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The great unknown offseason

The immediate offseason and futures for NFL players and coaches remain very much up in the air with the league on the verge of its first work stoppage in more than two decades.

Like so many other aspects of the NFL, Bill Belichickhas been through it before, while his players lack the experience of their Hall of Fame leader.

In this case, the it in question is a potential work stoppage that could hit the NFL as early as March 4 as the current collective bargaining agreement expires and the two sides – the players' union and the league's 32 owners – seemingly remain far apart in negotiations on a new CBA.

Caught in the middle of the big-picture, big-business negotiations between the owners and the players' union are the everyday players and coaches, guys who, in New England, are focused mostly on the disappointing end of the 2010 season with the playoff loss to the Jets and how the team can reach greater heights moving forward.

But in the way of that business-as-usual goal, is, well, business. Without a new CBA, the most likely scenario come early March is that the owners will lock the players out. That means no offseason workouts, as players quite literally will be locked out of team facilities. No free agent signings of new players, or re-signing of existing players.

If the work stoppage extends into May and beyond, no passing camps, rookie camps, rookie draft pick or free agent signings, and none of the other regular landmarks on the NFL's offseason calendar. Aside from the 2011 Scouting Combine in the last week of February, and the NFL Draft in the last week of April, the league's offseason calendar is very much wide open at this point.

"It's different, but it's similar to two other situations that I was involved in: '82 and '87," Belichick recalled of strike seasons he endured as an assistant with the Giants. "It's the same type of thing. I'd say if you're in the business long enough, that's part of it.

"Eventually, I'm sure it will get resolved, in time – whenever that is – at some point. In the meantime, you do what you can do. Those things are all out of my control as a coach. I don't have anything to do with any of that. So, whenever it's resolved, it's resolved. In the meantime, we'll do the best that we can with the opportunities or the information that we have."

At whatever point a new CBA is agreed upon, it could include changes that will affect free agency, the salary cap, rookie contracts, and a myriad of other issues that key football decision makers like Belichick will have to work with rather quickly.

"When those things become defined, then we'll deal with those definitions, whatever they happen to be," Belichick said as he sent his team out into the great unknown of the offseason.

"We'll know more at the beginning of March than we know right now, today, as we sit here. It might not be much more. It might be a lot more, but we'll know more. So, at least until that point, I think it's still some degree of speculation. Maybe there will be some resolution even in terms of the interim, if you will, period between March and whenever actually football season really starts – if that's the way it goes – between the players and the owners as to how things are going to be handled between March and the start of the season. Maybe there won't; I don't know. We'll see how it goes."

That means in many ways the players are left on their own this offseason. They departed Foxborough in mid-January with no schedules, no workouts, no team-issued plans.

Big-bodied youngsters like Kyle Lovewill have to manage their own workouts, their own diets as they look to avoid packing on too many unwanted pounds. Skilled players, guys who usually spend the offseason trying to improve on working in perfect timing as a unit will have to do so under their own direction.

"I think in the meantime, the nucleus guys -- the receivers, all the skill guys -- are going to try and get together at some point and start getting some stuff together," WR Deion Branchexplained. "If there's no league then we will have to take that initiative upon ourselves."

When Patriots players cleaned out their Gillette lockers Jan. 17, there didn't seem to be a lot of immediate hope that a work stoppage could be avoided, only that football would be a part of their future at some point.

"The only thing we can go off of right now is that we're not close," Branch said of the negotiations. "But I'm optimistic that a deal can get done. I'm optimistic that there will be football next year. When? I don't know. I can't say. But I will and I do believe that at some point next year you all will be in the locker room again."

Leading up to the Super Bowl in Dallas, after seemingly limited dialogue and negotiations other than media served rhetoric in previous months, the two sides issued a joint press release.

"NFL Players Association Executive Director DeMaurice Smithand Commissioner Roger Goodellmet [Jan. 31] in New York to discuss a range of issues related to a new Collective Bargaining Agreement. As part of a process to intensify negotiations, they agreed to hold a formal bargaining session with both negotiating teams on [Feb. 5] in the Dallas area. They also agreed to a series of meetings over the next few weeks, both formal bargaining sessions and smaller group meetings, in an effort to reach a new agreement by early March."

Since then, however, talks have broken down and no new bargaining sessions are in sight. That leaves the players and coaches in limbo.

"It's not a good situation for the players," LB Rob Ninkovichsaid, talking more of day to day football than economics. "I want to play. I want to be here in the offseason. I want to be working out and getting ready for next year. Whatever they decide to do… we'll just have to wait and see."

In the end the players' job, for now, is about staying positive and staying in shape.

"I don't see this as the end of football," LB Tully Banta-Cainsaid. "It's going to have to be worked out somehow."

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