If things stay as they are, all NFL players will likely be locked out of NFL facilities starting March 5th. This means no coaching, no rehab, no training - nothing. More than that, there will be no movement on the free agency market as clubs will cease to negotiate contracts until a new Collective Bargaining Agreement(CBA) is agreed upon. There are many more consequences to a potential lockout, but I can't sum them up better than Mike Florio has done for Pro Football Talk. That article really is a must-read if you want to know more about the CBA negotiations and the potential lockout.
So how did things get to the point where we're talking about the absence of football in 2011? It started with the previous CBA, which was agreed upon in its current form in 2006. Getting that CBA done was the proverbial final act of former commissioner Paul Tagliabue before he retired, and former NFLPA Director Gene Upshaw was heavily involved in drafting this CBA. However, the owners soon came to think that the CBA was heavily in the players' favor and opted out as soon as they could, in 2008. By opting out they ensured that the CBA would remain in effect in 2009 and 2010 and that 2010 would be an uncapped year, but that the CBA would terminate on March 4th, 2011.
In essence, this is a fight about money. The owners think the players are getting too big a share of the money, which is set in stone in the CBA in the form of a salary floor and cap. The fact that the economy collapsed and servicing debt became a lot more expensive means that the NFL is less profitable for the owners now than they expected it to be when they signed the agreement. So the owners want the players to accept a lower salary cap and floor to lower their own costs, and obviously the players don't want to do that. You'll hear about a rookie salary cap, pensions for veterands, medical coverage for retired players and several other measures that are trumped up as 'key issues'. But in my opinion, none of those are key issues: they're side-issues invented to create ways for the NFL and NFLPA to compromise.
The exception to that statement is the 18-game season. A move to an 18-game season would greatly increase the value of the league. As two preseason games get replaced by regular season games, they'll be able to manufacture more expensive deals with networks and bring in more revenue streams. After all, more volume means more money. At the same time, an 18-game season would likely shorten the career of players as there are more 'opportunities' to be injured within a season. Players are not too happy about that prospect.
While both the NFLPA and the NFL are throwing around different numbers about the economic situation right now, it's impossilbe to know who is right. All the numbers being used on both sides are cherry-picked, and neither side is showing the big picture. The fact that the NFL refuses to open its books and show the NFLPA where the problem lies doesn't help, of course. Basically, there's no way for any fan and perhaps any player to determine whether the owners are right when they say the current economic model is unsustainable. But what we do know is that the owners are heading for a lockout, and they may be killing the goose that laid the golden eggs.