Uncertainty reigns

OWINGS MILLS – As somber as the Baltimore Ravens were following their devastating playoff loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, the mood in the locker room Monday was even darker in some ways. "Very emotional, very disappointing," outside linebacker Jarret Johnson said while cleaning out his locker. "This is the worst day of the year. For everybody, it's a pretty bad day."

Those emotions could soon give way to other feelings: frustration, confusion and distress caused by a looming lockout as NFL owners and the NFL Players Association continue to haggle over a new collective bargaining agreement with no compromise in sight.

A rocky offseason is about to unfold with the owners expected to execute a lockout of the players on March 4, barring an unforeseen last-minute resolution. "I think there's uncertainty that a lot of us don't know about," middle linebacker Ray Lewis said. "From the owners, players, we just don't know. You don't know what to expect, what to do. All you can do is prepare properly and be ready for whatever happens." The NFLPA leadership are expecting the worst, citing the presence of Bob Batterman as a key advisor to the owners and his background as the architect of a lockout in the NHL.

"We want to get a deal done prior to the expiration of the CBA, that's been our goal ever since management opted out of the deal," NFLPA president Kevin Mawae said Wednesday during a conference call. "We asked to negotiate right away and presented the option to lock into a conference room or hotel room. That wasn't met with much optimism. "We want to get a deal done so there's no work stoppage, but it takes two sides to bargain. We're going to continue to offer up solutions. We wanted a deal done yesterday. We want one done today and we want one done tomorrow." The owners want to cut salaries by roughly $1 billion and they want to expand the regular season to an 18-game schedule. The players are opposed to givebacks on salaries and don't want to play extra regular-season games because of concerns about increased injuries. There hasn't been a major negotiation session since Nov. 22.

The last work stoppage in the NFL was in 1987 when there were so-called "scab games" involving replacement players. "I think everybody is going to be measured by whether or not we have an agreement and how soon we have an agreement," said New York Jets safety and player representative Jim Leonhard, a former Ravens player. Should a lockout transpire, there wouldn't be any free agency signing period or offseason minicamps or formal workouts until a new collective bargaining agreement is hammered out. The NFL draft will still be conducted April 28 to April 30 regardless of whether the labor situation remains unresolved. The players have already had to obtain new medical insurance for the offseason because their insurance, including family coverage, will be halted on March.

The Ravens' players appear to be well-informed about the issues by their player representatives: cornerback Chris Carr, tight end Todd Heap and wide receiver Derrick Mason. Plus, cornerback Domonique Foxworth is a member of the NFLPA executive committee and is part of the formal negotiating sessions with the league. "We talked about it a lot, we knew it was coming," Johnson said. "We know what both sides are talking about. They're cutting our insurance off. There's a lot of issues we have to deal with. Hopefully, they can get it fixed There's too much at stake not to."

Ravens coach John Harbaugh often characterizes himself as an eternal optimist. He's already making contingency plans on an abbreviated or canceled offseason, but expects a full regular-season schedule next fall. "I think there are going to be games played, I think the whole season, 16 games, will be played," Harbaugh said. "I believe that. I think the players want to play, and I think the owners want to have football, and I know the coaches sitting right there in the middle want to coach. I can tell you that.

"What are we going to do? We want to coach ball. So, I wouldn't think anything else. I believe that they'll come to an agreement. I think that cooler heads will prevail. I think they both understand what's at stake. And I'm just going to believe that's going to get done."

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