It's the NFL's Fault

I had really hoped to never write this article. I had anticipated the future of the franchise, the strong-armed lefty that would guide the offense for years to come, would be signed and in camp on time. The Cardinals had plenty of cap room, were tired of looking like a cheapskate team, and Leinart seemed genuinely interested in striking a deal.

However, after four days of intense negotiations, Leinart is still waiting (holed up in AZ for the first three days, but now back home in Southern California) and his agent, Tom Condon has boarded a plane and left the friendly confines of Phoenix behind him.  When the agent leaves, that's a pretty good indication that talks are at an impasse.  While there could be an 11th hour miracle (after all, I'm sure Condon has a fax machine), we may have to prepare for a protracted hold-out.

After all, most of the top 10 has already signed.  The vast majority of draftees, regardless of rounds, have reported.  Even Reggie Bush, who some suggested might hold out the entire year and live off his endorsements, has signed and reported.  If Leinart were going to sign quickly, he would've signed by now.

At this point, it seems that there is a difference of opinion on contract length.  Leinart wants 5 years, the Cardinals want 6.  And neither side is budging.  Both sides have acted quickly.  Condon spoke at length without really saying anything, whereas coach Dennis Green has placed the blame solely on the Leinart camp, saying that the Cardinals hadn't had this type of trouble signing Larry Fitzgerald or Antrelle Rolle.  Apparently, Arizona has made Leinart a good, fair solid offer.

Obviously, then, it must be Leinart's fault.  After all, he hasn't played a down of professional football in his life.  What business does he have setting his own terms, asking for more money, fewer years?  The fact that he won a bunch of games at Southern Cal doesn't really mean anything does it?  Well, no.  It doesn't.  But, the fact that the Cardinals drafted him 10th overall in the 2006 NFL Draft does mean something.  The fact that they don't want to spend the next 5 years jockeying between Kurt Warner and John Navarre at the game's most important position means something.  Leinart does have a leg to stand on, but the collective patience and understanding of Cardinals Nation will begin to wear thin if the hold-out persists.

If it's probably not Leinart's fault, then the natural progression would be to blame the Bidwells.  Those tightwads are at it again.  They figure that they've spent enough on a new stadium, a few free agent acquisitions, and they'll be damned if they hand a blank check over to some kid that wants to be a movie star but happens to be a quarterback.  If you ask the Cardinals, they don't really need Leinart this season, it'd just be nice to have him available as a back-up (after he actually wins the job, that is).  Why not wait?  Well, there we get back to the collective patience and understanding thing.

And, bottom line, you can't blame Condon.  As much as I'd like to vilify anyone in a profession that inspired Jerry McGuire, he's just doing his job.  Leinart's a smart kid.  I'm sure he's familiar with the concept that Condon works for him, and not the other way around.

Before we get to blaming God or the Free Masons, I'll get to the point: It's the NFL's fault.

Every other professional sport, for the most part, has a system in place to slot rookies' salaries.  This is done to make sure that the rookies report to camp on time, as well as making sure that the teams that sign them don't low-ball them.  It's also done to make sure that rookie salaries do not spiral out of proportion.  The NFL does not have such a system.  As a matter of fact, the closest thing they have to a system is something that agents came up with.  They tend to negotiate on the principle that this year's crop of rookies should be paid about 7-10% more than last year's.  And, every NFL team gets a certain amount of money given to them in the Rookie Allocation Pool.  And that's it.

I'll admit that it does seem vaguely communist to take negotiations out the equation and set rookie salaries every year.  However, it's the easiest, fastest way to get things done.  It will prevent lengthy hold-outs (Cedric Benson and Philip Rivers will tell you that missing even 2 weeks can be a death sentence), eliminate bad blood that can surface before the player even takes the field, and cut down on abbreviated study times for incoming rookies.

Veterans will welcome this idea with open arms, as I'm sure Thomas Jones and Jamal Lewis aren't happy that Reggie Bush already makes more than they do.

Rookies and agents will have to adjust.  We'll probably see even more prospects working out at the combine, hoping to improve their draft status.  Campus workouts will take on a higher level of importance.  And, players will know going in how much they can expect to earn.  Agents will be able to differentiate themselves on their ability to secure more guaranteed money and higher signing bonuses.  Remember, there are a lot of ways to skin a contract in the NFL.  Two 5-year, $50 million dollar deals could have very little in common when you get down to details.

It's a permanent solution to an annual problem.  While there are no longer year-long hold-outs, or even ones that persist into the regular season, this is one more step the NFL can take towards equality and labor peace.

Finally, even though I have no pity in my heart for recent college graduates that make millions per year more than I do, it is possible to outplay your rookie deal.  In those situations, the player has considerably more leverage in holding out, more options as far as teams that would be willing to trade for him, and, in general, more fan support.  Plus which, every rookie should be cognizant of the fact that they're playing for their second contract, not their first.  Even high draft picks that signed huge rookie deals were more handsomely compensated the second time around.  Just ask Michael Vick.  And Peyton Manning.  And Carson Palmer.

The money is there if the production is there.  You can't produce if you can't get in the line-up.  You can't get in the line-up until you get to camp.


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