The brilliance of the National Football League is the fact that they have figured out a way to take a football season that would normally run from August through February, and they have created a machine that keeps the league as a whole on the front burner for the majority of the year. What once was considered a virtual dead zone has now become just another part of the season thanks to the marketing geniuses in the league offices.
Football season used to start with training camp, and finish up with the Super Bowl. For decades, that was the process, and during the off season, when teams were scouting for the draft, or looking at their options in free agency, it got some press, but was barely registered as a high priority in the mainstream media.
That all changed with the advent of cable sports networks, and then the league itself getting into the broadcast business.
Today, fans are locked to their televisions monitoring the NFL Combine in Indianapolis, speculating about how their team will maneuver in the draft. Armchair scouting analysis has become a season of its own, and mock drafts from the alphabet networks down to those cranked out by some teenager in mom's basement get equal analysis from the general public.
Free agent speculation begins before the season even ends as lists are generated showing the players who are expected to be unrestricted and restricted free agents. Virtual general managers start planning on which players they will expect their team to target, and they start formulating their valuation for contracts and how it will impact the salary cap.
Before and after the draft occurs, the faux personnel guys keep track of these available free agents, and make their targeting packages based on what happens with the April draft.
The April draft has become a prime time television event. What once spanned dozens of rounds has been refined to 7 rounds, and what once took 2 days now covers a long weekend starting on Thursday. It has become a spectacle and a ratings grabber for the league's private network.
Once we get past the pipeline of draft and free agency, fans start to focus on rookie minicamps. Many teams have now made these at least partially open to the public so fans can get a good look at the shiny new talent the team has brought in to compete. These underwear practices are over-analyzed and widely broadcast through blogs and various websites, and speculation about who will be on the starting lineup on opening day begins 5 months before the actual season starts.
Who ever heard of Organized Team Activities prior to the past few years? Now, OTA is part of the NFL vernacular, and fans want to know every possible detail happening in these informal practices.
Voluntary workouts bring additional speculation as fans pan those players who opt out to do their training offsite, or shred those players who decide to sit out voluntary workouts all together because of contract disputes. Those players are immediately spun off as greedy villains, and trade speculation or outright cuts become the topic of the day.
Once the OTAs and voluntary workouts have concluded, speculation about free agency once again ramps up as fans try to find the best way to pick clean any remnants who have been overlooked so far during the process.
What was once a dead zone spanning months is now down to a window of about 3 weeks where fans have nothing to keep them amused. This is the dark period leading up to training camp. Then training camp starts, and the flood of information begins again.
So, we now face the prospect of having a good portion of the off season stripped away because the owners and players have been unable to come up with a labor agreement both sides can embrace, and as is usually the case in these situations,
Free agency, minicamps, organized team activities, and possibly even training camp, the preseason, and the regular season could be impacted by the current impasse. All we have to look forward to is the NFL Combine, which is already happening, and then the draft. Then what?
As fans, we are being left to our own devices to fill the void.
What do you plan on doing?
Personally, I think I'll go Zen and take a few extra motorcycle rides to get out in the breeze.
I might even think about spending some time with my family, although they may think I've been diagnosed with some terrible illness that has forced me to suddenly be more attentive because time is short.
I could spend that free time working on my pretty sloppy golf game, or painting the house, or landscaping the yard, or knocking out that honey do list.
The two sides need to come together and hammer out an agreement. All this focus on other stuff is going to be a real drag.