It is either the NFL's penultimate act before a prolonged work stoppage or the run-up to a glorious 2011 on the heels of a Super Bowl that was symbolic of everything the league has come to represent.
With the players union and ownership haggling over the best way to divide a multibillion dollar pie and no collective bargaining agreement in place, only two events are carved in stone on the NFL docket:
The scouting combine started Thursday at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, and the draft is scheduled for April 28-30.
After that, it's the great unknown.
Super Bowl XLV was a testament to the NFL brand of socialism, with Green Bay beating Pittsburgh, 31-25, in a battle of small market teams playing in the Taj Mahal of NFL stadiums before the most viewers (162.9 million) in the history of U.S. television.
But the NFL's hold on the public goes beyond the playing of an actual game, with the 2010 draft bringing in 45.4 million viewers on the NFL Network and ESPN.
Perhaps even more remarkable is that last year's combine, dubbed the "Underwear Olympics" by the website Profootballtalk.com, had 4 million viewers -- over four days -- more than ESPN gets in a week (three games) of regular-season baseball. The "must-see" TV covers an event where 330 players test themselves in six drills designed to highlight speed and strength, participate in interview sessions with teams and the media, take physical examinations and be tested for drugs and steroids.
The wise approach is for teams to use the combine as a tool to supplement their evaluation of tape as well as football skills exhibited during Senior Bowl week. Mistakes are made when combine testing overshadows the actual playing of the game.
Some things to watch and consider in a week where a stopwatch or a few extra bench press reps can mean hundreds of thousands of dollars to those involved:
--Rumblings of a boycott to show support for the union were shot down by NFLPA spokesman George Atallah and weren't realistic to begin with. Most players prepare for the combine through training financed by agents, who aren't about to advise their clients to sit it out after forking out all the dough to get them ready.
--Forty-Niners coach Jim Harbaugh and Raiders coach Hue Jackson go to their first combine in charge.
It will be the second look at many of the athletes for Jackson, who went to Mobile, Ala., for the Senior Bowl. The Raiders aren't scheduled to pick until the second round, No. 48 overall, after trading their first-round pick to New England for Richard Seymour in 2009.
Harbaugh raised some eyebrows when he bypassed the Senior Bowl to immerse himself in all things 49ers, but does have background from his days as a Stanford recruiter. The 49ers will be looking hard at quarterbacks, cornerbacks and pass rushers at No. 7 overall.
--Harbaugh will be well-versed in four of his former Cardinal players at the combine -- fullback Owen Marecic, nose tackle Sione Fua, wide receiver Ryan Whalen and running back Richard Sherman -- all of whom could go in the fourth round or later come draft day.
--Cal defensive end Cameron Jordan looks to be the lone Bay Area player who will be a first-round draft choice, having seen his stock soar in the Senior Bowl. He's joined in Indianapolis by running back Shane Vereen, linebacker Mike Mohamed and defensive back Chris Conte.
--Cam Newton of Auburn is the latest physical freak quarterback from a Southeastern Conference school to face the combine dissection process.
In 2007, JaMarcus Russell, then a relatively svelte 265 pounds and coming off a spectacular Sugar Bowl performance against Notre Dame, did nothing to dissuade the Raiders from taking him No. 1 overall even though he sat out most of the drills.
Last year, Florida's Tim Tebow took on all drills and challenges and recovered from a poor Senior Bowl week, doing enough to impress former Denver coach Josh McDaniels to take him in the first round at No. 25 overall.
Russell is out of football, one of the colossal busts in NFL history. Tebow's future in Denver would appear to be on shaky ground with McDaniels out of the picture.
--With the labor uncertainty as a backdrop, expect the local teams (as well as the other 30 teams) to proceed as they always have.
"If you're headed into uncertainty," NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock told reporters by conference call, "I think it's just business as usual."