LILLIAN, ALA. â€“ For those keeping score, July 2nd marked Day 109 of the NFL Lockout.
Saturday also represented the day New Orleans Saints Coach Sean Payton crossed the proverbial â€œline in the sandâ€™â€™ that separates NFL owners and players to play in a pickup game with Dallas Cowboysâ€™ quarterback Tony Romo and tight end Jason Witten and Detroit Lionsâ€™ linebacker Bobby Carpenter.
Throw in Fox NFL analyst Troy Aikman, the Pro Football Hall of Famer and former Dallas Cowboys quarterback, and suddenly a spirited 7-on-7 game of touch football on a crowded pristine beach near Paytonâ€™s vacation home in WaterColor, Fla., became an instant happening.Â
â€œIt got so competitive to where the whole beach was watching,â€™â€™ Payton told SportsNOLA.com Saturday. â€œA highlight for me was my son Connor caught a touchdown pass from Romo. No, he didnâ€™t spike it; he knows better.â€™â€™
Paytonâ€™s involvement with current and former members of the Cowboysâ€™ organization, no matter how innocent, has the potential of lighting a firecrackerÂ and creating a buzz inside Who Dat Nation this holiday weekend.
In March, the Payton family upped and moved in the middle of the school term to a gated community in the Dallas/Fort Worth area shortly after rumors surfaced that he was going to join the Cowboysâ€™ front office.
Payton, who served as an assistant coach in Dallas from 2003 through 2005, has two years remaining on his contract in New Orleans.
â€œI played a little safety, a little wide receiver and Romo was struggling at quarterback so I went in and threw him a touchdown pass,â€™â€™ Payton said of his game participation. â€œAikman led his team on a 2-minute drive that ended up tying the game. After about a half an hour, the adults were ready to quit and the kids were screaming for more. But it was fun.â€™â€™
Arguably, it is the closest Payton has come to a football game since his teamâ€™s improbable 41-36 road loss on Jan. 8 to the Seattle Seahawks in the wildcard round of the NFL playoffs.
Nearly six months later, the 2011 NFL season remains in limboÂ with both sides expected to resume talks Tuesday in New York.
Payton said he remains optimistic that a deal can be reached soon and training camps will open on time later this month. The Saints are tentatively scheduled to begin training camp July 29 at their training facility in Metairie.
Meantime, Payton and his coaching staff are taking their scheduled vacations, hopeful of a quick end to the work stoppage and yetÂ not knowing what tomorrow will bring.
â€œItâ€™s been real quiet,â€™â€™ Payton said. â€œObviously, we pay attention. Weâ€™re all waiting to hear good news. I get the news from the Internet, or the newspaper, or the TV just like you do. Iâ€™ll touch base once a week with (Saints GM) Mickey (Loomis). In fact, Iâ€™ll see him (Sunday morning); weâ€™re going to play golf. Heâ€™s got a place down here with his family.''
Though the labor situation remains fluid, Payton provided a snapshot of his teamâ€™s plans once the NFL resumes business as usual.
Prior to the start of training camps league wide, organizations are expected to be briefed en masse on the free agent and salary structure of the new CBA. Then, teams will be given a brief window of opportunity when they can sign veteran free agents.
â€œThere are going to have to be some ground rules to operate that transition into training camp,â€™â€™ Payton acknowledged. â€œIf you were to ask me whatâ€™s the first thing Iâ€™d like to have, itâ€™s a period of time with the rookies to get them jump-started like you normally would have had after the draft.
â€œThat has been in the back of my mind as something thatâ€™s possibly on the horizon, if and when, this is resolved within a certain time frame. Weâ€™d like to do that, but weâ€™ll have to acquiesce to whatever weâ€™re told by the league. But what Iâ€™d like to do is have a 2- or 3-day rookie orientation. Iâ€™d like to have that take place before the start of training camp if itâ€™s possible. It may not be.â€™â€™
As of July 4th, 66 days remain until the Saints open the NFL season Sept. 8 in a nationally-televised game against the defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field.
And while talks continue, there is no end in sight to the lockout.
â€œEverybody wants to know how much time you need to get ready to play a regular-season game,â€™â€™ Payton said. â€œI donâ€™t know if there is an exact number. Some people say three weeks. Iâ€™ll be back in New Orleans in a week or two before training camp mainly to stay in touch with whatâ€™s going on. We got a good handle on things. We always do. Weâ€™re a little bit more flexible this year in regard to some specifics. But logistically, itâ€™s a little easier that itâ€™s going to be in New Orleans at our facility.
â€œIâ€™m optimistic that weâ€™re going to play preseason games. Iâ€™m sure there is a lot to do, but the good news is, itâ€™s July 2nd. I know there is the Hall of Fame game in early August and there are other things to consider but logistics vary from team to team. I really think the only thing you can do is remain optimistic and just stay on top of it as best you can.â€™â€™
Regardless when the lockout ends and training camps open, player safety will be a major point of emphasis for all 32 organizations.
â€œWe will have to pay close attention to the playersâ€™ shape, individually,â€™â€™ Payton said. â€œWeâ€™ll have to be smart with what we do practice wise at the very beginning. Weâ€™re going to pay attention to all those issues, all the injuries, the condition level of not only your veterans but your rookies who are going through this for the first time.
â€œIt will be a little different and yet weâ€™ll adjust. We can be smart enough to transition into this. Teams have a pretty good handle on what they want to do. Right now, everybody is kind of sitting at the starting line waiting for the gun to go off.â€™â€™
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