Coming Back….Again.


It seems like it is a recurring dream…or nightmare depending on how you feel about it.  Each off-season for the past 5 years the talk has centered in league circles around the CBA.  The NFL’s labor agreement deal that was enacted mere hours after an imposed deadline under former Commissioner Paul Tagliabue that then delayed free agency by a week.  The following year the league votes to “opt” out of the agreement leaving questions in the air about the future of the NFL’s salary structure.  Well, here we are, heading into the 2009 NFL season and CBA talk is…Coming Back…again.

The issue at hand is the 2010 season that is going to play havoc on the free agent market as well as the 2011 season that will play hell on the signing of mid-round and 2nd day draft picks, if there is a 2011 at all.  At the very core is the issue of whether the NFL owners want to even have a salary cap structure in place at all…once believed to be the owner’s bargaining lynch pin that they couldn’t do without.

Salaries have skyrocketed to epic proportions over the last decade and there is no real end in sight.  Rookie contracts are worse when compared to proven veteran contributions and top line draft picks who have never played a down.  Late in 2008, Commissioner Roger Goodell informed NCAA athletic directors that there would be no immediate changes to the way NFL rookies got paid in an attempt to thwart a mass exodus of college talent that would try and get in while the money is good. 

The NFL owners and many NFL veterans would like to see a rookie cap in place or at the very least a reduced salary structure that would use a position vs. slotting sliding pay scale.  Most agents representing incoming rookies got their first dose of the possible reality when Goodell publicly bemoaned the Jake Long 30 million dollar guarantee handed down by the Miami Dolphins last year.

It is believed by some that the NFL owners may concede an overall salary cap in favor of a rookie cap…something that the NFLPA would not likely do without assurances that the money saved was going to NFL veterans instead of into the owners pockets.

Teams will enter the 2009 season with a look towards the 2010 season.  According to a report  the NFL could see approximately 200 less free agents in the 2010 season.  There are 3 triggers according to Pat Kirwen of that will go into effect in 2010.  A change in veteran eligibility that will go from 4 years in 2010 and 5 years in 2011 to 6 years, the addition of another “transition” tag, and spending restrictions for playoff teams.  

Spending restrictions for playoff teams:

Players who signed rookie deals of 5 years in 2005 will not be eligible for unrestricted free agency and instead will have their rights reverted back to their respective teams as restricted free agents.  The same issue is at hand for 2006 4 year deal rookies.  Further complicating the matter is a clause that is called a “final 8” rule.

The rule prohibits the final 8 teams in the playoffs to sign any unrestricted free agents outright.  For the top 4 or final 4 teams, they are restricted from signing free agents unless A:  they are cut and not simply “eligible” for unrestricted free agency, or B: they were on the roster of the final 8 team.  The clause also says that teams 5-8 will be restricted to a lose and replace situation.  If they lose a free agent they can replace them but limited to no more than the amount of money their lost player signed for.

Eligibility changes:

If a veteran is eligible for free agency under the current rules, he may not be under an uncapped year.  For example, Michael Turner of the Atlanta Falcons would not have been an unrestricted free agent had this been 2010.  Players with 4 and 5 years of eligibility would now need 6 to become unrestricted and that does not guarantee them that they will see the market because of the additional tag.

Transition tags:

The NFL currently allots teams a franchise tag or a transition tag but in an the uncapped 2010 year, teams would gain an additional transition tag that would allow them to protect their 3 top free agents.  Consider that their younger players will not likely be eligible under the 6 year qualification rule and teams don’t stand to lose much.  This in an effort to stop owners from “buying” championships.

NFL owners have yet to dive into the murky waters of the Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations and it’s unlikely that anything will be done prior to the start of the 2009 league year which begins the first week of March…less than 45 days away.  Another issue at hand is the players union who sits on the other side of that desk.

Late Union President Gene Upshaw has yet to be replaced and without a leading man, the players have no representation at the tables with the owners to the degree that a deal can be made.  Further hampering efforts for a new CBA in time to cap 2010 and/or avoid a possible lock-out in 2011 is the NFL’s owners issue with revenue sharing.

As tired and worn out the subject has become, at the heart of the owners issues is exactly how much each team must share with the rest of the league.  When owners such as Jerry Jones and the large market Dallas Cowboys begin spinning one way and the Ralph Wilson owned Buffalo Bills begin spinning another, friction will occur and when you throw in the volatile combination of cheap owners such as Bill Bidwell and the Mike Brown owned Bengals…it’s almost the “Perfect Storm“.

At first it was believed that the owners wanted a capped structure in the sport, but after the owners voted to opt out of the last CBA, it became apparent that some owners such as Jones and Daniel Snyder among others, really didn’t want one.  Not when they have the finances to toss money around to outbid any other team for top tiered players who make into the market.  At the same time, teams like the frugal Bengals and the cash strapped Bills could work without top name free agents and rosters operating below the league mandated spending limit of 85% of the salary cap.

This years cap will jump to around 123 million dollars and with no cap scheduled for the 2010 season, teams will have to eat accelerated bonuses this year.  Take the NY Jets who look to be 10 million dollars over the 123 million cap number because of the uncapped year.  On the other side of that coin, teams will have to be very cautious about how they approach long term deal for their veterans and free agent deal that payout roster and performance bonuses outside of the 2009 season in the event that CBA agreement will be reached prior to a lock-out.

If 2011 is the year that owners and players are trying to avoid in terms of a work stoppage, another pressing image comes to mind.  The NFL Draft.  Over the years the NFL Draft has become a premier event for the sport.  Ratings are consistent if not better than some mid-market regular season games, better than the Hall of Fame game, and bury all other sports in terms of appeal.  In 2011, that all goes away.

Consider that the 2011 draft may be the final one, something that the league does not want to happen.  Players from college would be free to sign with any team they wanted regardless of where that team was slotted from the season before.  College players who are not considered “elite” or “day 1” picks could find themselves searching for walk-on tryouts instead of being 5th or 6th round selections.

It’s hard to imagine the NFL not having an actual draft event but without a contract in place, it is yet another possibility.

There is a lot of work to be done by the NFL and the Players Association before the 2010 season regardless of whether the NFL and it’s owners decide to bargain with or without a salary cap.  The ratification of a new CBA is not on the immediate horizon and while talks linger only in the afterthoughts of the media and fans who look towards the future with impending visions of doom, make no mistake that each and every owner stand to lose a lot of money should a new agreement not be made.  Add to that the financial crisis of the global economy as a whole and the players themselves may be looking ahead with a little less need for sweeping changes as well.

You can bet that as the league new year approaches, the talk of free agency and the annual draft will be once again, sidelined by the talk of a 2010 uncapped year, a 2011 possible lockout, and of course the 3 letter acronym that has become a staple of NFL fan vocabulary.  CBA.