With football back, get ready for a wild ride

Our national game of chicken has finally ended.

No, the other one.

Even if congressional talks to raise the debt ceiling continue, Americans will not have to devote the full measure of their attention to it now that the NFL players and owners have agreed to a new collective bargaining agreement.

Football is back.

Fans can prepare themselves for headlines mere minutes apart this week, as teams scramble to negotiate with their own players, sign free agents and snake the best players with money they are now compelled to spend. Imagine general managers running across the country with sacks of money, looking to gauge the interest and ability of current players -- and ferret out worthy undrafted free agents to fill out a 90-man roster.

Unprecedented, chaotic -- and totally preventable.

The dearly departed CBA had an opt-out clause that proved irresistible to NFL owners, keeping the 2006 class of players restricted rather than unrestricted free agents. Not having some of their proven players able to test their worth on the free market saved teams millions. But once the train was out of the station, it rushed downhill.

The NFL is clearing $9 billion a year, and that number is rising. It's a number so large that only the "nine" in front really registers. And that number is going up. Surely such a waterfall of cash is enough for 32 owners and 1,800-ish players.

What? No?

Have the 130-plus days of the lockout been the unnecessary result of owners' vanity, greed and an inflated sense of their own self-worth? (I think everyone should pause after reading that sentence and fill in their own answer.)

But if there are two things that puffed-up peacocks can understand in the midst of their brinksmanship, they are money and image.

Anyone who has worked as a reporter can appreciate the imperative of a firm deadline. For NFL owners, that deadline probably looks a lot like Sept. 11, 2011, when games in Washington, D.C., and New York will merge nationalism and football. It is what the league does best, from Air Force flyovers to field-sized flags stretched between the hash marks.

Can you imagine if that day arrives and the stadium lights remain dark?

Neither can the owners.

And now, neither can we. Things have finally returned to normal, even if normal has decided to shotgun a case of Red Bull. Heck, even Brett Favre's name is popping up as a backup for Mike Vick with the Eagles, and Favre rumors are the catnip of any NFL offseason.

General managers and fantasy players will have to select and set their rosters. Players who have worked out nonstop since the lockout began will show up as facilities open, as will players who may only have regularly lifted, say, Fritos and Miller Light.

Fans who vowed never to watch another down of the NFL can go ahead and order that DirecTV package. Even before the CBA was officially ratified Monday morning, radio hosts were discussing the possible outcomes of Week 1 games. Did I mention that rosters haven't been set yet?

People can be forgiven for getting ahead of themselves. It's been a long, hard 136 days. The NFL will be lucky to avoid a class-action suit from millions of fans seeking compensation for emotional distress incurred over the last few months.

But Monday's agreement is about coming together, healing the divide between the haves and the have-nots. And it's not like anybody was denied a seat at the Super Bowl.

Football is back. Now fasten your seatbelt.

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