In its never-ending quest to be a 52-week sport, the NFL added a new section to the calendar. Welcome to waiting season.
More than two weeks after this year's low-wattage free agency cycle started, so much remains unknown. The phrase "Tony RomoHostage Crisis" is gaining steam. Adrian Peterson and his father are still searching for a team. Jimmy Garoppolo and Kirk Cousins are between trade rumors.
Throw in the long-simmering potential deal of Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler to the Saints, and it's as if the entire league pressed "pause" together. Those columns declaring free agency's winners and losers are more premature than ever, because this offseason's biggest stories haven't happened yet.
This much uncertainty is unusual with April approaching. It felt like Peyton Manning's free agency tour dragged on in 2012, but he signed with Denver one week into free agency. Jimmy Graham, Sam Bradford, Nick Foles and Haloti Ngatawere all traded within five minutes of the 2015 league year starting. In this era of bountiful salary-cap space and "building through the draft," free agency starts getting stale after 36 hours. This is not a league that typically does patience well. So what's different this year?
The fate of Tony Romo
After a while, I began to feel bad for invaluable NFL Network reporter Jane Slater during our "Free Agency Frenzy" programming, standing outside of a dormant Cowboys facility from dawn 'till dusk, reality slowly setting in that the Cowboys weren't going to "do right" by Tony Romo. They weren't going to do anything. The supposed understanding Romo and the Cowboys had about where he'd land proved to be hot air sucked into a vacuum that requires NFL news 365 days a year. Especially Cowboys news.
Even TV producers are tired of Romo's situation. There hasn't been any substantive new reporting on a potential trade for two weeks, a remarkable achievement considering the parties involved. A team owned by Jerry Jones is actively avoiding the news.
Don't be surprised if the game of chicken between the Cowboys, Texans and Broncos continues until draft week. Romo has no trigger in his contract that compels Dallas to release him. The Cowboys will eventually get cap relief by cutting Romo, but that doesn't kick in until after June 1. Jones isn't worried about public pressure, and his long-term relationship with Romo should be just fine after paying him more than $125 million in his career. What's the rush in letting him go?
Romo and his agent's intentions in free agency were perhaps too transparent. Those reports about the short flight times to Houston might have set off alarms in Dallas, where Jones can't be eager to give the other Texas team equal buzz to a Cowboys squad coming off a 13-3 season.
The Texans showed their hand when they freed up cap room by trading Brock Osweiler and allowing cornerback A.J. Bouye to leave for Jacksonville. The success of this Texans offseason depends on acquiring Romo. Jones knows it. The whole league knows it. And so Jones holds on to Romo with hope that Texans general manager Rick Smith blinks during draft week and sends a late-round pick Dallas' way.
A trade doesn't seem particularly likely, and a marriage between Romo and Houston still feels inevitable. Jones is waiting on dealing with Romo for the same reason billionaires do most anything: because he can.
Trades that could still happen
The draft serves as the unofficial deadline for Romo to be moved, as is true of so many of the league's biggest stories stuck in limbo. The Browns are reportedly readying to "make another run" at Jimmy Garoppolo at the NFL Annual Meeting next week, like a band of rebels gearing up for one final push into enemy territory. At this stage, the Patriots have done a good job convincing national reporters and NFL teams alike that they don't intend to trade Tom Brady's backup.
While other teams have moved on, the Browns know that every player has a price. They also know Bill Belichick is not infallible. After all, the Browns convinced the Patriots to send them a draft pick for 16 games of Barkevious Mingo playing special teams.
A Patriots-Browns trade makes so much sense because they've made deals before and because Cleveland's depth chart -- Cody Kessler, Brock Osweiler and Kevin Hogan -- is the first draft of a season that no one wants to see. The Patriots and Browns have already led a league-wide uptick in big trades. It's a trend that gives me hope that the waiting season will end with a bang.
Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler, a restricted free agent, and the Saints have circled each other for so long that anything less than a trade would be a letdown in New Orleans. Kirk Cousins and the 49ersmake so much sense together in 2018 that no one can rule out it happening this year.
NBA and MLB fans are used to spending months discussing trades that might never happen, but this is new territory for pro football. With so much cap room, teams can wheel and deal more freely. They can trade expensive starting quarterbacks just before Week 1 or trade for quarterbacks they don't want at all. Teams are conditioning fans and writers to expect big trades, another reason this offseason feels so unfinished.
Adrian Peterson's market value decreasing by the day
Adrian Peterson resides in a different lane than the other big names in this waiting season. He is not hoping for a trade, just a team to meet his expectations. He can't wait for the perfect contract or role much longer.
The 2017 NFL Draft is not a deadline for Peterson to sign; it's another reminder that Father Time's hands are in Peterson's pocket. In late April, a group of unusually talented rookie running backs will fill up the remaining starting jobs around the league. It's a group that has already depressed Peterson's market value. If a team won't meet Peterson's price now, just watch what happens when it adds an early-round running back. Peterson could wind up without many guarantees in his contract or guarantees of a big role.
Of all the players mentioned in this article, Peterson is the most likely to find a new team first. But that could just be wishful thinking. I've been on the hook for two weeks running to write an article on Peterson after he signs. It's a fact that gnaws at me late on hazy Saturday nights, another moment in this offseason of waiting for the real news to arrive.