It's definitely not going to be easy, or simple. There are some new rules, some different procedures, to be learned. And even in the aspects of the business of NFL football that haven't changed, there figures to be more than just a bit of consternation because of the time frame. The league's owners ratified the deal last Thursday, and the players followed suit today. Players can begin returning to team facilities Tuesday, and for the Steelers, their players will report to training camp on Thursday.
It's one thing to hit the ground running. This will be more like hitting the ground at 100 miles per hour. But still, this is a happy time throughout the National Football League.
"I am very relieved," said Steelers President Art Rooney II. "It was a long process and a lot of hard work, and I was concerned that we could miss games. That was something I didn't want to see, and I knew our fans would have been upset with that, and so I am relieved that we got it done in time that allows us to have a training camp and a full season."
The settlement allows the NFL to have complete training camps, and a complete preseason – with the lone exception being the Hall of Fame game – and of course the regular season will go on as scheduled. What's missing in all of this is time for the offseason, and ever since 1993 when the NFL first went to the system of free agency tied to a salary cap, the offseason has been a four-month period of often frenzied activity.
All of that activity now will be compressed from a number of months into a matter of days.
"We are in uncharted territory," said Rooney. "We never had to start up a league year like this, so it will be different. But every team is in the same boat. In terms of once we get to September, I know Coach (Mike) Tomlin feels like we will be prepared to play, and that's our mind-set, to be prepared to play when the season kicks off."
In addition to teams opening their doors to players on Tuesday, teams also may begin signing their 2011 draft picks and undrafted rookie free agents at 10 a.m. That also is the time when teams can begin making trades and begin conversations with veteran free agents from all teams. However, none of those players can sign until Friday at 6 p.m. Teams will not have a window to negotiate exclusively with their own free agents.
However, when veteran free agents do sign with teams, they will not be able to participate in any practice, weight training or workouts until the beginning of the league year, which is expected to come on Thursday, Aug. 4, and for the Steelers that date is one week after the opening of their training camp. The players, however, will be required to attend classroom sessions and non-physical activity once the contracts are signed. Rookies, both drafted and undrafted, will be allowed to participate fully once their contracts are signed.
"(On Tuesday) we can start to negotiate with all players and we can start to sign our players," said Rooney. "There are a few different transition rules as to when you can start to negotiate and when you can start to sign. So it gets phased in. Actually the unrestricted free agents cannot report until Friday. Again, one of the unusual things about this training camp is once we get to Latrobe on Thursday we probably will not have the full complement of players who will eventually be in camp. As you know, we are permitted this year to have 90 players come to camp, but we are not expecting all 90 to be there when we open."
There are a lot of areas covered by the new CBA that still are a bit difficult to understand, and one of those has to do with the application of the salary cap in 2011. According to published reports, the 2011 cap is to be set at a little bit more than $120 million per team, which is a lower number than it was even in 2009, the final season under the old Collective Bargaining Agreement.
But the NFLPA didn't negotiate a deal that would punish high-salaried veteran players, and so there is a mechanism in place to help teams deal with that. Teams will have roughly $3.5 million in what would otherwise be considered performance-based pay available to fund veteran player salaries. Teams could also "borrow" $3 million from a future salary cap that could be paid back.
How the Steelers stand in terms of the 2011 cap and what they plan to do about it are issues the team will be mulling in the next few days, but at this time it seems unlikely the Steelers will be forced into cutting high-priced veteran talent simply in order to get under the $120-plus million cap for the upcoming season.
"Well it's like other years," said Rooney. "Being prepared to get under the cap is something we've been through before. Again the challenge this time around is to handle that business in such a short period of time. Our guys are right now trying to work on how we will get there and trying to piece together the roster. We've done this before. It's not that different, other than doing it in such a compressed time frame."
Here are some of the other topics Rooney addressed during the Monday news conference:
Regarding the new CBA in terms of player fines and suspensions:
"It's my understanding that with regard to the personal conduct policy there are no changes. My expectation is that the commissioner's office will handle fines and discipline in a similar fashion to how things have been handled the past few years. Again, having said that, I know the Commissioner has been focused on other things in recent months, so I have to say that he may want to review some things and do things differently. We really haven't talked about that in the last few weeks, but again, my understanding is that there is no change in the way the personal conduct policy will be handled or the way discipline is handled."
Whether the new practice rules – no two-a-days during training camp and limited practice in pads during the regular season – will affect the quality of the play on the field:
"It's something that I must say I had mixed feelings about. I think that it was a negotiation. There were things that both sides had to give on, and it's probably fair to say that if it were up to us we would have had a little different approach to some of the practice rules. But having said that, I think there are changes here that we will be able to live with, and we will adjust. I think the game will be fine."