Where Roger Goodell vowed at the outset of 2011 to cut his salary to $1 if the league failed to reach a new agreement with its players in time to prevent a work stoppage, he has made no such bold commitment when it comes to resolving the ongoing stand-off with referees.
To the contrary, on Wednesday the league dispatched a memo informing teams that the beginning of the regular season would be presided over by replacement referees, just as preseason has been. With officials from leading college football conferences declining to help out, that means real NFL games being placed in the hands of referees whose previous recent experience may be of high-school games or even the Lingerie Football League.
We have been here before, of course, replacements having been used to start a season as recently as 2001. They lasted a single week, with the league and its regular officials overcoming their differences swiftly in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in New York. This year things are expected to take a little longer. The lockout began in June, when the existing collective contract expired, and the two sides have not met since late July.
They are far apart on a number of issues, with the league keen to increase the overall size of its pool of officials but the NFL Referees Association arguing that this would effectively mean a pay cut – as the proposed increase in their rate would not make up for the reduced number of game fees they would each receive. The union is also anxious about the NFL's plans to wind down the existing pension scheme.
How much the absence of the regular referees will be felt remains to be seen. Certainly there have been some high-profile mistakes during preseason but arguably just as detrimental to the spectacle have been the subtle things. When new officials are a split-second slower in making the straightforward decisions, it quickly adds up to disrupt the flow of the game.
DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the NFL Players Association, also raised a salient point when he noted that one of referees' primary responsibilities was to help ensure the safety of players by enforcing the correct application of the rules. At a time when the league is trying to convince the sceptics of its commitment in that area, this feels a lot like inopportune timing.
Up to this point, the overwhelming sentiment among fans has been one of bemusement. Apathy towards preseason is such that the gaffes and blunders can be laughed off easily enough. Concern has mounted as the real games approach, but not enough to dampen the excitement at a new season.
This, after all, promises to be a fascinating year, with bold passing offences in the ascendancy, Peyton Manning starting anew in Denver and a host of young, athletic quarterbacks bearing their team's hopes upon their shoulders. Football is back and that is all that matters. Or at least it will be, until those replacement officials blow a call that matters more.
Predicted finish: 1) New England Patriots 2) Buffalo Bills 3) New York Jets 4) Miami Dolphins
As long as Bill Belichick is the head coach and Tom Brady the quarterback in New England, it is hard to imagine them starting a season as anything other than favourites to win the AFC East. Yes, the pass defence will remain a weak point, despite the return of Ras-I-Dowling at cornerback after a rookie season lost to injury, and yes the offensive line has looked porous in preseason. But the Patriots have won this division in eight of the last nine seasons, and there is no reason to believe they won't do so again.
Behind them, Buffalo have the chance to make a significant step forward after transforming an area of weakness last year – their defensive line – into one of strength through the free-agent signings of ends Mario Williams and Mark Anderson. That unit would already have been upgraded simply by keeping tackle Kyle Williams healthy. New York appear primed for distractions with Tim Tebow on the roster and Mark Sanchez yet to convince of his ability to be a big-time player in this league. And if his appreciation of geography is anything to go by, the Dolphins' rookie quarterback, Ryan Tannehill, has a lot of studying to do.
Predicted finish: 1) Pittsburgh Steelers 2) Baltimore Ravens 3) Cincinnati Bengals 4) Cleveland Browns
You know you've got it tough when your running back is able to complain, as Baltimore's Ray Rice did earlier this summer, of only ever reaching Conference Championship games rather than Super Bowls. With Ray Lewis and Ed Reed returning to an enduringly brilliant defence and a relatively youthful offence at key skill positions, last year's division winners have every reason to feel good about their prospects in spite of an offensive-line reshuffle and the achilles injury suffered by Terrell Suggs.
On the other hand, Pittsburgh matched Baltimore's 12-4 record last year, should be healthier on defence and would appear to have the more amenable schedule. It will be intriguing to see how their offence performs under new co-ordinator Todd Haley. Behind those two, Cincinnati still need to learn to beat teams with winning records. Cleveland need to learn to beat anyone at all.
Predicted finish: 1) Houston Texans 2) Tennessee Titans 3) Indianapolis Colts 4) Jacksonville Jaguars
Defence was Houston's weak point not so long ago, yet by the end of last season Wade Phillips's unit was performing at such a high level that the Texans managed to win a playoff game with a third-string quarterback. If their starter, Matt Schaub, and his preferred target, Andre Johnson, could both just stay healthy for an entire year they could be Super Bowl contenders. Sadly that's a very big if.
Still, with Arian Foster running the ball they should dominate a division in which Tennessee are relying on a second-year quarterback, Jake Locker, who is yet to make his first start and the Colts on a rookie, Andrew Luck. Both could go on to be great, but growing pains are to be expected. As for Jacksonville, they were supposed to be leaning on last year's league-leading rusher, Maurice Jones-Drew, but a contract hold-out means so far he hasn't even met his new head coach, much less reported for preseason training.
Predicted finish: 1) Kansas City Chiefs 2) San Diego Chargers 3) Denver Broncos 4) Oakland Raiders
This might be the toughest division to call. Partly because nobody really knows what to expect out of Peyton Manning after his lost final season in Indianapolis – or even if his body can still hold up to a full season – and partly because last year three of the four teams finished with 8-8 records while the other, Kansas City, was a game behind on 7-9.
Each team has its strengths but also its weaknesses. Kansas City's already brilliant running game has added Peyton Hillis, but can Matt Cassel produce consistently at quarterback? San Diego's Philip Rivers is one of the best in the business, despite a down year, yet his offensive line is flimsy. Denver boast two of the best edge pass rushers in the league, but can't always stop the run. Oakland can be explosive on offence, yet too often implode on defence.
The margins will be fine once again, and injuries will be critical. The Chiefs had rotten luck in that department last year, so perhaps they are due a break or two.
AFC Wildcards: Baltimore Ravens, Buffalo Bills
AFC Championship game: Houston Texans over New England Patriots
Predicted finish: 1) Philadelphia Eagles 2) New York Giants 3) Dallas Cowboys 4) Washington Redskins
They might no longer have a back-up quarterback proclaiming them the Dream Team, but the Eagles undoubtedly retain a roster capable of challenging in the NFC. An offence featuring Michael Vick, LeSean McCoy and DeSean Jackson – to name but a few – will always be capable of putting up points in bunches and with an imposing defensive line rotation in place, Philadelphia plainly have the talent. Their challenge is to keep Vick on the field and stop blowing leads.
The Giants have retained almost all of the starters from their Super Bowl-winning side of a year ago, yet that same team went 9-7 in the 2011 regular season. Both they and Dallas face tough schedules, and the Cowboys could do with having fewer distractions of the sort wide receiver Dez Bryant has given them this summer. Washington are hoping for a Cam Newton-esque impact from rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III, but cannot count on it.
Predicted finish: 1) Green Bay Packers 2) Detroit Lions, 3) Chicago Bears 4) Minnesota Vikings
It will be hard for the Packers to top their regular-season performance of last year, when they won 15 games and scored 560 points – the second-most of any team in NFL history – but they won't be worried about that if they can make a rather greater impression on the playoffs. Green Bay are hoping rookie defensive linemen Jerel Worthy and Mike Daniels can improve a woeful pass rush, but even if they don't this team should still win the division comfortably.
If the Lions can learn to stop putting themselves in holes with poor starts and even worse discipline – they racked up the second-most penalty yards of any team in the league last year – they could be great, with a strong-armed quarterback in Matthew Stafford and a talented receiving corps even outside of Calvin Johnson. Chicago are also capable of a playoff push, harbouring one of the strongest running-back tandems in the league in Matt Forte and Michael Bush. Minnesota would just be happy to have Adrian Peterson back to full health after last year's torn cruciate ligaments.
Predicted finish: 1) New Orleans Saints 2) Carolina Panthers 3) Atlanta Falcons 4) Tampa Bay Buccaneers
How much difference does a good head coach make? We will find out this year in New Orleans, with Sean Payton suspended for the year over his team's bounty scandal and his interim replacement, Joe Vitt, set to miss the first six games. The Saints remain the most talented team in the division, but you have to imagine there will be at least some negative impact on performances.
As a consequence it could be a tight division, with Atlanta the established challenger but Carolina adding Mike Tolbert to a backfield that will be among the best in football and expecting further progress from quarterback Cam Newton after his outstanding rookie year. The Falcons have a soft schedule and an exceptional receiver pairing in Roddy White and Julio Jones. Tampa Bay are coming off a season in which they gave up a team-record 494 points and saw quarterback Josh Freeman regress badly. They would be happy just to see signs of progress under new head coach Greg Schiano.
Predicted finish: 1) San Francisco 49ers 2) St Louis Rams 3) Arizona Cardinals 4) Seattle Seahawks
The 49ers might have been just a couple of botched punt returns away from a place in the Super Bowl last year. Although it would be hard for any team to sustain a plus-28 turnover differential, the fact that the defence has not lost any of its starters suggests it will once again be among the league's best. Quarterback Alex Smith showed he can be more than just a game manager in the playoffs, and he has new targets in Mario Manningham and rookie first-round pick AJ Jenkins.
St Louis are not as bad as one might imagine after a two-win season, with new head coach Jeff Fisher restoring a sense of positivity to a team who had begun last year being tipped as division winners. They will not challenge San Francisco but if the offensive line can hold up and Sam Bradford benefits from the return to healthy of preferred target Danny Amendola, they can move back up to second in this division.
Arizona and Seattle are both strong on defence, but the former's quarterback situation is a mess and the latter will be starting a rookie, Russell Wilson, behind a questionable offensive line.
NFC Wildcards: Detroit Lions, Carolina Panthers
NFC Championship game: Green Bay Packers over Philadelphia Eagles
Super Bowl XLVII: Green Bay Packers over Houston Texans
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