TAMPA — The National Football League is back, and spinning plans forward faster than a Josh Freeman spiral.
The league ended its 4½-month labor dispute when player representatives voted unanimously Monday to ratify the collective bargaining agreement approved by owners last week.
Flanked by owners and players in a symbolic joint news conference in Washington, D.C., NFL commissioner Roger Goodell spoke the only words that mattered to football fans
"It's been a long time coming and football is back," Goodell said outside NFL Players Association headquarters. "That's the great news for everybody."
If the line between winning and losing wasn't clear Monday, it may be beginning today as veteran players reap rewards during a speed-dating round of free agency. Owners are committed to spending 99 percent of the $120 million salary cap in 2011 and 2012, and at a reported $60 million under the limit, the Buccaneers have money to spend.
"A ton of cash is going to go out in the next few days," said Bucs center Jeff Faine, the team's union representative. "You've got to put your best offer on the table right away. You've got to spend a lot more cash this year. This is the best year ever to be a free agent. Look how many guys are going to hit amazing deals."
Teams began compiling a 90-man roster Monday and got a list of free agents from the league. Teams can start negotiating, and reach deals with, restricted and unrestricted free agents beginning today, but they can't sign contracts before Friday.
Bucs players can start returning to One Buc Place today on a voluntary basis for meetings, training and physicals. Also today, teams can begin signing undrafted free agents and their 2011 draft picks.
The Bucs will report to training camp Thursday, 15 days before their preseason opener at Kansas City. Players are also expected to begin the process of re-certifying as a union to collectively bargain non-economic issues such as drug testing, player discipline and benefits.
"It was worth it," said Bucs defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, the third overall pick last year. "Everybody was worried about starting on time, but we're starting at the perfect time. This is a game, but people forget it's also a business."
With $9.3 billion in revenue to divide this year, business will also be very good for both sides.
As part of the 10-year agreement, owners will receive 52 percent of all revenues and possibly a higher rate in the future if projections are met. The players' share will be around 47-48 percent, and a rookie salary pay scale could reduce signing bonuses to the top players by as much as 50 percent.
Players benefited from increased minimum salaries, injury guarantees, lifetime health insurance and retirement benefits.
But they also earned respect and a sense of trust at the negotiating table under the direction of NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith.
"It's definitely been some big-time uncertainty and some frustration as well," Faine said. "At the same time, there was optimism that we'd get a deal that's fair and we'd get a deal done that's something we'd love to be a part of for 10 years.
"I think it was very educational, particularly for the owners to be honest. I think they realized as players we can sit at the table and be in a dialogue about business and make great points and have the mind to sit there and negotiate."
Among the biggest issues for players was reducing the risk of injuries and concussions, and they prevailed. In addition to fewer offseason workout programs, there will be limited padded practices during training camp, and only 14 permitted once the regular season begins. Teams can still hold two-a-day practices during training camp, but only one can be in pads.
"I'm on the back nine of my career and I'm starting to feel the bumps and aches of my career," Faine said. "It's something where you want to be able to put the best product as you can on the field on Sunday, year in and year out.
"The two-a-days portion of it, I know some guys have been more outspoken that they don't like the fact we're going in this direction. But I think it will help lengthen careers and manage the concussion issue."
According to Faine, the players most affected by the lockout will be rookies. "They don't even know how to find the locker room," he said.
While most players worked with trainers during the work stoppage to stay in shape, Faine said fans might see the effect of the long lockout.
"This year, I think it's definitely a case where it will affect play," Faine said. "There's no way it can't. It's not the same for us to go through an entire offseason and be together in an organized fashion without the team's supervision and coaches there. Of course, it will affect the product on the field. Anybody who says it won't is not being real.
"But I think with our specific situation in Tampa Bay, I was encouraged to see players really took care of themselves. There weren't guys out there who were out of shape. You knew the guys were really investing their time, which is encouraging. Hopefully, it was a carbon copy league-wide. I'm sure it was."
Times staff writer Stephen F. Holder contributed to this report.