By Len Pasquarelli
Senior NFL Writer
The Sports Xchange
For years, much of the money-talk in the NFL revolved around the "cash over cap" concept. The gist of the buzz-term: The reality that the annual payrolls for many franchises in the league actually exceeded the maximum salary cap ceiling, which is by definition a bookkeeping number that can easily be manipulated.
Basically stated, because of the several mechanisms involved (principally the proration of signing bonuses), a club could be in compliance with the cap, but still spend considerably beyond the stated limit in terms of actual payroll outlay.
But this year, with no offseason and with the preparation period for the campaign condensed by the lockout, "cash over cap" discussions may be somewhat blunted. The new three-word term that could have more impact: Will players opt for "cash over continuity" or prefer their old uniform colors to the long green?
With a truncated run-up time to the start of the season - even if the league year begins on July 28, the target date suggested Monday by ESPN, for the beginning of the veteran free agency period - there will be some perception of chaos as clubs feverishly scramble to configure their training camp rosters. And so, might some unrestricted free agents eschew higher contract offers to return to their incumbent teams, where they know the ropes already, and they won't be confronted by the demands of a restricted breaking-in period?
As ludicrous as it sounds - let's face it, for most players, money talks louder than any other component of a contract conversation - stability might actually trump salary in a few cases.
With the emphasis on "a few."
"There's always going to be some reluctance to change teams," said one prominent agent, who has three veterans who figure to be among the top 40 unrestricted free agents when the signing moratorium is lifted. "It's the old 'dance with the one who brought you' mentality. But money is usually the biggest factor in the decisions about where to sign. And, who's kidding, it probably will be again this year. But guys who switch teams are going to have to realize they don't have a three- or four-month offseason (acclimation) time like they normally would. There's going to be some awkwardness."
None of this is to suggest that scores of players will regularly grant their teams a so-called "hometown discount" to stay. But in any year, the success rate of veteran free agents is typically mixed. In this most unusual of offseasons, how a player performs with a new club, his ability to quickly mesh in a new environment, could be even more unpredictable than ever.
There are, of course, a lot of moving parts as teams and players look ahead to the free agency period and attempt to predict how it might look. Some of the expected provisions of a new CBA could force a few franchises to increase spending and, thus, actually compete for some of their own unrestricted free agents. On the flip side, the free agency movement period figures to be fast and furious, and clubs will attempt to seal deals with the most attractive players by quickly proposing big-money pacts that leave little room for haggling with other suitors.
One NFC general manager readying for the veteran free agency period conceded over the weekend that part of the strategy he is "seriously considering" for signing players, both his own and others, is to impose a deadline on proposals.
Still, there is the reality that some free agents who take advantage of the money-grab will be entering into situations where a club has a new coach or is changing quarterbacks. Counting the two teams who retained their interim coaches from a year ago, there will be eight new coaches in the NFL in 2011. Roughly one-third of the clubs have unsettled or undefined quarterback depth charts.
Under such a scenario, a player could conclude he is better served returning to the situation he knows, particularly if the money is close. Comfort zone, familiarity with the players on a team or with an offensive and defensive scheme, doesn't figure to be king. But in some cases, it might be among the determinants.
"It's always going to be a little uncomfortable being the new kid in the class," said veteran agent Hadley Engelhard. "The unknown is always a factor. How much a factor it will be this year, without the offseason to get (accustomed) to a switch ... well, we'll just have to see."
Over the past five years, fewer than 40 percent of unrestricted free agents returned to their incumbent franchises. Part of the evaluation of free agency this year, and the effect of the lockout on player movement, will be to see if that number increases.
Len Pasquarelli is a Senior NFL Writer for The Sports Xchange. He has covered the NFL for 33 years and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee. His NFL coverage earned recognition as the winner of the McCann Award for distinguished reporting in 2008.