As a result, the 2010 campaign could operate without a salary cap, which would be the first time since it was first implemented in 1993. Such ramifications could damage the foundation of the most popular league in major sports. Teams will be able to spend as much or as little as they want on draft picks and free agents. Think Major League Baseball with the Cowboys and Jerry Jones imitating the Yankees, and the Redskins and Dan Snyder doing their best Red Sox impersonation.
What will happen when the perfect league opens Pandora's Box? Will the NFL become another MLB with the rich getting richer and smaller-market teams like the Jaguars being forced to order from the McDonald's dollar menu?
Beyond the ugliness of a cap-free season in 2010, the 2011 season could be even worse with the possibility of a lockout by the owners, something NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith believes the owners want, and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell denies.
So far, nothing has happened since the 2009 season kicked off to indicate a deal will get done.
"It's been over 400 days since the owners opted out of this agreement," said Smith on ESPN radio a few months back. "I hope that we don't go another 10 days before we hear … an initial proposal from the league."
Smith toured training camps this summer and said he has advised players to be prepared for a lockout in 2011, even advising players to save 25 percent of what they earn this year and next just in case.
"We have to be ready for what the owners are going to do," Chargers star LaDainian Tomlinson said to reporters. "I've been telling all the guys in [the locker room], ‘Be ready, save your money.' The owners aren't going to play around. They're going to lock us out; they're going to try to split the union; they're going to try to scare guys into taking a bad deal. We have to understand that."
"The owners' intent here is to get to an agreement," said Goodell to reporters before the season. "The idea that the owners are looking for a lockout and that would be their objective is foolish. That's really not a practical outcome for them in the sense of being beneficial to the league."
59 percent too much
The owners decided to opt out of the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) largely because of the 2006 CBA that resulted in players getting 59 percent of the revenue, the biggest slice of the pie ever for top American professional sports.
Owners believe that 59 percent is too much to give to players. But the biggest issue for owners is the cost of all the new stadiums cropping up in the NFL. The Cowboys new stadium is so big it can hold the state of Delaware. Many owners, like Jerry Jones, have had to use some of their own money to foot the bill. Add in an economy of recessionary proportions, and owners are worried about how they can turn a decent profit while paying players larger salaries, bonuses and a share of the pie.
As a result, nearly half of the NFL teams started this season $10 million under the salary cap, something that has never happened before in the NFL.
The truth is, while some teams may spend like they're in a bidding war with Donald Trump and go well beyond the current maximum of $128 million, many teams may spend very little since they will no longer have to abide by the minimum cap of $112.1 million.
Fans can probably think of at least three notoriously tightwad organizations, such as the Cincinnati Bengals, Detroit Lions, and Arizona Cardinals, that could drastically cut spending and save nearly $40-50 million of their payrolls for one season. What will happen if owners decide to considerably reduce their payrolls to around $100 million? Chances are they will renegotiate a new deal with players reinstating a salary cap for 2011 and thereafter. And should a lockout occur in 2011 instead, the owners will still make money from the existing broadcast deals.
Confided one team executive, "The owners are going to make a point [in 2010] that they can get by paying a lot less and then they'll see how the players react."
What an uncapped year may look like
During an uncapped year, free agency will be available to players who have played at least six seasons, not four. That means, 2005 first-round draft picks DeMarcus Ware and Shawne Merriman would not become unrestricted free agents when their contracts expire in February.
While Merriman may be deciding to change his Mohawk to bright yellow to reflect his frustration, Ware no longer has to worry about missing out on the big money.
Sensing that Ware might not be a happy camper in 2010, Jerry Jones opened his big-as-Texas wallet in October by signing Ware to a new contract that makes him one of the richest non-quarterback players in the NFL.
Ware signed a six-year contract extension through 2015 worth $78 million, with $40 million guaranteed. The deal includes a $20 million signing bonus.
Of course, not everyone is lucky enough to play for Jones or Snyder, ahem, Albert Haynesworth.
Along with the extension in years of service required for free agency, another distinction of the uncapped season is teams may designate a second Transition Player to go along with their Transition and Franchise players.
A Transition Player must be offered a minimum of the average of the top 10 salaries of the prior season at the player's position or 120 percent of the player's previous year's salary, whichever is greater. A Transition Player designation gives the club a first-refusal right to match within seven days an offer sheet given to the player by another club after his contract expires. If the club matches, it retains the player. If it does not match, it receives no compensation.
A Franchise Player, on the other hand, must be offered a minimum of the average of the top five salaries at the player's position for the current year or 120 percent of the player's previous year's salary, or the average of the top five salaries at his position as of the end of last season – whichever of the three is greatest.
The Crazy 8 Plan, er, the Final 8 Plan
As if the other rules aren't confusing enough, the Final 8 Plan is a doozey. During the uncapped year, the eight clubs that make the divisional playoffs in the previous season have additional restrictions that limit their ability to sign Unrestricted Free Agents from other clubs.
The rule will prevent the final eight teams in the playoffs from signing free agents. The final four teams cannot negotiate and sign any unrestricted free agent to a player contract except for players who were cut or on the final four team when their contract expired.
Meanwhile playoff teams five to eight get a break to sign one player with a salary of $4,925,000 or more and any number of players with a first-year salary of no more than $3,275,000 and an annual increase of no more than 30 percent in the following years.
There's a chance that Paul Volcker may be summoned to help with the calculations.
What this all means is free agency will not be the rampant Pandora's Box that was first believed. Close to 200 players that were hoping to get a Manning-size contract will likely have to wait at least a year and risk injury.
Cardinals linebacker Karlos Dansby put it perfectly: "When you fight about money, it gets ugly."
Both Giants Owner John Mara and GM Jerry Reese recently acknowledged the fact that the upcoming season might be sans salary cap, but neither said that they had yet formulated any plans on how to deal with the possible madness.
Mara disputed the notion that the Giants' best plan of attack would be to break the bank in free agency.
"Well, I think it has been proven that that doesn't work," Mara stated. "If there are players that we are interested in, we are going to go after them. But how many times do we have to see evidence of the fact that spending a lot of money on free agency doesn't necessarily improve your team. It is a lot of times about chemistry and having the right nucleus and having leadership in the locker room. We are going to look at the free agency market and we will make decisions if we think we can improve the team."
Reese added that he believed an uncapped offseason could lead to a slew of trade activity.
"A lot of things can happen," he said. "Some of these guys will get what we call non-qualifying offers. Those guys will come into play. Probably more trades this offseason than you have seen in the past. That kind of stuff will probably come into play. But the market itself will be thin. It will be thin with older guys."
At this point, the only thing that's certain is that uncertain times lay ahead for the National Football League.
Editor Ken Palmer contributed to this report.
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