Notebook: Labor worries continue

The league is set to put on its biggest game of the year, but it could be the last one in some time if the doomsayers are correct. Plus, in a Super Bowl-intensive notebook, just how similar are the Packers and Steelers defenses (there are a couple of differences for sure) and what's going in with Aaron Rodgers' helmet?

The countdown has officially begun.

Less than a month away, the March 4 expiration for the current Collective Bargaining Agreement between the NFL and its players expires. And if that date arrives without a peace accord - and despite a bit of public optimism from owners like Bob Kraft of New England, the steadfast but unfortunate stance of this space is that there will be no agreement before then – there will be a series of events that will terminate football as we currently know it.

At least temporarily.

There will be a draft, but teams will not be able to sign picks, there will be no free agency or offseason workouts, trades will be precluded. One of the components that has elevated the NFL to the preeminent perch it currently enjoys is there really is no offseason. As commissioner Roger Goodell pointed out in his annual "state of the league" address on Friday morning, the games are essential. But the offseason is critical, too, and that figures to be gone.

Goodell spoke about the "uncertainty" that will engulf the game come March 4, and noted that the creation of such uncertainty will blunt future revenues, harden the two sides' negotiating positions and make an agreement more difficult.

He's right.

At the same time, Goodell several times cited the recent quote of NFLPA president Kevin Mawae, that the players got a "great deal" in 2006, and said that it is "clear the pendulum has shifted in (the players') direction." Owners, despite the contention of the commissioner that everyone wants an agreement equitable for both sides, want to push the pendulum back. How far will they go?

Well, as noted several times in this space, one trusted owner back in March suggested the league could miss, in his estimation, four regular-season games, and we've seen nothing to counter that. One owner here for Super Bowl XLV agreed that a negotiation could "go into August or September."

NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith and league vice president Jeff Pash both spent time this week in dueling press conferences, but neither actually traveled much new ground. And with a month to go until the current deal expires, that seems to be the crux of the problem. The rhetoric has evolved into a public relations tug-o'-war, and that's hardly productive.

The union, for what seemed to be the umpteenth time, reiterated that they need access to the teams' financial books in order to make a deal. League outside lawyer Bob Batterman, who shut down the NHL for a year in a 2004-05 lockout, claimed the issue of opening the books to NFLPA scrutiny is "not a substantive issue." Goodell on Friday said that Smith's characterization that the union does not have access to all of the financial details it needs to cut a deal is not a fact.

Meanwhile, the proposed 18-game schedule, which has been repeatedly panned by the players, appears as close to a deal-breaker as exists.

"There is no price tag that could make (18 games) worth it," said Houston offensive tackle Eric Winston. "It just isn't going to sell, no matter how much (money) they attach to it."

Goodell said Friday that, "if we can't do (the schedule changes) right, we won't do it." At the same time, the commissioner said that "the status quo is not acceptable," although he was speaking in broader terms about the league.

The bottom line: With only a month to go, and the clock ticking, the basic issues and disagreements don't appear to have changed very much. The rhetoric is much the same as it has been. And that's not good.

Heads-up: One of the stories that didn't grow many legs during Super Bowl week, but which merited considerable discussion in some private quarters, was one we'll term "Helmet-gate" for lack of a better moniker. It centered around the helmet used by Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers, a model known as the Schutt Air XP, The Sports Xchange confirmed through a Packers staffer on Thursday night, but about which Green Bay folks have been a bit cryptic.

Rodgers apparently switched to the model after suffering his second confirmed concussion of the season on Dec. 12 at Detroit, and credits it for perhaps saving him from a third head injury, when he was hit under the chin by Chicago defensive end Julius Peppers (subsequently fined $10,000 for the contact) in the NFC Championship Game.

Rodgers acknowledged to Peter King of Sports Illustrated after that game that he was fortunate to have survived the Peppers hit with no further damage, but hasn't spoken much here this week about the helmet.

Asked about it by The Sports Xchange early in the week, Rodgers replied, "I really can't talk much about it."

It may be much ado about nothing, but the helmet is a significant piece of equipment for a quarterback who just happens to be playing in the Super Bowl, and part of the story is that it was such a non-story during the week.

Although Ridell is the "exclusive" supplier of NFL helmets, players are also permitted to wear the Schutt models, and it is believed that nearly one-third of them do.

But because of questions raised by U.S. Representative Tom Udall of New Mexico – and the obvious and increasing reports of long-term head injuries that have become prevalent in the past couple seasons – headgear is coming under more scrutiny.

During his Friday news conference, Goodell noted the league has done a "tremendous amount of research" on helmets. But more obviously is necessary.

Dr. Robert Cantu of the Boston University Medical School, a leading expert on concussions and head trauma and a senior advisor to the league, has questioned the relative safety of current helmets, and termed "misleading" some of the claims of protection. Cantu has suggested that helmets, as currently constructed, can mitigate only a "small fraction" of concussions.

It should be emphasized that Rodgers and the Packers did nothing untoward, even if the interior of the Schutt Air XP - which can be purchased over the counter for about $180-$200 - was modified. But it is curious that the story received such modest attention on the game's biggest stage this week. And just as curious, it seems, that the Packers weren't perhaps a little more transparent in addressing the issue.

Five-and-dime store: In most recent seasons, particularly when Bill Cowher was the coach (1992-2006), the Pittsburgh Steelers rarely played a "nickel" defense. More often than not, legendary defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau relied on a "dime" coverage package, with six defensive backs, instead of five.

This season, however, with inside 'backer Lawrence Timmons enhancing some already pretty solid cover skills, the Steelers used more "nickel" looks than in the past. Look for Pittsburgh to continue the reliance on the "nickel" in Super Bowl XLV, although the Steelers will certainly mix in some "dime" packages once in a while.

One key player in the Pittsburgh secondary, surprisingly more in the "nickel" than the "dime" look, The Sports Xchange has discerned just from talking to some defenders, could be five-year veteran Anthony Madison. Typically one of Pittsburgh's core special teams players, Madison appears to have an expanded role for Sunday's game.

Claymation: One of the more compelling subplots of the Sunday matchup is the relationship between LeBeau and Green Bay coordinator Dom Capers, who worked together for three seasons (1992-94) in Pittsburgh. Capers was the coordinator then, LeBeau the secondary coach, and both men this week have not only been very complimentary of each other, but spoken at length about what each learned from working with the other.

But one element Capers seems to have added, without much input from LeBeau, is the art of lopping his rush linebackers to the inside, especially Clay Matthews, the runner-up for defensive player of the year, and a quarterback tormentor who registered 13.5 sacks in the regular season and has another 3.5 in the playoffs.

LeBeau is celebrated for varying the angle and positioning of his pass rush with 'backers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley, but they don't often rush from the inside. Instead, LeBeau seems to prefer to send James Farrior or even Timmons from the inside.

The Packers will often move Matthews to the inside or loop him around, and if Steelers rookie Maurkice Pouncey (ankle) can't start at center, Green Bay could use Matthews in an attempt to confuse replacement Doug Legursky and pressure quarterback Ben Roethlisberger with inside push.

Big guys: The two men, who both play nose tackle for the respective teams in Super Bowl XLV, couldn't be more similar in some ways. At the same time, Pittsburgh's Casey Hampton and B.J. Raji of Green Bay aren't exactly the same guys.

OK, so both Hampton and Raji are wide-bodies, whose listed roster weights (the former 325 pounds, and the latter 337 pounds) are grossly understated. And both players, each of them former first-round picks, stuff the run exceptionally, which is key to the 3-4 fronts from which both clubs operate.

After that?

"I'm pretty sure he's the more athletic of the two of us," Hampton said this week, "I've had a little bit of a look at him. He's good. I'm the first guy to tell you if I see a guy who can play, and he can play."

The suspicion is that, in the "sub"-heavy game plan devised by LeBeau, Hampton may not actually be on the field very much. Probably much closer to 360 pounds, "Big Snack," has been to five Pro Bowl games, and Hampton, 33, typically commands double-team blocking. But in 10 seasons, the former University of Texas star has nine sacks, has registered 40 tackles only three times and is rarely on the field on third down.

Said Hampton: "Three or four plays, and I'm pretty much tired out anyway."

On the other hand, Raji is a pass-rush force who can get up the field, and has 7.5 sacks in two seasons, including 6.5 this year. The onetime Boston College standout, who had an interception return for a touchdown in the Packers' win at Chicago in the NFC Championship Game, on a "Right Cat" zone-blitz call, clearly gets to rush the passer a lot more.

When the Packers deploy in a front that features just two linemen, sometimes even on early downs, Raji often slides over to a more conventional tackle spot. Hampton may occasionally align in a gap, but he almost never plays a "pure" tackle position. Raji is the more disruptive of the two, while Hampton is arguably the better anchor versus the run.

"People get surprised a lot by how active (Raji) is for such a big guy," Green Bay end Ryan Pickett said. "He's not just a big (load) stuck in the middle of the line."

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