In a league essentially governed by deadlines, the current pre-training camp down time doesn't include many key dates before clubs report for real football at the end of this month, but there is one day circled on the calendars of several teams.
And it's fast approaching.
Now under the two-week mark for the July 16 deadline to sign franchise players to long-term deals, two-thirds of the 21 veterans designated as franchise free agents in the spring still don't have multi-year contracts. In fact, six of the players haven't even signed their one-year tenders for 2012. And while the situations could change with one phone call - witness the four-year, $13 million contract to which Denver kicker Matt Prater agreed on Monday after a lull in negotiations - the pace of some of the discussions has been relatively glacial.
Granted, even a week is an eternity in the NFL, where little work is accomplished until a shotgun is pointed at everyone's temporal lobe, it seems. And cell phones mean that general managers and cap specialists can conduct negotiations from the ninth fairway or the beach, if they are so motivated. But there seems to be some intransigency from both sides of the bargaining table in talks regarding the six unsigned players, and even toward the eight guys signed for just one year.
"Oh, there have been talks, but no real progress," Brian Mackler, the agent for unsigned Detroit defensive end Cliff Avril, told The Sports Xchange.
Mackler and Lions team president Tom Lewand have spent weeks now suggesting that "the ball" is in the other side's court. It seems time for someone to put away a winning volley, but, around the league, it appears that everyone involved in the 14 franchise situations that don't include long-tem deals is into long rallies instead.
"We kind of keep going around and around," acknowledged the general manager from a team with an unsigned franchise player. "All that does is make you dizzy."
Indeed, the league's dog days have been transformed into fog and daze for some of the participants in the franchise discussions. Everyone seems to be aware that the clock is ticking, but widespread anxiety has yet to develop.
For the record, the six franchise players without contracts of any kind are quarterback Saints Drew Brees, tailbacks Ray Rice (Ravens) and Matt Forte (Bears), Chiefs wide receiver Dwayne Bowe, Jaguars kicker Josh Scobee and Avril. Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker, Redskins tight end Fred Davis, safeties Tyvon Branch (Raiders) and Dashon Goldson (49ers), Cowboys linebacker Anthony Spencer, kickers Phil Dawson (Browns) and Mike Nugent (Bengals) and Falcons cornerback Brent Grimes all signed tenders. The long-term contracts were awarded to Prater and fellow kicker Conner Barth (Bucs), Giants punter Steve Weatherford, Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson, Colts linebacker Robert Mathis, Cardinals defensive end Calais Campbell and Titans safety Michael Griffin.
"But I don't know if there's any kind of pattern," said agent Hadley Engelhard, who negotiated Mathis' contract. "It's more an individual thing."
It remains to be seen if an arbitrator's Tuesday morning ruling which clarified the status of Brees - agreeing that he has now been "franchised" two times in his career, albeit by two separate clubs - spurs any action on the quarterback's contract. But the Saints have for weeks been declaring that a resolution is close on a long-term contract and nothing has been consummated.
The late general manager George Young famously noted that very little in the way of contract negotiation was accomplished in the NFL before Bastille Day, the French equivalent of Independence Day, celebrated on July 14. Young was mostly speaking of draft choice contracts - and Bastille Day has essentially been rendered irrelevant by a rookie wage scale that has already prompted agreements with more than 85 percent of the rookies -- but it might have some remnant significance in terms of the franchise negotiations.
On Monday, CBSSports.com prognosticated about the potential for long-term deals for the remaining franchise players without multi-year contracts. The crystal ball at The Sports Xchange is a bit cloudier, so we'll defer on the predictions. Except to note, rather obviously, that considerable work is still required, and that history on the franchise player front offers a mixed bag.
Of the 14 franchise players from 2011, all but three ended up with long-term deals, but last year was somewhat an aberration because of the lockout and an extended deadline for long-term contracts. Notably, more of the franchise players who signed long-term contracts in 2011 are with new teams than the one who got only a one-year tender contract (2-1).
In 2010, only half of the six players designated as franchisee free agents received long-term contracts, and two of the guys who got one-year deals are out of the league right now. Nine of the 14 franchise free agents from 2009 signed tenders instead of long-term contracts. All nine are either with new teams or out of the league entirely. But only two of the long-term signees are still with their original clubs, and an equal number are currently unemployed.
"So it's kind of been a crapshoot lately," said one team executive from a club that doesn't have a franchise player this year, but had one a few seasons ago and ultimately released him before the long-term contract played out. "It's sort of a 'caveat emptor' deal for both sides."
True enough, the "buyer beware" admonition is one of which both sides must be wary. In terms of awareness, though, the July 16 deadline is a date that needs to be heeded, but less than two weeks away hasn't yet engendered much urgency.
Len Pasquarelli is a Senior NFL Writer for The Sports Xchange. He has covered the NFL for 33 years and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee. His NFL coverage earned recognition as the winner of the McCann Award for distinguished reporting in 2008.