NFL

Young clubs, new coaches lockout losers

What are the rules during the lockout?
What are the rules during the lockout?
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Brian Billick

Brian Billick served as head coach of the Baltimore Ravens from 1999-2007, winning Super Bowl XXXV. He has also authored books, including More Than A Game: The Glorious Present and Uncertain Future of the NFL. Follow him on Twitter.

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Unless U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson decides to issue a preliminary injunction on the lockout, NFL teams and players are deemed two separate entities. An NFL player will receive no compensation or health insurance from his club. “At your own risk” is an apt offseason slogan for the 2011 season that may or may not be. As long as the season rests in the hands of the lawyers and judges, nothing will get done.

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But I’m an optimist. I never called a play on third-and-long I didn’t like. There will be football this season; but because of the lockout, certain franchises will suffer more than others. Because coaches are denied contact with their players (or agents), veteran teams with solidified lineups are best equipped to hit the ground jogging. As Tony Gonzalez, future Hall of Fame tight end from the Atlanta Falcons, said this week on NFL Network’s “Total Access”, “I know how to run a 10-yard out. I don’t need a lot of practice to get ready for the season.”

Do you think the lockout is going to affect the Packers as much as the 49ers? Absolutely not! The Packers could get their team together today and in 10 days be able to execute most of their playbook. The players and coaches are familiar with each other and they’ve been doing it together for years. In fact, Super Bowl-winning Coach Mike McCarthy flat out said that a diminished offseason would be an advantage for his club. Jim Harbaugh, the new coach of the San Francisco 49ers, comes in with an entirely new staff and appears to be in the best position of any rookie head coach to take his team from the doldrums to delectation. The 49ers finished the 2010 season at 6-10, just one game behind the division-leading Seattle Seahawks in the sorry NFC West.

San Francisco has a solid young offensive line, a passable if not great defense led by Patrick Willis, one of the best receiving tight ends in the league and the rock-steady Frank Gore. The 49ers’ biggest question obviously remains under center. Instead of taking this offseason to work with his quarterbacks to determine if either Alex or Troy Smith can be an NFL QB, Harbaugh can only sit and wait. He can watch tape from last year, but he would be watching his players execute someone else’s playbook. So where does this leave Harbaugh?

He and the 49ers are hit with a double whammy of misfortune because it is a weak, at best, quarterback class in this year’s draft. Harbaugh declared early that he would seriously consider Alex Smith for his starting quarterback, even though the first overall pick in 2005 has been, even by the most generous of evaluations, a bust.

The problem is with a weak quarterback draft class and an uncertain free agency picture, this may be the only option left to him. I would love to step out into my garage, get into my Lamborghini and drive to the post office. The problem is I have a Ford F-150. If I am going anywhere it is going to have to be in that.

Third-year coach Jim Schwartz is in a similar situation in Detroit. He’s on the cusp of delivering a successful season to a city in desperate need of morale. He has skilled players in skill positions. He finished the 2010 season winning four of the Lions’ last five; now he’s sitting on his hands. He’ll stay busy. He’ll find a reason to spend an ungodly amount of hours working towards the cause. Unfortunately, he’s in the League Limbo.

This is a season full of what ifs. This is contingent on that. A law degree or a ton a free time would go a long way in totally understanding this lockout situation. But one thing is for certain – there will be a draft; and there will be rookies. Under normal conditions, a rookie coming into the NFL spends most of his first season in a haze. This is as good as fact.

He has to learn everything – and quickly. I’m not talking about coverage’s, motions, stunts, blitzes, formations, etc. I’m talking about learning to function as an adult for the first time. Where is the airport? When do I have this meeting? Where am I going to live? What should I wear? Who do I talk to when I’m hurt? Who can I trust? How can I get tickets for my family members? Where do I park? Where is the bathroom? When do I have to leave my house to avoid traffic and get to practice on time?

These are all questions rookies will have to consider. And once the season begins, all these rookies are assuredly going to be asked the following question by some irate and over-caffeinated coach: “Didn’t you read the $*%@ing playbook? Let me preface this by saying that for some players, digesting a team’s playbook is like reading Joyce’s Ulysses. It’s long; it’s dense; it’s confusing; it’s in a language that appears to be something no one should understand.

Hypothetically, say that first-year head coach Ron Rivera is anxiously holding the Panthers’ playbook in his hands. His team will likely choose the first player in the 2011 draft (if they don’t trade back). There’s a chance that player will be a quarterback. How is he supposed to get this playbook in that player’s hands if a lockout is still in place? What about the 2010 rookies?

GAME CHANGERS

Meet the key players behind the NFL's labor dispute.

Going into their second year, players can start to actually grasp what they need to do on the football field. This offseason is supposed to be spent with their position coaches, strength coaches, and trainers to fine tune and improve their overall game. Coming out of college they were working out to improve their performance at the NFL Scouting Combine.

Now they work out to improve their performance on the field. It’s during this second year that they become consistent and accountable contributors to their teams. How long players and coaches and front offices will be left floating in space remains to be seen. Jobs, careers and livelihoods are on the line.

The one concern I have about this being settled is motivation and human nature. Both the players and the owners are motivated to get back to work.

Human nature says both sides want to win. Neither is the problem. The problem is the longer we go, the more the lawyers make. Motivation and human nature! Both are working against the other when it comes to this being settled by the lawyers.

For more analysis, follow Billick on Twitter at @coachbillick.

Tagged: 49ers, Alex Smith

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