Donning the mantle of unity and echoing the kind of league-speak their bosses expressed just a night earlier, many general managers and personnel directors spent Thursday morning playing the spin game, as they discussed how important it was for the NFL to have cobbled together a new labor agreement.
But eventually forced to address the most immediate ramifications of an extended collective bargaining agreement that will drive the league forward for six more seasons, the men charged with fine-tuning their teams' rosters acknowledged they are riding a wave of relief now. And that, with at least $7.5 million in additional salary cap funds for the 2006 season, their free agency budgets just went from a six-pack of light beer to a decent bottle of wine.
"Without the [new agreement], we were shopping on the used Yugo lot in free agency, trust me," said one AFC pro personnel director. "Now we can at least afford a mid-size right out of the factory. We can get something that still has a little new-car smell to it instead of just working the scrap heap. It makes a huge difference in the way we're approaching things."
Indeed, while most team officials publicly toed the line of political correctness in verbalizing their feelings about the hard-forged labor accord, the reality is that they are far more concerned with how much money they can spend on player acquisitions than on a new revenue-sharing model. Labor peace is, everyone acknowledged, a good thing. But for personnel men and coaches, getting a piece of the free agent action, being able to shop in something other than the bargain basement, is a more significant priority.
And so, when the league year actually begins after a couple of delays, and the free agency signing period commences, it may not quite be business as usual, but at least teams will be able to conduct business.
Minus the labor agreement, the merits of which can be broached at some other time, most general managers agreed the market would have been blunted for everyone concerned. So never mind debating whether the low-revenue owners who talked tough, then caved at crunch time, basically agreed to a watered-down package of new money that will come from avenues not yet defined in some markets. With the events of Wednesday night, everyone can at least do a little shopping.
At least one-third of the teams in the league, and probably closer to one-half, might have been relegated to spectator status in free agency had the agreement not been struck. Players certainly were facing the prospect of dramatically reduced financial expectations. There would have been fewer serious suitors in the market and a serious money crunch.
The beginning of free agency is always a little reminiscent of those annual bridal gown sales at Filene's Basement, with a mad dash to snatch up bargains. The new labor accord will provide for that same kind of zaniness again, but not everyone will have to head for the bargain bins now.
"I think it will mean, in general, a much livelier market," said Carolina Panthers general manager Marty Hurney.
Said Falcons general manager Rich McKay: "It means a more traditional market. Teams have room to do a little business now, and that wasn't going to be the case [without the CBA extension]."
Make no mistake, there were several teams that were well-positioned before the labor agreement -- clubs with $15 million to $25 million in available salary cap space -- to dive right into the free agent pool last week. The Cleveland Browns made no pretense of the fact they planned to break quickly from the gate. Arizona had already arranged trips for several players, such as New York Giants cornerback Will Allen, for last Friday, the originally scheduled start to the free agency period. Even the cap-strapped Washington Redskins had revved the engines to owner Dan Snyder's private jet, and were set to ferry in St. Louis strong safety Adam Archuleta for a first-day visit.
From a leaguewide, big-picture perspective, though, the consensus was that free agency was going to be a markedly slower proposition than in past years, with most clubs exercising caution and control. But those terms, for many teams, have been stricken from the lexicon, now that there is money to spend.
"I think there's a sense of relief for everyone," said prominent player agent Jimmy Sexton. "There's no doubt it would have been slower. There was going to be some inertia. Because there are still teams that are recrunching their numbers, and are revisiting their Plan A scenarios, things might be a little slower than in most years at the outset. But it's going to be a lot better for everyone concerned than it would have been if the deal hadn't gone through."
Indeed, there are teams now that might be able to convince a player who was already halfway out the door to reconsider, because everyone has at least a little spending room. And those franchises that already had more than ample cap space -- Minnesota, Cleveland, Arizona and others -- have even more now. Fact is, a middle-level official from one cap-rich team said that while his personnel staff was disappointed at having lost some financial edge when free agency was delayed it had already revised its spending model and concluded its advantage is no less significant with the new accord in place.
Money still talks more than any other element in free agency, and the team that had money to begin with will have even more of it now.
"And when there's money," said Dallas owner Jerry Jones, "it will get spent, because people want to win in this league."
How well the money is spent, how wise teams are in investing in veteran acquisitions, remains to be seen. As has been the case the last several springs, when teams were increasingly effective in retaining their best players, the 2006 free agency pool is a relatively shallow one. The top player in the ESPN.com free agent rankings, LeCharles Bentley of New Orleans, is a center, very rarely a high-profile position. There are three kickers among the top 30 unrestricted players. The best quarterback available, Drew Brees of San Diego, is rehabilitating from shoulder surgery and might not be able to throw until training camp.
But even in a buyer beware climate, most teams, euphoric at the prospect now of being able to be active in the market, will probably ignore the warning signs. Cautionary tales tend to become quickly forgotten history when the free agency frenzy commences. The events of Wednesday night gained many strapped teams a "get out of cap-jail" card and, with the shackles loosened, some general managers are thrilled at the prospect of being able to spend.
The bottom line in free agency has always been that teams will throw good money after veterans of dubious pedigree. With the CBA extension in place, and more money to throw, little is apt to change.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.