Posted: Monday September 3, 2012 1:35AM ; Updated: Tuesday September 4, 2012 1:56PM
Peter King
Peter King>MONDAY MORNING QB

Labor issues with officials causing uneasiness as season opens

Story Highlights

After a contentious weekend, it's likely replacement refs will work Cowboys-Giants

Good news: NFL may finally be ready to start charging less for preseason games

Explaining my Super Bowl pick; My weekly schedule; 10 Things I Think I Think

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I start this Opening Day Week with some possible blessed relief for fans, which starts with my earlier than usual stat of the week.

Some 639 active and eligible NFL players did not play in the 16 games on the final preseason week. That includes 17 of 32 starting quarterbacks. In fact, 10 teams thought so little of the final dress rehearsal for the season that they didn't play their first- or second-string quarterback a single snap.

If you bought a seat for Tampa Bay-Washington Wednesday night, 60 players sat it out, including Robert Griffin III. In Philadelphia, 66 players on the Jets and Eagles didn't play. And 62 Bears and Browns didn't get their hands, or uniforms, dirty in Cleveland Thursday night, despite the fans paying regular season prices for the schlock that is preseason football. Sean Canfield started at quarterback for the Saints at Tennessee Thursday. Cut the next day. Quarterback Dominique Davis played 60 minutes for someone Thursday. Guess who? (And no sharing the answer, Falcons fans.)

I mention all of this because I sense the league is finally getting fed up with it. I don't know when it's coming, but I can sense it -- the 32 teams changing their practice of charging regular season prices for some of the intrasquad-scrimmage-quality games we see every August, particularly during the final preseason week.

I can't tell you if it'll be season-ticket holders being asked to buy only nine games instead of the 10 (eight regular season, two preseason) they now purchase, or if the price of the 10th game on every ticket package will be radically reduced. But I can see sometime this fall, once the officiating conundrum is settled, the NFL working on a way to not rip off the customers it says it cares so much about.

My proposal: Charge eight games at full price. Charge a ninth game, one of the two currently scheduled home preseason games, at half price. And the other home preseason game won't exist anymore; it'd be a scrimmage, on one of the first two weekends of the preseason, at a regional venue, for $10 per ticket. Each team brings 50 of the 90 players fighting for roster spots.

Here are some examples using the first weekend of the recently completed preseason: Pittsburgh-Philadelphia at Penn State. Washington-Buffalo at Syracuse. Cleveland-Detroit at Toledo. Tampa Bay-Miami at Orlando. Minnesota-San Francisco at Jim Harbaugh's old place, Stanford. St. Louis-Indy at Notre Dame.

For some games, have fun. Baltimore-Atlanta (with all the Alabama players Ozzie Newsome drafts, and Julio Jones on the Falcons) on the Alabama campus at Tuscaloosa. How about Tennessee versus Seattle at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, Wis., with Russell Wilson fighting for playing time for the Seahawks? The possibilities, and potential NFL goodwill, would be endless.

So there's that. And a Happy Labor Day to you all. Maybe next year you season-ticket holders will not be forced to pay for the games you hate so much.

***

Now for the news of the week ...

All officials, all the time.

Another story showcasing these fine, upstanding men in the striped pajamas, aka the replacement officials: I cannot say which game this story happened in, but I can tell you it did happen. Final preseason game for two teams. Official calls defensive pass-interference in front of the penalized team's bench. Head coach lambastes the official. Official picks up the flag, tells the coach he's not going to make the call. Coach is stunned.

Imagine what will happen when something's actually at stake.

I really thought the ref lockout would end when the league sent a memo to every team last Wednesday telling teams that replacement officials would work the first weekend of games. Now the impasse was on the verge of costing each official $8,000 a week, on average. If you recall the way the league dealt with the players in 2011, you recall nothing ever happened until the very last minute. Thursday and Friday were the equivalent of 10 minutes before midnight. Each side knew that to get the real refs back for the Wednesday night opener, the deal would have to be done by either late Sunday or early Monday.

According to a memo sent to all the teams on Sunday and obtained by SI.com, Commissioner Roger Goodell called one of the officials' negotiators, ref Jeff Triplette, and Triplette came to New York to speak with the league's negotiators directly. The league's memo attests that, "In the course of discussions on Friday morning, Mr. Triplette quantified the economic gap between the parties as approximately $4 million per year for compensation and retirement benefits combined. The Commissioner advised Mr. Triplette that in order to obtain an agreement this weekend, so that the regular officials could begin to work next week, we would close the deal by agreeing to provide an additional $1 million per year, which could be used to improve either base compensation or our proposal regarding retirement benefits ...

"The increase offered to settle the labor dispute could be valued in several ways. Assuming a staff of 120 game officials, an additional $1 million would fund an $8,000 increase in the average game official's annual compensation. Alternatively, it would increase the annual defined contribution to an official's retirement account by $8,000. If the officials preferred, the additional money could have been divided between base compensation and retirement benefits ...

"Commissioner Goodell expressly stated that the additional money was being offered to conclude a deal now so the officials could be on the field for the start of the regular season. He said that the officials should not schedule further meetings unless they were prepared to settle on that basis. In other words, the increase in the offer was to settle now -- it was not to set a new floor for a new round of negotiations.''

Triplette, according to the NFL, said another negotiating official, Scott Green, and attorney Michael Arnold would come to New York to continue the negotiations on Saturday -- to, as the NFL memo said, "conclude an agreement within the parameters that had been discussed earlier on Friday."

Later Sunday, the officials' union, the NFL Referees Association, said the NFL's claim that Triplette made any agreement with the league was "absolutely false.''

"The NFLRA was prepared to discuss all remaining issues to reach a fair CBA,'' the officials' statement said. "However, the NFL provided an ultimatum that the NFLRA abandon its positions on all issues other than compensation in return for the possibility that the NFL would modestly increase its offer. The NFLRA put forth a compensation alternative that was immediately rejected by the NFL .... The NFLRA asked the NFL to discuss other alternatives to resolve the pension issue. The NFL rejected that request. Having refused to negotiate until the 11th hour, the NFL has chosen a tactic of personal attacks on the leadership of the NFLRA.''

The pension part of the negotiations, I'm told, is a non-starter for the league. The large majority of full-time NFL employees have 401k-based pensions, not the defined-benefit pensions the officials have now, and the league wants to change over to the 401k model. The NFL doesn't want part-time employees, many of whom have pensions at their other jobs, to have a better pension system than full-time NFL employees.

If the officials would drop their pension demand -- that the current officials be grandfathered in to the more advantageous pension plan, while newly hired officials would have 401k pensions -- this dispute would probably end quickly.

There's one more hurdle. The NFL wants to hire a farm system of about 20 officials to train new officials and also to provide a "bench'' so the league could replace underperforming officials if their performance warranted. But it doesn't sound from either side like that's a deal-breaker, because the league dismisses underperforming officials after every season anyway.

Stay tuned. It seems highly unlikely the logjam will break before Wednesday.

***

Two days until football. Real football.

The Giants and Cowboys play Wednesday night, opening the NFL's 93rd season. One of the best conversations I had on my camp tour this summer was with Dallas coach Jason Garrett about Eli Manning.

Garrett, being a former quarterback himself and tutoring a pretty good one in Tony Romo in Dallas, has strong opinions about what makes a quarterback good. Garrett thinks surviving adversity and being able to bring your team back late are two of the biggest signposts to quarterback greatness. For instance, he thinks one of the great games Romo's ever played is a five-interception job at Buffalo on a Monday night five seasons ago. "Because he struggled for a long time in that game, he hung in, he came back twice in the fourth quarter from deficits, and he found a way to get it done,'' Garrett said.

Manning, Garrett said, has a reputation for being the perfect fourth-quarter quarterback. "People write all the time how great Eli is late, like he's never lost a game in the fourth quarter,'' Garrett said. "That's inaccurate. He has. He's made some bad mistakes late, with some bad interceptions at the wrong times. But it's the NFL. The NFL's hard. And Eli has come back to play well so many times in big games, which is one of the things I really admire about him.

"As much as the big plays -- like the throw he made against the Patriots down the sideline late for [Mario] Manningham -- what impresses me are the little plays. The consecutive passes he completed in the first half of the Super Bowl, just keeping [Tom Brady] off the field and moving the ball so efficiently. He plays the game so well from the shoulders up.''

Seems to run in the family.

 
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