There is a valuable intra-division lesson to be learned from the last NFL work stoppage, one that cost teams only one regular-season game but still directly impacted the eventual Super Bowl winner.
In 1986, the New York Giants defeated an NFC East rival, the Washington Redskins, in the NFC Championship Game en route to winning Super Bowl XXI. Both teams returned strong rosters in 1987, but their disparate approach to the players' strike that season sent the Redskins to the Super Bowl and the Giants to last place in the division.
For those of you who are too young to remember (oh I feel old), NFL players went on strike after the first two weeks of the 1987 season. The league responded by authorizing teams to sign replacement players, who played three games before the strike ended.
Without a single union player crossing the picket lines, the team the Redskins put together went 3-0. The Giants, skeptical that the replacement proposal would be implemented, delayed assembling their team and ultimately fielded a substandard group that lost all three "replacement" games.
On the strength of their 3-0 performance, the Redskins finished the regular season 11-4. Had the Giants matched that record, they would have finished 9-6 and been a wild-card team. The lesson for 2011, assuming there is eventually a regular season: Even amid the NFL lockout, the decisions and plans made now will go a long way toward determining the 2011 NFC North champion.
I took this topic with me to the NFL owners meeting last month, curious how our teams planned to handle the logistics of uncertainty. At the time, the lockout was only a couple of weeks old. But we've now reached the point where most teams would have started offseason programs and begun the process of preparing for the upcoming season.
Indeed, Packers coach Mike McCarthy said "all of us will be nervous" if the lockout extends past the draft. Based on the continuing legal fight in federal court, it would be stunning if the league is back in business by then.
"Now you're shifting into another gear here," McCarthy said. "You can shake it any way you want, you can talk about nine weeks or 15 weeks [of offseason work]. But still, you have a job to do. You have a lot of work to get done. That's not going to change. How you get that done is based on your time management."
We all associate head coaches with game management, big-picture schemes and personnel decisions. Another vital skill is organization, one that's rarely discussed but will never be more important than this spring and summer. How should a truncated offseason be planned for? How will training camp change based on fewer (or no) spring practices? What will the priorities be for a shortened training camp, and what traditional activities can be trimmed?
If you assume there will be football at some point in 2011, you should accept that the most successful teams will have cut through the chaos and prepared most efficiently. From that perspective, I think the Packers have a huge advantage with McCarthy, who seems to draw great pleasure and comfort from getting organized.
"It's a chess match," he said. "I've always looked at scheduling as a way to get an advantage. The way you schedule and the way you prepare your team has a lot to do with the culture you create, has a lot to do with how you come into a season. I think scheduling is one of my key responsibilities."
I've sat in enough interviews with McCarthy to know the difference between his passions and his answers. He's clearly passionate about what I would consider one of the most boring parts of his job. I've heard him talk at length about the extra practice period he devoted to tackling last summer, and his angst about trimming other periods to prevent the total practice time from changing.
He spent hours developing a daily schedule that called for two training camp practices on some days, one on others and every Wednesday off. This spring, he said "our padded practices are probably too long" and is now giving strong thought to scrapping that schedule altogether, although he's not yet willing to divulge the details of his new plan. McCarthy routinely reports how many minutes his regular-season "jog-thru" practices take -- the quicker the better, because it means fewer play repeats -- and is no doubt armed with studies and proposals for whatever scenario eventually arises this summer.
To be sure, the Packers also benefit from the consistency of their program, now approaching it sixth season under McCarthy. The Chicago Bears have an even longer history with coach Lovie Smith, but I got the sense that Smith is depending on his veteran nucleus to prepare itself for whatever curveballs it will face.
"Our systems are all in place," Smith said. "It's not like we're a new staff coming in. We do have some veterans on our football team. We feel pretty good about where we are. We're like everyone else. If it goes a long time, it would cause problems for us. ... [But] it's not like we have a bunch of kindergartners that you have to tell them when to start working out, what's coming up. They know what's ahead of them. I feel pretty good they are doing what they need to do."
Detroit Lions coach Jim Schwartz suggested it's important not to overreact to the lockout, knowing all teams will be handed the same parameters. Getting ready for a season, he said, "is a little like losing weight" in that you "can't lose it all at one time." But the obstacles of 2011 shouldn't be considered insurmountable.
"Does it set [players] back? I'm sure they feel it's going to set them back somewhat," Schwartz said. "But is it something they can adjust to and handle? Sure it is."
But while the parameters will all be equal, not every team will have the same starting point. McCarthy admitted "it would be a challenge" to start off as a new coach this spring, a position Leslie Frazier finds himself in with the Minnesota Vikings.
Frazier has already lost a scheduled pre-draft minicamp and won't have nearly the offseason opportunity most new coaches get to install their schemes, set a tone for their program and familiarize players with their new position coaches.
Frazier admitted he has "thought a lot" about the situation and plans to draw on the improvisational skills he used during the Vikings' chaotic final month of the 2010 season. "There aren't too many things we haven't had to overcome," he said, "and it shouldn't make us blink at all. I'm not overly concerned."
If anything, Frazier said he is trying to limit such discussion so as not to distract his coaches from the bigger goals of their first offseason together.
"The fact is everything is on hold right now," he said. "But you don't want to create a sense of panic either that you're chasing ghosts. We have some things in place. We have competent people in key positions that once we know what the rules are there is no question in my mind we'll be able to adjust and handle it. You just don't want people to feel like they have to be in a panic and we're not going to be able to accomplish what we have to get accomplished.
"So I think you have to be careful about painting too many scenarios that can be unrealistic and you exert a lot of energy for no reason and you end up doing things and you look back at it and go, 'Oh man, we should have been concentrating on this or we should have been patient.'"
You might be bored with such talk and skeptical whether it will matter anytime soon. But I think the seeds of Super Bowl XLVI are being planted today, amid the cluttered desks of head coaches and their capacities for planning and organizing. I hope we get a chance to find out.