When the clock strikes midnight and Thursday evening officially becomes Friday morning the world of professional football, and the multi-billion dollar economy it fuels, will almost certainly come to a grinding halt.
Baring a last-minute miracle at the table — something neither side believes is likely — the current collective bargaining agreement between the NFL owners and the NFL Players Association will expire. The owners are expected to begin a lockout that will stop payment on players' salaries and bar them from showing up to work. The Ravens coaching staff has been told they are not allowed to so much as even call players on the phone, and the players understand they cannot show up at the team facility in Owings Mills.
What happens next, with the two sides still more than a billion dollars apart, remains unclear. By every indication the owners and players are still miles apart on how to divide the league's $9 billion in annual revenues. The sides met in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday for a ninth day of federal mediation, with the session lasting seven hours. It could continue into Thursday.
For the first time in the mediation process, the league sent its heavy hitters — the 10-member labor committee, co-chaired by owners Jerry Richardson (Carolina) and Pat Bowlen (Denver).
Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti is not a part of the negotiating group of owners, but shortly after the team's season ended he said he planned to closely following the negotiations.
"I just have to have hope that a bunch of smart people on both sides of this argument are going to get it done," Bisciotti said. "So, I really have high hopes. I still believe that we're going to have a full season next year."
Meanwhile, player reps such as Derrick Mason have been making phone calls, trying to make sure fellow union members have signed up for COBRA so they don't lose their health insurance. He's also helped them find places to rehabilitate injuries and stay in shape.
The NFLPA has gathered the necessary signatures and votes so they can decertify the union and file an anti-trust lawsuit in federal court, a legal tactic the owners aren't thrilled about, but an option the players feel they need to explore.
"I'm of the belief, and I think a lot of people are, that if we can't get a deal done before Thursday, then what incentive do the owners have to get a deal done between March and when the season is supposed to start?" Mason said during a radio interview with Fox 1370. "We're going to keep working as a [players association] to try and get something done, because you never want something to go to the last hour."
With free agency in limbo, Ravens coaches and executives have been focusing all their energy on the upcoming NFL draft, an event that has taken on added significance this year since it could be the only chance to improve a team for several months.
"No one has ever been down this road before so that's kind of out of our hands as coaches," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said during the NFL Combine. "You have a lot of contingency plans and we'll see what happens."
Although the NFL has asked teams to refrain from commenting on the labor situation — more or less handing down an unofficial gag order — it's clear the Ravens believe a lockout is coming. In a recent WBAL radio interview, Harbaugh referred to the lockout as if it was already inevitable when discussing the team's decision to use a franchise tag on defensive tackle Haloti Ngata. On Wednesday, Ngata signed the franchise tender, which will pay him $12.476 million (a number reached by finding the average of the top five salaries at the defensive tackle position) for one season. Both Ngata and the Ravens would have liked to work out a long-term deal, but the lockout forced them to act now.
"There are some reasons why we can't do it here before the lockout," Harbaugh said. "It's really unfortunate. Because if it was possible to do it, I'm pretty sure we'd have it done."
The lockout has affected more than just personnel decisions. The decision to retain offensive coordinator Cam Cameron in 2011 likely would have happened regardless of the labor situation, according to Harbaugh, but the fact that teams won't be able to hold organized workouts in the offseason if there is a lockout certainly helped Cameron keep his job. The Ravens also said they do not plan to lay off any employees during a lockout.
The coaching staff may have their pay reduced if fewer than 16 games are played in 2011, but financially, Bisciotti feels like the Ravens can continue operating during the lockout without major cuts. At least for now.
But Bisciotti also says he doesn't buy the argument that owners shouldn't complain simply because revenues keep going up.
"We've got 140 employees, not counting the 61 players," Bisciotti said. "So, when you talk about the labor being 60 percent [of our costs], what is not clear is that labor is more like 80 percent here by the time you pay the other 140 employees. I think you'd be hard pressed to find any other industry that has labor costs of 80 percent. It just doesn't happen. The health of the league, by you're your definition, is that revenues keep going up. But not if expenses keep rising at a higher percentage. If you were a public company, your stock would be going backward, and that's what we're trying to protect against."
Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said he believes most of the current players will know what they need to do in the off-season to stay in shape and prepare for the day when football starts up again, but he is worried about players who were rookies in 2010.
"I think the group that could get hurt the most by the work stoppage is last year's draft class on all 32 teams," Newsome said."Because this is where they get the opportunity to start from March to go all the way to Game 1, to work with coaches, to work with strength coaches and get themselves better and become better football players."
The 2011 draft class is facing even more uncertainty. Clemson defensive end Da'Quan Bowers, who could potentially be the No. 1 pick, stands to lose millions of dollars if the NFLPA and the NFL owners negotiate a rookie pay scale similar to the NBA. But at the NFL Combine, he said whatever happens is out of his hands.
"It's definitely different because we have never been through this situation," Bowers said. "It is something new for all of us, but we can't handle all of that. We are going to have to continue to train and whenever the teams call, we'll be there ready to work."
Ravens running back Ray Rice told the Asbury Park Press he believes the two sides will reach an agreement before the start of the 2011 season.
"What would this world be without football?" Rice said during a charity event in New Jersey. "One thing I learned about life is you can only control what you can control. So one thing I'm going to do is always stay in shape so if they get something done, I'm going to be ready to play football. ... Something will happen. It'll get done."
Tribune Newspapers reporter Sam Farmer and Baltimore Sun reporter Jamison Hensley contributed to this article.