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And I thought after my annual four-week travelogue I could just ease back into the 15th season of Monday Morning Quarterback.
Nope. Gotta hit the ground running. No time to waste. A deal is certain to be announced after both sides agreed to terms to end the lockout early Monday pending the players' vote. The headlines of the morning:
The league's 32 player reps have an 11 a.m. conference call scheduled to approve the new 10-year collective bargaining agreement. The players association is hoping for a unanimous vote.
I'm told chances are very good that the deal will include an opt-out for both sides, not just the players. The iteration that was getting traction Sunday night would require each side to hit specific deal-breakers to be able to opt out, and the opt-out for either side would be done in year five of the deal. If either side chose to opt out in year five (2015), the final playing season of the deal would be 2016, with the final event of the CBA being the April 2017 draft. But I must stress that this was the latest version of the opt-out being discussed as the clock neared midnight, and it won't necessarily be the one that is announced today when the deal gets done.
This is the tentative schedule of events today in Washington at the headquarters of the NFL Players Association, a group that is soon to be recertified as a labor organization: The 10-member Executive Committee and most of the 10 named plaintiffs in the Brady v. NFL antitrust case will gather starting at 9 a.m. Plaintiffs will sign affidavits saying they're satisfied with dismissal of the case; those not in attendance will have the signed affidavits sent to PA headquarters by this morning. Then the 10-member Executive Board of the NFLPA will unanimously approve the proposal, sending the deal to the player-rep vote. If all goes well (no one at the PA is worried it won't), a joint press conference with executive director De Smith and his Executive Board members could be held in the early afternoon with commissioner Roger Goodell and some of the league negotiators.
Free agency could start as soon as Tuesday, according to Pro Football Talk, which obtained a late-night email from Executive Committee member Drew Brees implying as much. Frankly, I believe most NFL general managers and coaches would prefer a Tuesday start because they don't want the beginning of free agency going on at the same time as the start of training camp this weekend. And I might pooh-pooh Brees, except he's one of the closest Executive Committee members to De Smith. So it could well be that free agency will be fast-tracked. And all training camps could be open for business by Saturday.
The players won't be happy to know that they might be forced into considering something they truly don't want -- the 18-game regular-season schedule -- come 2013. Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio reported Sunday that the league could unilaterally cut the preseason schedule from four games to two in '13 or any subsequent year of the agreement. The players would have the option to either play 16 regular-season games and two preseason games, or increase the regular season to 18 games per team. The upshot: Players would lose money if they stayed at 16 plus two.
Florio wrote that it's a staredown between the owners and players, and I agree. Preseason games are easy money for the NFL, and the owners wouldn't risk the players saying, "Oh, we'll let those two exhibition games go and reduce our take.''
Late Sunday night, I asked George Atallah, Smith's right-hand man with the players, if he could see any possibility of the deal getting derailed at the last second.
"I do not,'' he said after leaving a long day of talks inside the association's headquarters. "The players have worked too hard for this moment, and they've managed to tune out the noise outside the process to focus on making a deal that would be fair to both sides.''
So that's the news of the morning. Let's get into a few of the details of the agreement that are most interesting to me, and I hope to you.
Term. Barring an opt-out ("It's just an insurance policy,'' Houston co-player-rep Eric Winston told me), this deal runs through the 2021 NFL Draft. Brett Favre will be completing his 30th season then. He'll be only 52.
Medical benefits. Men who play in a game in any season of this deal will be eligible to stay in the NFL medical plan for life. Currently, retired players have five years of post-career health care. Just saw Eddie George, looking like an Adonis, at the Super Bowl last February, and he said his medical benefits just ran out a couple of months earlier. "Now's not the time I need 'em,'' he told me. Born too early.
Guaranteed contracts for injury. This went over everyone's heads all weekend. Let's say a player signs a three-year, $6-million contract with a $2-million bonus and salaries of $1.1 million, $1.3 million and $1.6 million. And say he gets a career-ending injury in game five of the first season. He keeps his bonus. He keeps his first-year salary. That's normal. Now he'd get to keep $1 million of his year-two salary and $500,000 of year three. In the old days, he'd have been able to keep the bonus and year-one salary, a total of $3.1 million. Now he'd be able to pocket $4.6 million because of the maximum of $1.5 million in injury-protection money.
Restricted free agency this year. Weird. The NFL hasn't finalized the timing for it yet, but there are a slew of restricted free agents, valuable ones like Roman Harper and Antonio Cromartie, who could have up to two weeks from the time camps start to choose a new team or go back to an existing one.
"Did anyone in the negotiations think how absolutely crazy this could be?'' one coach told me Saturday. "Suppose you're counting on a guy who's restricted to come back, and a week or so into free agency he gets blown out of the water with some offer, and we've already lost the chance to get anyone good to replace him -- and we're three weeks away from playing a game that counts. Whoever made some of these rules ... I mean, we could be recruiting free agents while we're trying to put together installation periods for the playbook in training camp.''
Under the plan being considered by the league last Thursday, the restricted signings could take place until Aug. 12. Signing at the last minute would give players less than a month before they played their first real game with a new team.
Padded practices. Teams can have 14 per regular season, including only three in the last six weeks of the season. Grumbling leaguewide has begun over the sissification of the NFL; coaches won't be able to toughen up soft teams anymore.
"Not sure this is a very big deal,'' Winston of the Texans said. "We had the leading rusher in the league last year [Arian Foster] and I bet we only had 17 padded practices all season.''
TV money. Starting next year, players get 55 percent of network dough. That'll take a big jump in 2014, when the TV deals should increase 50 to 70 percent per network.
Football intelligence. "We'll be cramming two months of an offseason program into seven days,'' one coach told me Saturday. "If you're not making major changes on offense or defense, and you're in a division with lots of change, that should mean a couple of wins for you.''
Look at the AFC North. Cleveland's rebuilt from the ground up. Cincinnati's installing a brand-new offense. Pittsburgh and Baltimore (though the Ravens have a new defensive coordinator, Chuck Pagano) are relatively unchanged. Just what this division needs: more to divide the haves from the have-nots.
One coach with an established program told me, "I just wish this went another week. We'll be ready, and maybe a few of the teams we play, especially early, won't be.''
What the owners won. Not having to pay the $320 million in benefits they didn't pay last year in exchange for the players getting an uncapped year; franchise and transition tags; no judicial oversight in major-league disputes between players and owners, a major sticking point from the last CBA; the ability to keep 60 percent of all club-generated revenue.
What the players won. The continuation of the 16-game schedule; five weeks less or the rigidly organized offseason programs; $1 billion in additional benefits for retirees -- an important point from day one for De Smith; a true salary floor, with teams having to spend 99 percent of the cap in years one and two of the deal and 95 percent thereafter.
The game as we know it. Most in the football establishment, like this well-respected GM, don't like the changes that have players on the field less. "We complain about tackling all the time,'' he said. "How are we gonna teach tackling without practicing tackling enough? I will not be surprised if you see the smashmouth game disappear.''
I heard it all this weekend -- that the game will turn into the college spread offense, that lack of fundamental work will make the game sloppy, that new coaches who used tough training camps to toughen their teams won't be able to do that anymore. Maybe. But the smartest football coaches in the world -- all of whom will be playing by the same set of restrictive rules -- will learn to adapt.
The opt-outs. As I said earlier, I doubt either side will want to opt out. But it's unfortunate the opt-outs for both sides apparently will be included, because it creates uncertainty about the future of the game as early as 2015, when the networks will be in the second year of their new contracts. For the sake of the game's health, it would have been better to have no opt-outs and have this deal run for certain through the spring of 2021. Uncertainty in business is bad, and it was bad for this league this offseason.
But at the end of the day, the players demanded the opt-out because too many of them have zero trust for the owners. I mean, zero. It's been interesting to talk to a few of them over the weekend, off the record, in what should be a very happy time for them and realize how little they trust the men who employ them. Sad, really.
Overall, this is a good opportunity for a relatively new cadre of owners -- Clark Hunt, Dean Spanos, John Mara -- to build up trust with the players.
One more note on this: Several from the players' side singled out Patriots owner Bob Kraft for his role in getting momentum going when there was very little last spring. As one of the key members of the players' side told me: "He told us, 'I'm not going to hope either side makes a bad deal, because then our relationship suffers, and then the whole business suffers. And my family's going to own this team for years and years. We want to see it healthy for both sides.' That registered with us. He's a real deal-maker.''
There will be MMQB-ing on this deal for weeks, but this looks like a good deal for both sides. For years.
I think I got myself a big van for my camp tour. My buddy Phil Parisi of the USO (we went on the USO's Afghanistan tour in 2008) volunteered to have one of the huge USO vans used for domestic entertainment of troops and their families made available for me to take my tour of camps this year (pictured at right).
Barring some last-minute problems (like me forgetting to buy the Pop Tarts), it looks like we'll be taking off this weekend (time and place to be determined) to see about 22 to 25 camps and/or teams. Sweet ride. It has wifi, a big-screen TV and some of the other entertainment things (game systems) that 54-year-old men have no clue about. Hope to see you along the road. We'll be live-blogging on SI.com and tweeting along the way. Should be plenty to talk about. This is going to be one weird camp season.
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