Most of the time, when it's not an easy decision on End Zone topics, my best route is to use one simple criterion: what people bring up in conversation.
That makes this week's choice easy, because one issue has stood out as far and away the No. 1 subject in recent weeks: Will there be a National Football League season in 2011? If so, will it be a full 16 games? Oh, and what can we expect from the Denver Broncos?
First answer: Don't bet on it. Recent indications have sounded positive, but the NFL owners went into this lockout prepared to lose all of 2011 if necessary to achieve their goals. If the players go along, then sure, the season could be salvaged. But the owners have much deeper pockets, and more resolve, than the union.
If you're thinking that there's plenty of time, since the regular season doesn't begin until September, think again. Training camps normally start in July, moving quickly into August preseason games. The camp timetable assumes that players will arrive in good shape and mentally sharp, but not this year. Remember that the usual post-draft minicamps and group workouts didn't happen, the draft picks had no chance to learn systems, the teams had no chance after the draft to fill roster holes with no free-agent signing period, and players only have worked out without supervision.
Here's what that tells me: Even if the two sides reach an agreement in, say, late July, that doesn't mean camps would begin immediately in earnest. The players would report, but the teams will need perhaps a month to (a) work the free-agent market, not just veterans but all the undrafted college players; (b) make sure previously injured players are progressing in their recoveries, and everyone else is in decent condition; and (c) have the classroom sessions to make sure everyone knows the playbook.
Yes, the preseason schedule could shrink from four games to three or two. But the coaching staffs still will need time to evaluate players. As it is, the established NFL powers will benefit the most, because they'll have less turnover and more continuity.
Second answer: My guess is that nobody should expect more than half of the regular season to become reality. The league, which has prided itself on parity, will not want the embarrassment of a substandard product and lots of mismatches simply because some teams have more stability. Fans will be upset enough as it is, and unused seats will be more plentiful than at any time in recent memory. Franchises will have enough of a challenge repairing their images and rebuilding fan support, without also having to deal with blowout defeats and empty stadiums.
The best-case scenario from this view, with a settlement by early August, still would be no more than 12 regular-season games. And if they can't play at least half the season, the owners will pull the plug on 2011 and cut their losses.
Third answer: At this point, the Broncos' followers have to feel good about one thing: Their new head coach, John Fox, has years of experience. All this would be a recipe for disaster if Denver were going into the season with a first-time coach. (Josh McDaniels comes to mind.)
Still, Fox and his staff have a long, long way to go in putting a team together. They have to decide on whether Kyle Orton or perhaps Tim Tebow will be the quarterback, but that's just the start. What about the offensive line? Running backs and receivers? Tight ends? Defensively, what about the down linemen? Inside linebackers? Safeties? Which rookies will be able to help immediately, and who will need more time?
All that aside, the Broncos can't even address many of those uncertainties until they can sign free agents to fill the worst holes, at running back and on defense. Fox might have a few tricks up his sleeve, like grabbing one of his former Carolina runners, DeAngelo Williams. But no coach can solve every problem like that.
My advice is to lower your expectations. This will not be a typical NFL season in any way. That is, if there even is a season.
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