Uncapped year will be no bargain for the players
At one point, NFL players looked at the concept of an uncapped year as a dream that was unlikely ever to come true. And now that it has, the reality has become more nightmarish than they ever could imagine.
On Thursday, the NFL Players Association made a late stab at moving to put the conditions of 2006-09 back in place for one more year, telling the owners that it would help spark a new collective bargaining agreement and keep the Good Ship Pro Football from drifting into uncharted waters.
The union was summarily rejected.
So 212 fourth- and fifth-year players will be restricted free agents (not one player in this group has signed a long-term deal since season’s end), where they would have been unrestricted in the past. The salary floor will disappear with the cap, and players looking for money will do so in an uncertain economic climate while their union sniffs around for collusion.
Worst of all, despite the lifting of salary limits, many teams are planning to impose strict budgets to prepare for the possibility that whenever a new CBA is struck, the cap will return and penalties for free-wheeling free agent forays could follow.
Easy to see, then, where the poison pills put in the 2006 agreement to spark talks and keep things from getting to this point will be swallowed harder by the players than the owners.
“Teams are going to be very hesitant to act as if 2010 is a ‘file-delete’ year,’’ said Andrew Brandt of the National Football Post, who was a Packers vice president and chief negotiator from 1999-2008 and a player agent before that. “There’s a natural caution out there from cap managers, even though there’s no cap. And there are rumblings that if and when the cap comes back, there’s going to be a lot of retroactive accounting.
“This is the issue for teams, moreso than just throwing out big numbers. If you cut someone with a big deal, you’d have to worry about a huge acceleration on a pro-rated bonus to the cap, and this year you wouldn’t have that problem. But you have the thought with new deals: Will this come back to haunt me?’’
Take the example of Patriots outside linebacker Adalius Thomas.
Thomas collected a $12 million signing bonus on his five-year deal in 2007, pro-rated against the cap over the life of the contract, and an $8 million option bonus in 2008, pro-rated over the four remaining years. That leaves $8.8 million that hasn’t been counted against the cap yet, and that would be the dead money on the Patriots’ cap in 2010 if they were to cut him.
With no cap, the penalties won’t be incurred.
But there’s no saying that a deal signed in 2010 won’t be accounted for later against a future cap, which could cause problems for big spenders after next season. And there’s no telling whether some creative accounting - say, disguising a signing bonus as a first-year salary to bury the charges into 2010 - won’t be penalized later.
It hurts players that some teams crying poor-mouth will slash payroll, but it might hurt more that even the “haves’’ in the NFL are emphasizing restraint to keep from mortgaging their competitive futures.
“We’re going forward with the way we’ve done it,’’ 49ers GM Scot McCloughan said. “We’re doing just fine and we don’t need to adjust.’’
The Steelers (who usually don’t splurge in free agency anyway) are another team that has publicly said they will impose a cap on themselves, based on the 2010 numbers.
“That’s more an individual, team, Pittsburgh Steeler philosophy,’’ said Pittsburgh director of football operations Kevin Colbert. “We’re going to operate as we always have. Whether or not you want to use the term or whatever you want to call it, our deal is, ‘This is how we’re going to approach it, this is our budget, these are the things we as the Steelers are going to do.’ ’’
Other teams are more evasive about their plans, but the lack of a salary cap probably won’t send anyone into a total philosophical shift.
And that isn’t collusion. It’s the reality that short-term gain in 2010 could bring a hefty penalty down the line.
“I plan under the circumstances where we’re at,’’ said Packers GM Ted Thompson. “We are where we are, this is what we’re going to be in, in 2010. You just go about your business.
“I’m not trying to foresee 2011, I’m not doing any of that stuff. We have plans within our organization of how we’re going to approach this season, and that’s what we’re going to do.’’
Does that mean spending will be curbed altogether? No, it doesn’t.
A scarcity of elite talent on the market could create bidding wars for certain players at positions like linebacker (Karlos Dansby) or cornerback (Dunta Robinson, Leigh Bodden). It’s also possible that - with the market shallow across the board - a $1.5 million-a-year player could see that number rise to $2 million or $2.5 million.
And there will be buyers.
“We’re not thinking there’s going to be a work stoppage,’’ McCloughan said. “I think teams, common sense-wise, a lot of teams are going to be nervous to give a lot of guarantees to the standard guy, knowing there’s a chance of a work stoppage. We’re not.
“If we’ve got a good player we think we can get done, we’re going to get him done. But again, no one really knows. It’s uncharted waters. Anything can happen.’’
That, for players, is precisely the problem. As Brandt said, “It almost seems like the owners are embracing life without the salary cap.’’
As it stands, they have every reason to.
While Holmgren says, “I know what they do there, and I would say that it’s not exactly the same,’’ he has reached out to Miami executive vice president Bill Parcells.
“He told me a little bit of how he does things,’’ Holmgren said. “It’s how he would approach things, the pros and the cons of doing this, because me and him, we were coaching a long time.’’
The similarity in the set-ups is simple: a football czar oversees the club, with a general manager and coach underneath him. But there’s a distinct difference, too. When Miami hired Parcells, he imported new GM Jeff Ireland and coach Tony Sparano, who worked with the Tuna in Dallas from 2003-06.
But while Browns GM Tom Heckert had worked with former Holmgren assistant Andy Reid in Philadelphia, he’d never been a colleague of Holmgren’s, and coach Eric Mangini was held over despite coming from a different coaching tree.
Holmgren’s hope is that things will evolve as they did in Green Bay, where he and GM Ron Wolf forged a relationship despite different pedigrees.
“If it works as well as it did with Ron and me, then great,’’ said Holmgren, “because I couldn’t have asked for anything better as a young head coach than to have had Ron Wolf.’’
Holmgren was adamant that the Browns will remain Mangini’s team, saying he “reminded me a little of myself when I started out.’’ And as such, he will not impose his Bill Walsh-influenced offensive system on Mangini.
“The more I got to know him, I realized, ‘Heck, there’s a good coach here,’ ’’ Holmgren said. “He believes in his system and he brought some ideas. We talk about philosophy a lot, we talk about how to run a practice, time off, communicating, smiling more [laughs], that kind of stuff.
“Once we’ve laid the foundation, then we can get nuts-and-bolts of, ‘OK, why are we doing this?’ ’’
Kansas City’s Todd Haley (left) is not one. Haley already had ex-Oklahoma coach Gary Gibbs as his linebackers coach, and this offseason he added former Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis and ex-Browns coach Romeo Crennel to run the offense and defense, respectively.
The idea, Haley says, is to have different voices in the room, guys that aren’t afraid to speak their minds, so the best decision can be made collectively.
“It’s priceless, especially now with a year under my belt,’’ Haley said. “Obviously I got hired late in the game last year [after going to the Super Bowl as Cardinals offensive coordinator], and I’ve got a bunch of good coaches on my staff as it is. But to me, the thing I learned this year is you want more guys that have a familiarity in thinking the same way.
“We’re not all going to agree on something, but our vision on the types of players we want, the way we want to play football, is common. Then, it’s just a matter of interacting with guys in there, and it’s guys you’ve been in the trenches with many times. It’s priceless.’’
Haley got his coaching start with the Jets in the late 1990s on a Bill Parcells staff that also included Weis, Crennel, and Chiefs GM Scott Pioli. Those three went to New England, while Haley went to Chicago before rejoining Parcells in Dallas.
Now they go to work as the Chiefs evaluate college players and their own personnel.
“The four of us and Mo [assistant head coach Maurice Carthon] and a couple of the other coaches have been through some good fights before, so we know there’s not going to be that time where people try to establish some sort of position in arguing for a player or arguing against a player,’’ Pioli said. “It’s critical because this is a time where you can’t be shy about your opinions.
“ ‘Easier’ may not be the right word, but it will be efficient.’’
After a 4-12 season, there’s plenty of work to do.
Albert R. Breer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @albertbreer; material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.