NFL Handicapping Impact of Lockout
by Trevor Whenham - 5/13/2011
There is going to be an NFL season this year. It will likely even start when it is supposed to. I don’t base this on any inside knowledge — just time spent watching and analyzing what has been going on. I’m no labor lawyer, and I am so sick of this whole mess, but I just don’t see this thing dragging out as long as both sides are currently willing to say it will. I can’t find any of the major sportsbooks currently offering odds on if the season will start on time, but if they did I suspect that the yes would be solidly — and justifiably — favored. There are five good reasons I think so:
Involvement of courts leads to uncertainty — When you let the courts decide things you are at the mercy of one or three people depending on the court, and they are hard to predict and very difficult to influence. Neither side is ultimately going to be willing to risks hundreds of millions of dollars on the selection of a judge and the inherent biases that judge has. Both sides know that it would be better to accept a little less than your optimal situation than to risk winding up with much less.
Public sentiment is not on either side — a side in a labor situation can have the courage to hold out for a long time if they know that they have the strong support of the public in their dispute. The only thing that the public cares about here is that they get to watch football. Neither side is particularly sympathetic in this battle, and that makes it harder for them to take bold stances in the long term.
MLB and NHL have not painted rosy pictures of missed time — it took a solid decade for baseball to recover from their missed World Series, and you could easily argue that they have never fully captured the place in the nation’s psyche that they had before the situation. The NHL is in better shape financially than they were before their missed season, but the break hurt them in several markets in a way they have never recovered from, and moved them further to the side of the mainstream in the sports scene. The NFL is in a much more dominant position than either of those leagues was, but that also means that they have more to lose. I ultimately don’t believe the league will risk the favored position they have in the sports world over this. It doesn’t matter if they win a bigger piece of the pie if the pie shrinks in the meantime.
Sides ultimately aren’t that far apart — If you look at it in terms of amounts of money then it can seem significant — hundreds of millions of dollars — but ultimately the gaps between the sides are far from impossible to bridge. Both sides will have to make compromises — ones they really don’t want to make — but it certainly doesn’t seem like there isn’t a possible solution out there to be made. The differences between the sides are significant, but not fundamental — neither side is looking to change the rules of the game or totally alter the financial reality of the league.
If TV revenues aren’t available to owners then neither side is likely to be united — if the owners win the court battle over TV revenues then it will be much easier to keep their side unified because they will have cash to burn. If that doesn’t happen, though, then the need for cashflow for smaller teams is going to start to put cracks in their unity, and so will fears about what could possibly be forced upon them by the courts. The players are already showing some cracks, and that will only get worse as the differences between players with millions in the bank and those with empty cupboards become more pressing. Players that aren’t stars are going to be less and less willing to take a stand to fix the system when missing a year could spell the end of their already short NFL careers. In order for this to last through a season — or a big part of it — then at least one side has to have unquestioned and rock-solid unity. That won’t happen.
While I am ultimately not particularly concerned about the prospect of not having the NFL in the fall, I can’t help but think about the impacts that this is inevitably going to have on handicapping the season next year regardless of when it is remedied. There are several impacts I see, but here are three of the more interesting ones:
Lack of prep time — Playing in the NFL has turned into a full-time job these days. Playbooks are so complicated that it takes all spring and summer to get ready for the start of training camps, and even then new players often aren’t entirely ready for the start of the new season. With all of that practice time lost, and with coaches incapable of communicating playbooks and strategies with their players, teams just aren’t going to be nearly as ready as they have been in the past. That impact will be especially strong on teams with new coaches and/or coordinators, and on rookies and free agents joining a team.
Teams with QB uncertainty right now — Typically by this point of the year most of the teams that have QB questions — and there are a lot of them right now — will have done something about it. That could mean that they have traded for a veteran, drafted a new option, or chosen to stick with what they have and try to make it work. No matter what, though, we can start to draw conclusions about how they might perform in the key position based on who they have and the prep time they have to work with their new team. Right now there are a handful of teams that don’t have a viable option on their roster. More significantly, at least a few — Arizona and Minnesota, for example — seem to be banking on the acquisition of established players that they are unable to talk to, and which they can’t be sure they are going to be able to get. QB play is always a challenge to deal with for NFL handicappers, but next year could offer a whole new level of frustration on that front.
Depth issues — Undrafted free agents play a surprisingly significant role for most teams, and a very big one for a few squads each year. Free agency lets high-profile players get paid, but it also allows teams to add role players and journeymen that they need to fill things out. Teams have been unable to add undrafted players or free agents, so holes are gaping for some teams, and even when they can eventually fill them those players won’t be as effective as they could be. Teams that have more intact rosters are going to be in a good position here.
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