After more than four months of labor tension, marked by occasional vitriol, the New York Jets are ready to get back to work.
At least two dozen players are expected to report Tuesday morning at the team's facility in Florham Park, N.J., to begin preparations for the 2011 season. Training camp begins Sunday for the Jets, who have a late reporting date because they don't open the preseason until Aug. 15.
A sense of relative normalcy returned to the Jets' headquarters Monday morning, when coach Rex Ryan -- in unabashed, mid-season form -- delivered a fiery pep talk to the entire organization, about 150 employees. He issued the marching orders for 2011, sources said: Super Bowl or bust.
"Believe me, we are ready to do it," Ryan said in a video message to fans, released later in the day after the NFL Players' Association executive committee and its player representatives reached a labor settlement with the owners. "We think we've helped our football team during this time. We took it as an opportunity to get better, and we believe we've accomplished that, and we think it's going to be our year and we'll find out soon enough."
He's right about that.
Starting at 10 a.m. Tuesday, teams will be allowed to start signing rookies and undrafted players and begin to negotiate with, but not sign, free agents. There is no window for teams to negotiate exclusively with their own players, which will put the Jets at a disadvantage.
The Jets have some of the league's top free agents, namely Santonio Holmes, Braylon Edwards and Antonio Cromartie. Their top priority is believed to be Holmes, but the Washington Redskins are said to be hot for the playmaking wide receiver. It could escalate into a Woody Johnson-Daniel Snyder bidding war.
Another key free agent, all-purpose star Brad Smith, is expected to draw interest from the Chicago Bears and Miami Dolphins. It's not a stretch to say the next few days of wheeling and dealing could determine whether the Jets back up Ryan's Super Bowl guarantee, which he made before the lockout.
"The players are returning, Mike and Rex have never been more ready, and Jets football is officially back," Johnson said in a message to fans. "I hope you're ready for what I'm confident will be a memorable 2011 season."
Team leaders echoed that sentiment, saying they're glad to be back to football after a bizarre offseason. Guard Brandon Moore, a player rep, called Monday's agreement "a big, big, huge sigh of relief. I'm glad it didn't get past the point where it would've been nasty for football and the guys in the locker room."
Moore admitted there were times during the lockout when he wondered if there would be labor peace by the Sept. 11 season opener. The early sense among the players, he said, was that the owners wanted to break their union. He said the tenor improved dramatically over the last two weeks, and he doesn't expect any lingering feelings once they get back to work.
"This will be a distant memory by the time we get back to football," he said.
Safety Jim Leonhard, the Jets' assistant player rep, said, "I was a little stressed at times, but it's big business and these things come together at the deadline. Everybody is just excited. It's a 10-year deal, and I think that's the biggest issue. We don't have to deal with this again for another 10 years."
For now, the No. 1 priority is settling the roster. With 17 free agents, the Jets are swimming in uncertainty. Their roster could change significantly over the next few days as general manager Mike Tannenbaum tries to maintain a talent base that helped the team to two straight AFC Championship Games.
For the returning players, the process starts Tuesday, when they report for voluntary classroom work, conditioning and medical evaluation. Leonhard, for instance, said his surgically repaired broken leg is "ready to go" for training camp. But he also noted that he hasn't been examined by team doctors since February.
"That," he said, "was one of the deals of the lockout."
Rich Cimini covers the Jets for ESPNNewYork.com.