With their season of disappointment over, the reality of their uncertain immediate future was setting in with most of the players packing up their belongings and heading out of the Winter Park locker room on Monday.
The Vikings' season-ending exit day holds extra uncertainty this year with more free agents than usual and no labor agreement in place.
"I think the overall feeling is just to prepare for a lockout," said linebacker Ben Leber, an alternate union rep for the Vikings. "I don't think we want to give anyone false hope thinking that we're going to get something done and then we do get locked out and now we've got players that are upset because they weren't mentally prepared for it. I think at this point, we're telling everybody to prepare for the lockout, prepare with what's going to happen with insurance and prepare with what's going to happen overall."
NFL owners opted out of the current collective bargaining agreement in 2008, setting the stage of a showdown between owners and players, or more specifically the NFL and the NFL Players Association.
"NFL players deserve to be paid well. Unfortunately, economic realities are forcing everyone to make tough choices and the NFL is no different," NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement released Monday. "These are not easy negotiations, but the outcome can be positive. If both sides give a little, everyone, including fans, will get a lot and the game will improve through innovation."
It's possible that an agreement will be reached before the scheduled start of free agency in March, but players aren't counting on it.
"I hear 95 percent chance of a lockout, but you never know until they have that big meeting with the board. I hope it doesn't happen, but the way it looks it's going to happen," said cornerback Chris Cook, who just completed his first season in the league.
Cook might be in a worse position than veterans who have had a few years at least to accumulate enough money to survive a potential lockout that would cut into their salaries. Being in the fifth year of a lucrative contract, Bryant McKinnie says "I'm good" when asked about plans for a lockout, but Leber doesn't believe it will come to any lost wages.
"Certainly I don't feel like I have to make any adjustments. I don't think this is something that, if we get locked out, is going to be for a too terribly long time. So, for me personally, no, I don't think I have to make any adjustments. Just trying to figure out insurance is the biggest thing," Leber said.
"I just don't think that we could really go into a season where we're actually missing games. That's not good for the players, that's not good for the owners, that's not good for the fans and the overall integrity of the game. So I don't think it will be something that's going to linger around until August."
The NFL reported Monday that 2010 was the biggest season for its television ratings, so both labor and management have to be careful not to turn away too many fans with a debate that could turn ugly in the public eye.
Players were satisfied with 59 percent of defined gross revenues that were being directed toward their salary and benefits, but the owners want to focus more of that money toward stadium debt and long-term development issues, taking an 18 percent credit off the top before defined gross revenues are figured.
Linebacker Chad Greenway, who is scheduled to be a free agent for the first time, is taking the approach of many players: Wait and see, and let those involved at the negotiating table handle their business for now.
"I don't really know what's going to happen. Obviously the landscape is a little bit different than every other year that we're used to," he said. "But the people that are going to handle that will handle that when it's time, when both sides are ready. Hopefully it's all positive."
Even Leber, who is involved with the union as an alternate rep, said he is going to "enjoy every day and not waste my time worrying about things that are happening in Washington with all the meetings."
At the core, the players are probably tiring of the rhetoric that comes from both sides. They've known about the labor issues for well over a year now and eventually they just have to prepare for the possibilities and hope that things get solved in a timely manner.
Ray Edwards, another player scheduled for free agency in March or whenever a deal is reached, is leaning on other interests.
"You have to do what you have to do. I'm already making moves, have a clothing line coming out in February," he said. "Like I said, if it's a strike, I'll just go boxing, hang out and do what I have to do."
Greenway, who just finished up his rookie contract, will rely on his savings if it comes to that point.
"I'm a farmer. We're frugal. I can go for a long time," he said, referring to his upbringing on his parents' farm in South Dakota. "I'll go back there if I have to, right? I've got a long-term option."
Vikings prepare for potential lockout
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