Talk is cheap, literally, during much of the NFL's down time. When training camps are empty, so is the rhetoric for the most part. Discussions of contract inequities, at a time when no one is drawing paychecks, are usually more bemusing than bitter.
With most camps scheduled to open in two weeks, the heat may be turned up as much off the field as on it. The verbiage can get venomous, and those contract-related offseason harangues that seemed relatively benign in April can mushroom into official holdouts.
The public perception seems to be that 2005 possesses the potential for more training camp absences than in past years. It's hard to say, though, whether the tough talk of the spring will actually translate into hard-line negotiating positions.
Even the most noted of the potential camp no-shows, Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Terrell Owens, acknowledged during an appearance Sunday at a youth football camp that he hasn't decided whether he will report to work Aug. 1. Owens even seemed to soften his stance a bit, which is not that surprising, given the intransigence of Philadelphia management in terms of reworking the final six years of his contract.
It's not unusual for the fiery rhetoric of the offseason to include some openings for a little rapprochement this time of year.
"The thing guys have to realize is that, it you're going to hold out, you'd better be able to hold on, too," said former NFL defensive lineman Dan Williams, who sat out the entire 1998 season with the Kansas City Chiefs in a contract dispute. "I mean, you have to be ready to hold on financially, emotionally, [psychologically], all that. Because if there is any kind of chink in the armor, the team will find it, believe me. A lot of guys can talk about [holding out], but not many guys can do it for a prolonged time. That's why the talking usually doesn't mean anything."
Indeed, it remains to be seen whether all the words uttered this spring actually turn into work stoppages once training camps open for business at the end of the month. Both sides tend to have selective amnesia, to understand that bluster and posturing are just a traditional function of the offseason ritual, as reporting dates draw closer.
If every player harboring a contract grievance failed to show up for camp, coaches might struggle to field two units, but that certainly won't be the case. Nor is it even likely that most of the veterans who vented publicly about their contract situations, and skipped their teams' minicamps, will be out of camps for long.
The old axiom aside, time doesn't heal all wounds, especially when dollars are involved. But in many cases in the NFL, common sense prevails, and, quite frankly, there can be outside influences on occasion that affect holdout plans. Case in point: Washington free safety Sean Taylor skipped all of the Redskins' offseason workouts. But confronted now by a felony charge, and in need of support from the organization, does anyone really think the second-year veteran will be absent when the Redskins report to camp?
Four of the absentees -- New York Jets defensive end John Abraham, Seattle tailback Shaun Alexander, Green Bay tight end Bubba Franks and Philadelphia defensive tackle Corey Simon -- are veterans designated as franchise or transition players who have refused to sign the one-year qualifying offers. By rule, because those players technically aren't under contract, they are not permitted to practice.
Given the acrimony that tends to follow a franchise marker these days, the three players with that designation (Abraham, Alexander and Simon) are among the most likely to experience long holdouts.
Alexander emphasized last week that he has no intention of signing the one-year tender, a qualifying offer of $6.32 million, and will sit out the season if he does not land a long-term contract. The flaw in his reasoning: League rules stipulate that, for a team to recoup its franchise tag for further use, it must first sign a player to the qualifying offer, and can subsequently follow that up with a long-term deal.
"I'm pretty strong about my principles," insisted Alexander, the second-leading rusher in the NFL in 2004.
The truth is, though, that the principle most often followed even in the most rancorous of contract disputes is this one: When there is real football to be played, and real money to be made, contract disagreements often fade into the background.
Simply put, players don't mind missing two-a-day practices in training camp, where they are paid a weekly salary. But when the regular season begins, and teams start doling out paychecks, even the longest holdouts typically end. Alexander's teammate, Pro Bowl left offensive tackle Walter Jones, skipped virtually all of the Seahawks' last three training camps because of his unhappiness at being tagged each year with the franchise marker. But only in 2002, when Jones sat out the first two contests of the regular season at a cost of about $500,000, did he skip any salary.
Plus, Jones acknowledged last year, it's more difficult than some players imagine to while away the long hours in front of a television set when you're more accustomed to having a pass-rushing defensive end across from you.
"Every guy has to decide for himself just how much [a holdout] is worth to him," Jones said. "It's something you really have to think hard about."
For the nearly two dozen players who sat out portions of their teams' offseason programs, the deliberation about whether to show up for the start of camp has probably begun, but it's a good bet not many hard-and-fast decisions have been made. Agent Drew Rosenhaus represents nine players who missed parts of the offseason, but reiterated that he rarely has holdouts, and emphasized that each case is evaluated individually.
"I'm an optimist by nature, so I have to believe all my guys will be [in camp on time]," Rosenhaus said.
It is probably Pollyannaish to believe that but it is just as naïve to suggest that the spate of offseason contract spats this spring will result in record camp no-shows. Some players who skipped the early offseason workouts -- Arizona wide receiver Anquan Boldin, Cleveland tailback Reuben Droughns, Jacksonville safety Donovin Darius, New Orleans cornerback Fakhir Brown, Baltimore safety Ed Reed, among others -- reported for later sessions and probably will be in camp on time.
That said, there will be some hard-liners, almost certainly. In addition to the players who have the franchise tags, camps could open without standouts such as New England defensive lineman Richard Seymour, wide receiver Javon Walker of Green Bay and, if he isn't traded, Buffalo tailback Travis Henry.
As for T.O.'s taking a timeout from Eagles camp, well, that's probably a good bet, too. But, as Owens noted Sunday, a lot can still transpire between now and the time that coach Andy Reid convenes his first practice at Lehigh University.
"I'm just looking for people to do the right thing," Owens said in a taped interview with Comcast SportsNet. "I've prepared myself just like I was going to go into camp. I'm looking to score a lot of touchdowns and keep the crowd on [their] feet. Everybody knows what's at stake. If we can be grownups about it, and get everything resolved, then that's what I'll do."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.