FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. --- A memorable season capped by a super title game with a record TV audience has NFL executives and fans beaming.
Those smiles might soon disappear.
Pro football is headed into the great unknown. Barring a quick -- and totally unexpected -- agreement with the players' union on a new contract, 2010 will have no salary cap. After that, perhaps a work stoppage, something NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith puts at "14" on a scale of 1 to 10.
Commissioner Roger Goodell doesn't agree, believing negotiations will lead to a new deal before March 2011, when the collective bargaining agreement expires. But an accord before the New Orleans Saints begin defense of their Super Bowl championship in September is unlikely.
The 32 team owners clearly are prepared for a go at the first uncapped season since 1993. Enough restrictions are in place, including extending the minimum years of service for unrestricted free agency from four years to six, that baseball-like bidding wars are improbable.
With the owners claiming they are losing millions and the players arguing that teams are making money by the fistful, a common ground will be difficult to find.
"The labor agreement is a very important agreement," Goodell said during his annual Super Bowl week news conference. "It's something that is important to our players. It's certainly important to our clubs, and it's important to our fans.
"We have to sit at the table and we have to get an agreement that works for everybody. And that's what people expect. They want solutions, and that's what we should deliver."
Free agency begins March 5. The more critical date might be March 5 of next year, when, if no new deal has been struck, the most popular and prosperous sport in America could see the owners locking out the players.
That's the last thing fans want to hear after a special season featuring the Saints capping a football renaissance for their team and their city with their first Super Bowl title. Fans are already focused on trying to figure out who the Saints will host to open defense of their title in September.
Keeping the NFL's stars healthy will be another key issue after the league, the teams and the NFLPA ramped up prevention and treatment of concussions. Even Congress has gotten involved.
"I think concussions have been a major focus in the league for several years, and we need to make sure we continue to do what we can to make the game safer," Goodell said.
Labor and health issues aside, such events as the NFL combine later this month, free-agent signings, and April's draft -- a three-day affair this year -- will keep fans stoked for football.