TAMPA — At the end of each season, NFL players empty the contents of their lockers into giant plastic bags, sling them over their shoulders and head home. It's a time for healing.
But Bucs center Jeff Faine knows this year there will be even harder knocks to recover from in the offseason.
"We're about to be locked out of the building," said Faine, the Bucs' elected union rep. "Our key cards are not going to work anymore. That's what it is. We've got to prepare for that."
If the league and the NFL Players Association do not agree on extending their labor agreement by March 4, the owners are expected to lock out the players.
The union could respond by decertifying and filing an antitrust suit. Under either scenario, it could mean the cancellation of free agency, offseason workouts, minicamps, training camp. Perhaps the 2011 season would be in jeopardy.
For a team like the Bucs, the youngest in the league trying to build on the momentum of a 10-6 season, the work stoppage could be devastating.
"That would be disappointing, but every team will be under the same rules there," offensive coordinator Greg Olson said. "The disappointing part of this collective bargaining situation right now is that a lot of our young players, not just Josh Freeman, but we're counting on the (Arrelious) Benns, Mike Williams and all those guys to be here, LeGarrette Blounts. We're just hoping that it gets resolved and we can move forward."
Before last season, quarterback Freeman set the tone for his team by organizing workouts with receivers, tight ends and defensive backs in February and June, when players weren't required to be at the team facility.
Now those unsupervised practices might have to be conducted at a Tampa high school field or park.
"It all starts in the offseason," Freeman said. "You're building a foundation for the next year. I think these guys get that. I'm definitely going to do a lot of work with Mike Williams, Arrelious Benn, (Dezmon) Briscoe — all these young receivers. … I'm going to work with LeGarrette. We're definitely not taking this offseason lightly.
"We'll be ready once the season starts next year, trust me. Regardless, we'll be up to speed, ready to go."
Meanwhile, it's Faine's job to keep his teammates up to speed on what's happening at the negotiating table.
Despite an enterprise set to earn an estimated $9 billion in revenue in 2011, owners and players are not making much progress on how to slice the pie.
After some owners incurred huge debts constructing stadiums, they'd like to take about an additional $1 billion out of the revenue pool. Players want more money for health care once their careers end and for retired players.
Bucs general manager Mark Dominik said the team has developed plans for every scenario. But the front office will conduct business as usual, dealing with coaches' contracts, scouting college players, attending the Senior Bowl and scouting combine and participating in the NFL draft in April.
"I think every general manager in the league is formulating different plans of attack for how the offseason works," Dominik said. "We certainly have different avenues we'll go, and we've already got them in place just depending on how it all plays out."
The key to any agreement might lie in the league's appetite for an 18-game season. Players have obvious concerns, especially the additional risk of injury in a profession where the average career lasts 3.6 years.
Faine said players want to know if that means they will earn two more paychecks or simply have their salaries divided over two more weeks.
"My personal opinion is that it's just a bargaining chip, for the simple fact that if we give up on the 18-game schedule, or if we say, 'Hey, leave it at 16 and we'll give up some money,' " Faine said.
"I talked to quite a few people around the league to get their opinion on it and the general opinion is we'd play 18 if we're paid for 18 (games). But if we have to play 18 (games) and get paid for 16, that's like asking you to work an extra month for free."
Certainly, millionaire players are at a disadvantage against billionaire owners, who have $4 billion in television revenue guaranteed whether there is football or not. Players don't draw checks until the regular season, and benefits, such as insurance, could run out in March.
"Obviously, the guys who are independent, it's a little easier," Faine said. "But guys with families, kids, the wife is pregnant, kids need medical attention. There are quite a few players on this team with children on the way.
"I've done my best to get the word out that we're not striking. That's the general perception, that we are unhappy. We're trying to get it out there as much as possible that they control TV, they control SportsCenter and just about anything else that has anything to do with the media or TV outlet. That's what the people are listening to and watching."
Faine knows those oversized bags came in handy this year, and his advice to players was don't leave anything behind.