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Dose of reality

Threat of '11 strike spoils feel-good days before draft

Posted: Monday April 7, 2008 1:51AM; Updated: Thursday April 10, 2008 11:31AM
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Browns receiver Braylon Edwards hauled in 80 catches for 1,289 yards and 16 TDs last season. Both were career highs for the '05 first-rounder.
Browns receiver Braylon Edwards hauled in 80 catches for 1,289 yards and 16 TDs last season. Both were career highs for the '05 first-rounder.
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I normally hate writing about labor and things like looming strikes. You hate reading about that stuff. But I'm going to write about it here today, and I will make this commitment to you: I won't do it again, at least not at the top of the column, until something really significant occurs that you need to know about.

I'm writing now because I think there's so much misinformation out there, and I want you to have a bedrock of knowledge so you'll be able to rebuke the office know-it-all if he says, "Hey, no more NFL after this year. They're going on strike. Did you hear?''

Now there's a wet-blanket lead for you. But I want you to understand why, a little more than two weeks before the draft, I'm taking the top of the column to cover labor issues. I promise it won't be too painful. Give me five minutes.

***

First things first: There is no danger of the NFL being interrupted by a labor dispute in 2008, 2009 or 2010.

When NFL owners ratified a new collective bargaining agreement two years ago, it allowed for either the owners or the players' union -- if they were dissatisfied with the new deal -- to opt out of the CBA, beginning in November 2008. That's likely to happen seven months from now. If it does, this season will be wholly unaffected, as will 2009, when teams play with a salary cap of approximately $123 million per club. The 2010 season would be played without a salary cap if a new contract between players and owners is not reached.

And that's where most of the misinformation has come in. The rules for the 2010 season are significantly more restrictive for players than they currently are, so players and agents waiting out the next two years for a pot of gold in the uncapped year are going to be disappointed. The 2010 rules for player movement:

FREE AGENCY: Currently, players who are unsigned and have finished at least four NFL seasons are free. In the 2010 market, players will be free if they are unsigned after at least their sixth NFL season. In other words, 2009 would have to be a player's sixth season, and he would have to enter 2010 unsigned. Let's use Cleveland wide receiver Braylon Edwards as an example. In his original rookie contract, signed in 2005, the final year is 2009, which would be his fifth NFL season. Ordinarily, he'd be a free-agent in 2010 -- if the team didn't sign him before then or place a franchise tag on him. But under the 2010 rules, he won't be a free-agent.

MORE RESTRICTIONS VIA FRANCHISE AND TRANSITION TAGS: Each team now can use one franchise-player tag and one transition-player tag -- which pay the tagged player, respectively, the average of the top five and top 10 salaries at his position. In 2010, the revised deal would allow each team the use of a second transition tag. If a team chose to use all its tags, it could stop its best three players from hitting the unrestricted free-agent market.

RESTRICTIONS FOR THE TOP EIGHT TEAMS IN FOOTBALL: If the uncapped year is reached, the teams with the best eight records in football in 2009 will be severely restricted from jumping into the pool. It's still not precisely determined how the system would work, but let's say the Patriots are one of the top eight and want to sign a free-agent to a five-year, $20-million contract. They'd have to lose their own player or players to contracts totaling $20 million before they could sign the free-agent they want. Conceptually, that's how this clause in the deal is going to work, but the exact mechanics of it are not clear yet. The purpose is very clear: The best teams are going to have tight leashes in free agency. And I can tell you from talking to a few traditionally good teams at the league meetings last week, they're not happy about it.

All told, teams would be able to protect more players with tags, and would have fewer free agents because of the six-year rule, and the best eight teams would be playing with one hand tied behind their back. This is a good system for the players?

Five of the eight richest players in free agency this year would not have been unrestricted free-agents in an uncapped system requiring six years of service. Defensive lineman Tommy Kelly (Raiders) had four years of service and would have been restricted, as would five-year vets Jeff Faine (Bucs), Lance Briggs (Bears), Calvin Pace (Jets) and Asante Samuel (Eagles).

In 2011 and beyond? Murky times. The union could disband and try to rewrite the rules of engagement with the NFL, as it did in the '80s to try to break a labor stalemate. The league could try to unilaterally adopt bargaining terms. There could be a strike. That season is three-and-a-half years away, and to think the two sides couldn't figure out some way to divvy up $8 billion or $9 billion a year ... There's a better chance of Brett Favre quarterbacking the Bears this year.

Now, the fear around football is that some very rich man -- Jerry Jones, Dan Snyder, Woody Johnson -- will grab hold of the free market in 2010 and make it their personal playground. Jones especially, because his new stadium, with personal-seat license fees as high as $150,000 per seat, will put his revenue stream far above other owners. I asked Jones whether he'd ever be a Steinbrenner if the market allowed it.

"I am so grounded in the thinking that higher payrolls don't win Super Bowls,'' Jones said. "Remember -- one year when we won the Super Bowl [in the '90s], we had the second-lowest payroll in football. I've never experienced success throwing money at players. I never see myself doing that [being a Steinbrenner].''

He's right. After seeing the Patriots win three Super Bowls this decade with a fairly anonymous team, there's no proof that big spending means big wins.

As to how we got to this point, I won't get too technical on you, but the previous CBA was very owner-friendly. Because of all the ancillary revenue (like luxury box fees) that wasn't included in revenue-sharing, the players, who theoretically were supposed to be getting 60 percent of the gross revenue the game produced, were getting about 54 percent. So on March 8, 2006, owners approved a deal that would allow owners to skim 5 percent off the top of gross revenues, with an increasing percentage scale (60.75 percent this year) of the remaining 95 percent of the revenue going to the players. Seems easy enough, but for some owners, it was like going to bed and waking up to find their mortgage rate had gone up four points.

In the last few months, as the economic climate in the country has worsened, teams that need to borrow money for either new stadium financing or major stadium renovations (Giants, Jets, Cowboys, Panthers, Dolphins) have found the NFL's lending branch has run dry. So teams needing money are looking increasingly toward private financing and bond issues.

For teams that don't have the revenue of a New England or a Dallas, it's imperative to get that $87 million check, as the NFL passed out for network TV dough in 2007. But with the salary cap $29 million higher than that this year, and rising $7 million next year, struggling markets like Buffalo and Jacksonville and New Orleans are playing in a different league than the haves right now. And it's getting worse each year.

Back to reality. The system needs to change. But the landscape has three years of business-as-usual before the sky really does fall ... if it ever does. I don't think it will.

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