A barely noticed agreement last week between the NFL Management Council and the NFL Players Association may be little more than a footnote when the new collective bargaining agreement is signed, but it has forced a major alteration in how Patriots wide receiver Deion Branch will approach his search for a contract extension.
For the second straight year the Patriots were facing the likelihood of a prominent player holding out when training camp opens Friday -- that is until a CBA term was agreed upon that raises the fine for a signed player holding out during camp from $5,000 to $14,000 a day. Branch, who did not attend the team's mandatory minicamp because of his unhappiness with his salary for the year remaining on the five-year contract he signed as a second-round pick in 2002, has yet to decide his course of action.
The Patriots were at the forefront of favoring long-term rookie contracts, which prevent players such as Branch from reaching free agency after four years. Patriots management began to insist on five-, and later six-year deals from their top picks, a tactic that has been addressed in the new CBA. Under the new deal the maximum contract length for rookies taken in the first 16 picks remains six years but picks 17 to 32 cannot sign for more than five years. Players taken in rounds 2-7 can no longer be signed for more than four years.
``That was New England's doing," NFLPA executive director Gene Upshaw said Friday. ``They were the ones who started forcing these guys to sign long-term deals. Other teams followed and it got ridiculous. These kids had no leverage. They were being forced to give away free agency. A guy like Branch would have been a free agent this year [under the new rules]."
But he is not and that's part of the problem, according to Jason Chayut , who represents Branch. Chayut has been trying to negotiate an extension for Branch that reflects he has outplayed the value of his rookie contract. Branch is the team's No. 1 receiver yet will earn only $1.045 million this year. And he will make that much only because he hit an escalator clause based on yardage that added $500,000 to his base salary.
This offseason Antwaan Randle El, who is the definition of a No. 2 receiver, signed a $31 million deal with Washington that included an $11.5 million signing bonus. David Givens, who was New England's No. 2 receiver behind Branch for four seasons, signed a five-year, $24 million deal with the Titans that included an $8 million bonus. Branch will earn barely 20 percent of what Givens will receive.
What New England has offered Branch, according to a source within the organization, was either a five- or three-year deal that averages just over $6 million. Chayut says the average was more like $5.6 million a year. For perspective, a wide receiver hit with the franchise tag this season would receive $6.172 million, the average of the top five salaries at the position. That number will increase next year, probably to around $7 million, thus putting Branch below the game's elite receivers if he accepted New England's offer.
The team argues that if Branch does nothing and is franchised next year, as he likely would be, he'd average around $4 million for two seasons instead of the $6 million under their proposal.
But Chayut counters with a powerful argument: ``Just because the rules say you can exploit somebody doesn't mean you have to do it."
Chayut argues Branch was coerced into signing the five-year deal when he was drafted in 2002 after they had reached ``an agreement in principle" with the Patriots' chief negotiator, Jack Mula, on a four-year contract. The sides had not yet finalized the amount of his signing bonus but they were ``pretty close," according to Chayut, when Mula called with what he termed ``bad news."
Branch had agreed to work out with the team before the signing. According to Chayut, ``[Mula said] Deion had looked so good they wanted a five-year deal. The four-year deal was off the table. It was five years, take it or leave it.
`` What leverage did Deion have? Was a second-round draft choice of the Super Bowl champions going to hold out? He had no choice but to sign."
According to Chayut, he asked the team to guarantee it would not franchise Branch next year in exchange for an on-time arrival at camp and participation in all offseason activities. The team refused.
``We can debate his value to the team," Chayut said. ``What can't be debated is how he was exploited. They've gotten away with lowballing players for a long time and it's starting to bite them in the [rear]. [Richard] Seymour held out. Others are leaving. Deion is not happy. That's why the league and the union changed the rules. To protect young players like Deion. He won't be exploited again."
Branch is trying to decide what his next move will be. He had, according to several teammates, decided he would follow Seymour's example and hold out, but that was when the cost was one-third of what it now will be. If he were to hold out for even 10 days he would surrender more than 10 percent of his salary. If it were to last throughout training camp, he would have lost $630,000, more than 60 percent of his present deal. Now that's coercion.
Cutdown time for ownersOwners will meet tomorrow to discuss how the search for commissioner Paul Tagliabue's replacement is progressing. Following that meeting the search committee, which includes Patriots owner Bob Kraft, will meet through Wednesday to pare a list to four that began with 185 candidates and is down to 11.
Those four will be debated and interviewed at an owners' meeting Aug. 7-9 in Chicago. At that time, the voting will begin to select the new commissioner. One name sure to be among the finalists is Roger Goodell, the league's chief operating officer and Tagliabue's longtime right-hand man.
Many have speculated that he is the leading candidate and he may be, but Kraft said Friday, ``I'm not sure there is a leading candidate. Being the leading candidate in something like this could be the kiss of death to tell you the truth, like it was with [Jim ] Finks."
Finks, who at the time was the Saints' general manager, seemed a lock to replace Pete Rozelle in 1989 because the search committee was loaded with his supporters and had strongly recommended him. But a group of owners who felt they had not been part of the process refused to support him and Finks was never able to get enough votes, thus opening the door for Tagliabue as a compromise candidate. Rozelle was elected on the 33d ballot in 1960 and it took four months after the supposed final selection meeting to elect Tagliabue.
This time, 22 of 32 owners must approve Tagliabue's replacement, a number that is never easy to reach. Kraft has been adamant from the outset that all owners feel they've been heard and their opinions considered. That will happen for the final time tomorrow. Goodell will certainly be among the final four. Whether the son of former Senator Charles Goodell gets the job remains a mystery, and anyone who says otherwise is only guessing.
Kraft said with four finalists ``you will have someone who seems to come out of the blue. It's a dream job. If I was 10 years younger I'd be interested myself. A lot of people don't understand how hard the job is. It's not just sitting around with TV executives and going to games. It's seven days a week, 365 days a year."
It's a safe bet there will be interest in these numbersThe odds in Las Vegas have not wavered on the Patriots, who are still listed as 5-1 to win the Super Bowl Feb. 4 in Miami, but the same can't be said about the teams that met in the game last season.
The Seahawks opened at 5-1 in April but are now listed at the MGM/Mirage sportsbook at 15-2, while the defending champion Steelers were 6-1 but have fallen to 8-1. On the flip side, the Cowboys have improved from 10-1 before the release of Terrell Owens's autobiography (which, in the manner of Charles Barkley, he now claims misquoted him) to 6-1.
Which team is the longest shot? Mike Nolan's 49ers at 100-1 (but the Jets aren't far behind at 75-1). Somehow the Vikings and Ravens are both listed at 32-1, and the Lions are 38-1. How did oddsmaker Robert Walker arrive at those numbers? What happened to 30-1 or 40-1 for the non-math majors?
As far as winning the AFC, the Colts are 2-1 favorites with New England listed at 3-1. Tennessee and Houston (40-1) are both longer shots than the Jets (35-1). In the NFC, the favorites are Seattle and Carolina, each at 7-2.
Walker also has posted interesting bets in which you can pick one of two teams in a head-to-head battle to see which wins more regular-season games.
If you want the Patriots over the Colts, for example, it's -105 to bet the Patriots and -125, giving a half-game, to bet the Colts. For old friend Greg Lee, who still loves New Orleans, you can get the Saints over their sister city, Houston, but you have to give the Texans a game and a half (why would you do that?). Then again, the Saints are +105 if you like that bet, while the Texans are -125 plus 1 1/2 games.
Material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.