The confetti has barely settled on the bodies in the French Quarter. All hail the reigning Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints. Great win. Great team. Great story.
OK, now on to next season.
More specifically, the 2010 offseason.
In the coming weeks, we'll hear a lot about NFL owners and the NFL Players Association meeting -- and disagreeing -- about a new collective bargaining agreement. The deadline for a new deal is midnight March 5.
Don't hold your breath.
In March 2006, ownership approved by a 30-2 vote the current agreement that gave players 59 percent of league revenues. That pact included an opt-out clause the owners exercised just 18 months into the the new deal. They say their $8 billion-per-year business is down $220 million annually from 2005, citing player salaries and payments for palatial new stadiums. The union, backed by its new chief DeMaurice Smith, says it's being asked by ownership to take an 18 percent slash in that revenue figure and wants each team to open their books and show the loss of income.
This is known as a stalemate, folks, with the worst-case scenario being a complete shutdown of the game (via an owners' lockout) in the spring of 2011. The countdown to that potential death knell has begun. There will, however, be a NFL season in '10, albeit with some twists.
The next few weeks will show just how motivated the two sides are. If they're not, here's what happens next month when the free agency flag drops:
-- There will be no limit on players salaries; and that means maximum or minimum. The wealthiest teams can shower cash as they please, while teams looking to cut costs in this economic environment could choose that route. Last year's salary cap had a $123 million ceiling and $108 million floor.
-- Instead of players needing four accrued seasons to reach free agency, they will need six. That's particularly bad news for 212 players who just played out contracts and were poised to hit the market. They'll be restricted free agents and subject to the one-year tender system, with a maximum salary of $3 million.
-- Teams can designate a second unrestricted free agent with the "transition" tag to restrict movement, meaning he'd get a one-year deal equal to the average of the top 10 players at his position or 120 percent of his '09 salary, whichever is higher. Transition players can sign with another team, but the tag gives their current team the right to match the offer. Teams will have just one "franchise" tag (which guarantees a one-year deal equal to the average of the top-five players at a given position, or 120 percent of '09 salary, whichever is higher), as in the past.
-- The eight teams that reached the divisional round of the playoffs will have tighter restrictions relative to signing other team's free agents, and the four teams that played in the conference championship games cannot sign a free agent until they lose one.
The saber-rattling has begun. Smith was asked during Super Bowl week about the possibility of readying his union for a lockout in 2011. "On a scale of 1 to 10," Smith said. "it's a 14."
Countered NFL commissioner Roger Goodell: "I couldn't make that prediction, and I sure hope he's wrong, and I sure hope it doesn't become a self-fulfilling prophecy."
In the interim, there definitely will be a 2010 season -- and offseason -- so we'll start the run-up to free agency (in whatever form it eventually takes) by ranking the top players at each position and reviewing their status, starting with quarterbacks.
[Note: * denotes a restricted free agent who will become an unrestricted free agent in the unlikely event the league and players negotiate a new CBA before the deadline. ]
1) Jason Campbell (Washington), RFA*. He's coming off his best season, but he also was the quarterback of record for a 4-12 team and fired head coach. It's not all Campbell's fault. Blame the Redskins' idiotic regime under Dan Snyder and Vinny Cerrato. The club, in 2005 under Joe Gibbs, invested two first-round picks (and a fourth) to draft Campbell, a prototypical drop-back passer -- then after Gibbs left, hired a West Coast-offense coach in Jim Zorn. Campbell takes too long to make decisions and deliver the ball, so the fit was of a square-peg, round-hope variety. The new team of general manager Bruce Allen and coach Mike Shanahan must determine if the 28-year-old Campbell (coming off career-bests in completion percentage, yards, touchdowns and passer rating) is a franchise guy.
2. Kyle Orton (Denver), RFA*. He was the throw-in QB in the trade that sent Jay Cutler to Chicago, but Orton performed above all expectations with the Broncos, who really saw his worth when an ankle injury promoted Chris Simms to starter. Ugh. Orton will never be an elite quarterback -- and some will point to Denver's collapse in the second half of the season to prove that -- but his 86.8 passer rating for the season was solid.
3. Matt Moore (Carolina), RFA. He totally outplayed veteran Jake Delhomme last season. The Panthers will be foolish not to slap the high tender on Moore, who ended the season starting in victories over Minnesota, the Giants and New Orleans. That's not to say he could step in somewhere else and complete 66 percent of his passes and post a 98.5 rating, but Delhomme has proven to be wildly erratic (if not awful) the last two seasons. The Panthers have invested in developing Moore, so paying him would be another wise investment.
4. Tarvaris Jackson (Minnesota), RFA*. The Vikings say they won't put a deadline on Brett Favre's decision regarding his future, so they better re-sign Jackson. That's not necessarily an endorsement for Jackson as much as it is a safeguard at the quarterback position. The 27-year-old performed well enough in starting five games in '08, including a pretty good December push to the playoffs, but there's a reason coach Brad Childress opted for a stegosaurus like Gus Frerotte for the better part of that year -- and went after the T-Rex in Favre for '09.
5. Chad Pennington (Miami), UFA. A shoulder injury sent him to injured reserve early in the season, with the Dolphins moving on to young Chad Henne. Pennington, 34, has had two surgeries to repair any damage and should be cleared to throw in time for offseason workouts. The guy is a respected leader and capable of stepping into a situation, particularly as a backup.
Among the rest:
Charlie Batch (Pittsburgh), UFA. Yes, he's still in the league.
Kyle Boller (St. Louis), UFA. More like UFL.
Kellen Clemens (NY Jets), RFA*. With Mark Sanchez in, he'll be looking to get out.
David Carr (NY Giants), UFA. Long way from first pick in 2002 draft.
Brodie Croyle (Kansas City), RFA*. At least 'Bama won the national title.
Daunte Culpepper (Detroit), UFA. Someone rescue the old man.
Charlie Frye (Oakland), RFA*. Raiders went through JaMarcus Russell, Jeff Garcia and Bruce Gradkowski before calling his name.
Rex Grossman (Houston), UFA. Threw nine passes in '09 ... for a (some might say "Rex-like") 5.6 rating.
Chris Redman (Atlanta), UFA. Was serviceable (with one game-winning drive) in stepping in for injured Matt Ryan last season.
Troy Smith (Baltimore), RFA. How will Ravens tender Joe Flacco's backup?