I cannot believe how dead this NFL off-season feels.
The labor stuff interests me more than the average person because making sure I have at least half a clue about such things is what I do for a living. (Maybe they can put that on my tombstone: "Here lies Rich Hofmann, he had half a clue.") But the absence of free-agency and the overall sense of dread that overhangs everything during this lockout of its players by the NFL has created a chasm that I didn't think possible.
I have been covering the NFL long enough to remember when it was an 8-month sport, interest-wise. I can remember when there was no free-agency, and when the buildup to the draft lasted less than a week, and when nobody really dealt much with agents or contract holdouts. I can remember being a rookie beat guy in 1982, maybe a year older than the first-round draft choice, a guy named Mike Quick. And I can remember the day when the great Jim Gallagher, the Eagles' public relations director, called me up and said, "We just signed Mike Quick, why don't you come down and meet him?" To that point, I had never talked to an agent or even speculated about the length or terms of the contract, and neither had anyone else. I just went down to the Eagles' offices and met Mike.
That is all obviously a long time ago. The way this thing has grown really can be marked by two distinct stages. The first was when free-agency happened as a result of the Reggie White lawsuit in the early '90s. Suddenly, for the first time, February became a crucial period of enormous NFL interest as teams has a new avenue in which to upgrade their rosters. The second growth period coincided with the explosion of the internet and the subsequent ability of fans to access information about the draft. You used to have to buy a book from people like Mel Kiper, but now, everyone could pretend to be an expert and hear the rumors and start the rumors and state with certainty that some offensive lineman from Paducah was terribly flawed because he was a waist-bender.
A lot of it over the years has just been noise, quite obviously. Free-agent rumors and draft bloviating tend to be one part truth and three parts hot air (by a recent scientific analysis). People who work for newspapers hate much about this time of year, and have for a long time, because so much of it is built upon fabrication -- and it is hard work, trying to find a way to keep the worst of the fabrications out of the space beneath your byline.
Yes, there is still a draft to talk about -- but the lockout overshadows all. And I have to tell you: despite the time spent sorting through the impossible rumors, the time spent separating the publishable chaff from the ridiculous chaff, I miss it. The silence seems unnatural.