into a great abyss with the players’ union decertifying, then the league imposing a lockout. The end of winter is nowhere near as critical a time for the NFL as the end of summer, when the real games begin.

That doesn’t mean Friday’s collapse of mediated talks is unimportant. The impasse could be tremendously disruptive, leaving hundreds of free agents in limbo, draft picks unsigned, team personnel on furloughs or worse, and coaches taking pay cuts.

Oh yeah, it also jeopardizes the 2011 season.

“I think eventually we’ll be back at the table,” New York Giants owner John Mara said, “but unfortunately now we will have to go through this process where we are in court.”

Specifically U.S. District Court in Minneapolis, where star quarterbacks Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees were among 10 players named as plaintiffs in an antitrust lawsuit filed against the league. The case could drag on for weeks, perhaps all the way up to the draft at the end of April.

The draft is the only piece of business the league still has scheduled; it was protected under the collective bargaining agreement that expired Friday at midnight. Individual workouts of college prospects will be held, but after the draft, no negotiations with players and their agents can be conducted. Nor can undrafted rookies be signed.

With the NFL at a dead stop, all those players whose contracts have run out won’t have any bidders. Every player will pay his own health insurance. Should they want to practice together, they are on their own to organize and pay for such workouts _ away from team facilities.

“It’s essential to get together, you have to keep the continuity,” Arizona Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald said. “The time at the facility, you won’t have that time, so you have to work on your craft when you can, be ready to go.”

Offseason workouts at team venues normally start late in March _ they’re dubbed “voluntary,” but coaches expect participation _ and they won’t be happening.

The owners’ meeting, set for March 20-24 in New Orleans, establishes rules changes and the course of league business, but how much will the labor woes affect that?

Plenty.

March and early April are when many sponsors and corporate partners renew their deals with the NFL. So although there won’t be any hits dealt out in practices for a while, the league’s marketing ledger could take some nasty blows.

The players and owners are far apart on how to split the $9 billion in revenue; implementation of an 18-game regular season, which the players adamantly oppose, citing safety issues; pension and health benefits. They were a bit closer on a rookie wage scale when talks fell apart.

With all that in mind, wouldn’t it be wise for both sides to get back together, whether with federal mediator George Cohen in Washington or elsewhere?

It could happen, but first the owners and players must get past the public low blows traded by the sides as the second extension of the labor pact approached the end.

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