Labor endgame could result in NFL looking like totally different league
Cris Collinsworth, NBC analyst, believes football won't be played until November
Examining the NFL Network's top 100 players list so far and unveiling mine
Quotes of the Week, Stat of the Week, 10 Things I Think I Think and more
SALISBURY, N.C. -- I'm a little bit blown away this morning, as I have been since Dave Goren of the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association called in January to say I'd been named sportswriter of the year. You sure you didn't get my number mixed up with Posnanski's or Reilly's or Verducci's? But hey, that's the power of Sports Illustrated, SI.com and the internet in today's sports communications business. And I ain't giving it back.
Tonight's the awards ceremony, in this small city an hour north of Charlotte. I'll have to take a deep breath when I look around and see those I've looked up to in the business, like Bob Ryan, Brent Musburger and Hal McCoy -- a guy who taught me so much on the Reds' beat 30 years ago -- and realize I'm standing with them now, and standing with peers like Mike Tirico and so many writers and broadcasters from across the country who I've shared press boxes with over the years. It's a great honor, something I'll never forget as long as I live.
Now what were we talking about?
Yes, pro football. If we go on an archaeological dig, I bet we can find some trace of that wonderful game -- the game we're all having a spat with right now.
A smart arbiter looks at the labor endgame. And it's not pretty
I want to start today with a guy who can be a fair referee to both players and owners. He was a player, a very good one, and now he's close to lots of players, and to key people on both sides. He's part jock, part lawyer, part E.F. Hutton. And one great color man. And he has a thoughtful, plaintive wail for everyone in this labor mess:
"Is this really what we want -- judges determining so much about the future of the National Football League?'' Cris Collinsworth said over the weekend. "We've got the greatest game in the world here in a time of incredible wealth, and we're in a position where that very possibly can be changed forever here very soon. And I'm just asking: Why?''
The other day, I noticed Collinsworth had written on his website, footballpros.com, and tweeted that his best guess for the start of the NFL season was early November. Then there'd be a nine- or 10-game regular season, then the same number of playoff games. So I reached out to him to see what he meant.
This disclaimer right up front: I've known Collinsworth since 1984, when I covered him on the Bengals in Cincinnati. Now I work with Collinsworth and consider him a friend. We've beaten each other up on many topics over the years, but that's why I like him. I can tell him he's nuts, and usually he likes it; we did it a lot at HBO and then NBC before he left the studio and went into the play-by-play booth. But I understand if you're sitting there thinking I'm not going to be impartial or I'm going to paint Collinsworth in a good way. I am -- but that's because what he's saying makes a lot of sense.
Collinsworth's point is an interesting one. He thinks the appeals court will side with the owners and the current lockout will stay in place. If it does, neither side will be supremely motivated to move; the owners will figure they've already made a strong offer (the March 11 offer) and will wait for the players to budge. But the players, on a tremendous streak in the courts right now, will figure they've made sound arguments in front of a mediator in Washington and judges in Minneapolis, and even if the lockout stays legal, their antitrust case will have a good chance in the Eighth Circuit.
And the players won't blink until they start missing paychecks. Collinsworth saw it twice as a player, in 1982 and 1987. "The only thing I'm absolutely certain of,'' he told me, "is that there will be players broke by the middle of September. There will be pressure to make a deal. But there will be pressure by owners too. They've got payments to make too -- stadium mortgages.''
Collinsworth gives them three or four weeks to make a deal. Then a week of free agency, signing undrafted college players and unsigned veterans. Two weeks of camp. One preseason game. Then the season starts, either on Oct. 30 or Nov. 6.
But if that scenario doesn't happen, and if the two sides stay in a cold war, what happens if, say, a season is missed? Here's where it gets hairy, and where we have to start wondering which way the game will go. In Brady v. the NFL, the players argue for a new way of doing football business. Longtime players' attorney Jeffrey Kessler would like to see the draft abolished; in fact, as Daniel Kaplan of Sports Business Journal has reported, Kessler would like to see no player-acquisition rules. No draft. Free agency for every unsigned player. What would the NFL look like if every player and every team were allowed to make its own business decisions that would, of course, be in the best interests of each?
Say the TV contracts were abolished and teams could make their own deals. "If the Cowboys could sell their rights, maybe they'd get $500 million a year, and maybe the Bengals would get $50 [million],'' he said.
Say Peyton Manning could sign anywhere. Could some owners field super teams and some field Kansas City Royal-type teams?
Say there was no draft. It's every player for himself. Collinsworth isn't even sure that's the worst thing. Nor am I. But it'd certainly be revolutionary.
And say drug-testing was abolished.
How many doors do you want to open?
"It's possible the structure of the game could change forever,'' he said. "Now, game after game after game, week after week after week, goes down to the wire. The pro game could become like college football -- 55-14 most games, with four or five tremendous games of national interest every year. Now we have that many every week.''
There's no guarantee Collinsworth's right. I remember the late George Young, the Giants' longtime GM, railing against free agency for years as the '80s ended and a free market was inevitable. "We're not like baseball,'' he said. "You can't just plug in a guard the way you plug in a second baseman. Guards can have much different responsibilities depending on what team they're on.''
True. But it worked out fine. Free agency's been a boon. And not only hasn't it hurt the competitive balance of the game, but also it's given the league another hot-stove month of the offseason when football's in the headlines. Traditionally, the combine's big for the last two weeks of February, free agency big for March, the draft for April, offseason workouts for six weeks in May and June, and then training camps begin at the end of July.
So I'm not sure the death of the draft would be the death of competitive balance. Teams would figure it out the same way they figured out how to replenish the roster when losing unsigned vets.
But if players take this all the way in the courts, and win, and change the game forever, what would stop Jerry Jones and Dan Snyder from becoming the Steinbrenners and John Henry? (If baseball had a franchise player designation, Adrian Gonzalez would be a Padre for life, not tearing up the American League for Boston right now.) There'd be nothing to stop Jones, with a monster TV network, from having a $250-million payroll. Similar to baseball, the bottom-feeder NFL teams would struggle. Dallas might have five minimum-salary special-teamers. Cincinnati might have 20, and some might start.
The question is: Would that make the game better?
Collinsworth, at times in our conversation, sounded like he sounds when he gets strident -- like he's throttling the microphone and would do anything to make you see his point.
"God, I just wish I could get through to somebody,'' he said. "You know how when you're talking to your kids, and you know positively what the right thing to do is, and you also know they're going to do something else, and there's nothing you can do about it? That's how I feel now. And, God, is it painful to watch.
"The game's so good. The players are making money. The owners are making money. The commissioner's got some good safety initiatives going. The networks are thrilled. The fans are thrilled. The game's never been better. It's time to quit sugarcoating this thing and really start thinking about what the NFL really might look like at the end of the process.''