- The Washington Times - Monday, July 25, 2011

After all of the angst and frustration, after nearly 20 weeks of lockout limbo, after watching the two sides bicker, posture and spin, a resolution has been reached and this is what NFL fans lost in the process: the Hall of Fame Game, a meaningless-but-glorified scrimmage.

But the threat of losing everything caused quite a scare, leaving fans to wonder how they’d survive without football.

It wasn’t just the fear of losing games, per se, as much as everything that comes with NFL action. Taking away the steak is one thing, but when you take away the soup, salad, bread, potatoes, vegetables, drink and dessert, too, that’s downright inhumane.

NFL fans love the games, no doubt, arguably more than any other pro sport. However, it’s the tailgating, in-home gatherings, sports bar outings, fantasy leagues, suicide pools, day-after analysis, midweek buildup and weekend anticipation that make the NFL a meal.

The thought of losing preseason games gave impetus to the owners, who collectively stood to lose about $200 million in revenue per week. But preseason games are the least-favorite item on the menu for most fans, especially ticket buyers, forced to pay four-star prices for fast-food fare. Few fans would mind dumping the entire preseason if they didn’t fear an inferior product when their teams hit the field for Week 1.

Exhibitions are the equivalent of empty calories, full of bloated rosters, vanilla concepts and significant playing time for men who’ll never play a snap in a real NFL game. The compressed time frame this year - no organized team workouts, no minicamps, a frenzied period for signing free agents and constructing rosters - will turn the preseason into junk food like never before. Whereas veteran players with secure positions usually sit out the final exhibition game, they might not play until then in some cases this year.

While the games leading to Opening Kickoff 2011 will be uglier and more ragged than any we’ve ever seen, the route from training camp to regular season will be the most fascinating. And the most dizzying, as roughly 25 percent of the league’s 1,900 players are unrestricted free agents.

MLB’s “Hot Stove League” is going to look like a deep freezer compared to the NFL over the next few weeks.

Before any exciting, new faces are added to rosters, teams must make decisions on their own free agents. Since newcomers will have a shorter length of time to acclimate themselves, teams might be inclined to re-sign players they’d otherwise let go. The Washington Redskins - whose list of free agents includes wideout Santana Moss, cornerback Carlos Rogers, quarterback Rex Grossman and tackle Jammal Brown - might be better off retaining their known quantities, especially since the team isn’t expected to contend either way.

Signing wideout Santonio Holmes and/or cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha would be typical, high-profile moves under Daniel Snyder’s ownership. It’s no surprise that the Redskins are expected to be among the most aggressive teams in going after free agents. But fans have seen that movie before and never liked the ending.

Other, less-sexy names are better targets for the Redskins, who have pressing needs on both interior lines. A top wide receiver does little good without a quarterback who can pass or remain upright; a shutdown corner is of little use without a pass rush or competent mates on defense. That’s why the prospect of money to spend on a decent class of free agents, in a wide-open market, entices Redskins fans a lot less than other teams’ followers.

But that doesn’t detract from the overall sense of excitement and anticipation, especially considering reports that the Redskins are eyeing players such as Green Bay defensive end Cullen Jenkins, Baltimore guard/tackle Marshal Yanda, San Francisco nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin and other hand-on-the ground players. They wouldn’t produce the same buzz as a Holmes or Asomugha, but there’s been enough of that the past dozen years with scant results.

Whether you root for the Redskins, a similar team or one with legitimate hopes this season, you can celebrate the lockout’s end. Now it’s time to prepare for the NFL’s tasty side dishes.

Re-familiarize yourself with the schedule and circle key dates. Monitor player movement and prepare for your fantasy draft. Start reminding old players and recruiting new members for your suicide pool (the one I’m in pays more than $6,000). Get your juices flowing by reading and watching all the coverage you can leading up to Week 1.

The NFL is back.

Bon appetit.

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