Hope for a Hail Mary.
Barring a mediation miracle this morning, the collective bargaining agreement between NFL owners and the player's union will expire at midnight.
What happens next is every fan's nightmare. There will be no on-field action or communication between players currently in the NFL and employees of the teams. Team doctors will be allowed to monitor the progress of injured players, but not at the club's facility. There will be no free agency, no trades. The NFL will hold its annual draft, but once those players are selected and have their introductory news conferences, they can have no negotiations or communication with the team that selected them.
Players will not be paid any bonus money due at the start of the new league year March 4. They also will lose all insurance benefits.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers plan to strictly enforce a league-imposed gag order on labor matters.
Unable to agree on how to split a $9-billion pie, a labor dispute will continue most likely into September. The next thing that will happen sometime before midnight is that the NFL Player's Association will file papers to decertify. They must do so before the current agreement expires or wait six months.
Players on all 32 teams have already voted to do just that. It means the union will no longer be negotiating on behalf of the players. Owners are expected to follow by locking players out of their facilities.
The reason for decertifying is so individual players can file an antitrust lawsuit against the NFL. Since the league operates as a monopoly, it would be violating federal labor laws by restricting trade. Players can also file for an injunction to asking a judge to rescind the lockout.
Once the situation gets into the hands of the lawyers, the dispute is bound to linger well into the summer.
Owners essentially wanted another $1-billion from players not included in the current agreement to help finance the construction of stadiums and to retire debt. There also were proposals for an 18-game season, rookie wage scale, retirement benefits and other issues that remain unresolved.
When will all this get settled?
Most likely, not until September. Players are paid their salaries during the regular season. Owners recognize that many players live beyond their means, and once they miss a few game checks, it will be hard to keep more than 1,900 players from splintering.
What NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith has to decide is whether players will get their best deal now or after games have been cancelled.
It's been 24 years since the last real work stoppage in the NFL. But unlike in 1987, when players voted to strike two games into the regular season, there can be no games held with replacement players.
It's possible NFL owners and players could extend the agreement by another week to continue federal mediation, but both sides feel like they're out of timeouts.
If you're keeping score, the biggest losers may be the fans.