Heaven help me but I almost cared about the NFL the other night.
It was late, and I was tired, and my defenses were down. I certainly didn't mean to care about the NFL. When the owners locked their gates, it turns out, my ability to give a rip was left on the outside.
Nevertheless, there I was, almost thinking about the possibilities of an upcoming season, if indeed such a season will exist. Fortunately, a Buffy the Vampire Slayer rerun came on, and I was able to withstand the temptation to ponder more deeply.
At this point, the football fans I know seem to talk less, think less and care less about pro football. At this point, apathy is the only ally football followers have.
When will the lockout be over? Who knows.
Who will outlast whom? Who cares?
This is the only sane position to have. Yes, you can get angry, as many people have, but outrage does not work on the owners, and scorn does not affect the players, and anger does not speed a process that seems hellbent on going into August and beyond.
The more passionate the emotions, the more obvious your frustration, the more it means you care — and the higher the probability is that those fans will be right there in the ticket line when the silliness ends.
What ought to alarm the players, and what ought to scare the dickens out of the owners, is the growing apathy. That's the real cost of this wasted offseason. Every time a fan turns his head, the Benjamin Franklins in his wallet do the same.
And so it does not go. Bounce around the Internet and you can find dozens of NFL headlines a day, and not one of them says anything new. Secret meetings? Positive signs? Someone else arrested? Both sides are talking, neither side is listening, and what else is new.
You know what ought to be new?
By now, someone — anyone — should be concerned about how good the football will be when the NFL comes back.
The quality cannot be the same, you know. A league cannot sacrifice all the organized team activities and offseason workouts and minicamps without losing chemistry and cohesiveness. The result is bound to be a lessened product on the field.
Forever, coaches have told us how important such activities are to the development of a football team. And so it stands to reason: If these workouts are vital to success, how can it not be a concern when they are stripped away?
Granted, it helps when teams such as the Bucs, Patriots and Broncos have player-run workouts. But no, it isn't the same as organized practices (which, as you remember, was where the Bucs' turnaround really began last year). The offseason is about chemistry and focus and timing and understanding. You can't trash all that without a cost.
Also, granted, all teams are in the same boat. Still, we aren't talking about competitive balance. We're talking about level of play. And the longer this thing goes, the sloppier things are bound to look. As for the NFL, it seems to hope no one will notice.
Go back to 1987, the only time the league had a stupider work stoppage. Back then, someone had the grand idea of interrupting the season two weeks in. Worse, someone decided to put different bodies into familiar laundry to see if the fans could tell the difference. For three games the NFL charged real money for fake players and called it football.
When the real players came back, it was a mess. Some were angry about the settlement, and some were disappointed that replacement players had taken the jobs of some former teammates, and some were annoyed that teammates had crossed the picket line, and some were outraged that the results of the three fake games counted in the standings.
At the time, I was a writer covering the Dolphins for the Miami Herald, and what I remember most is this: The Dolphins team that left camp that year was not the team that came back. Post-strike, the Dolphins never seemed quite as efficient, quite as focused as Don Shula's teams usually were. That team should have won 10 or 11 games; it ended up 8-7.
And those guys had a training camp.
So what happens this time? Does a team have to spend some of its training camp learning what it should have learned in minicamp and part of its regular season learning what it should have learned in training camp? Will a young team have progressed as much as it would have ordinarily? Will there be more injuries, more fumbles, more miscommunication? Will coaches get fired next year because the lockout kept them from doing their jobs properly this year?
Now ask yourself this: In their struggles to turn $10 bills into $20s, do the owners really care?
Eventually this will be over, because money says it will be. Teams will still win, and teams will still lose, and eventually most fans will cheer because that is what fans do.
Along the way, however, quality will be lessened, and passion will be lost.
The next time the owners and players have one of these double-secret decoder-ring meetings, maybe someone ought to bring that up.