The squeeze is on

Just how close is the NFL to combusting? Illustration by Joe Zeff Design

This article appears in the Feb. 22 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

That was fun, wasn't it? There was the September rise and December collapse of the Broncos, and the November
collapse and January rise of the Jets. Peyton Manning won his fourth MVP award, Chris Johnson ran for 2,000 yards, Bill Belichick made the mother of all fourth-down calls.
We watched Kurt Warner for the last time and Brett Favre for another last time. We loved the Who Deys and Who Dats.

We just hope you cherished every last moment, because the fun won't last. Are you ready for some sloppy football in 2010? And a draft where nobody wants to pick? And a bunch of angry
players embroiled in nasty contract disputes?
How about a work stoppage in 2011?

As you've no doubt heard, the NFL and the
players union are embroiled in a labor dispute. At the heart of the conflict is how to split a revenue pie of about $8.5 billion. The owners want a bigger piece; the players want to keep the slice they've got. If an agreement on a new collective bargaining agreement isn't reached by midnight on March 5 -- and nobody, not even commissioner Roger Goodell, is holding out hope -- the league will play the 2010 season under the Final League Year rules, otherwise known as the uncapped year. And that's just the beginning of the madness.
Because, as labor disputes go, this one is a reverse of the baseball, basketball and hockey wars we've witnessed over the past 15 years: The union wants to keep the salary cap, while the owners want to scrap it. "Sounds crazy," says former Packers exec Andrew Brandt. "But that's where we're at."