Labor cloud rolls in over salary cap’s final season

The 2009 NFL season doesn’t just mark the end of a remarkable decade.

It may also represent the last year of pro football as we have grown to know it.


  • A league with no salary cap, but restrictions hindering the best clubs from spending freely.
  • Rules that keep some budding stars from becoming unrestricted free agents until their sixth season when the average career length is less than four.
  • No minimum spending limit on team salary.

    All of this could be coming in 2010, threatening the competitive balance that distinguishes the NFL from Major League Baseball.

    NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has said there is a “strong reality” that a new labor agreement won’t be reached with the NFL Players Association before the 2010 league year begins in early March. The impasse will trigger far-reaching changes in the Collective Bargaining Agreement that are much friendlier for team owners than the players.

    “We have a lot to do and address,” Goodell said during a meeting last week with select media at league headquarters. “The progress to date is minimal.”

    I get the feeling NFL owners want it that way for now.

    These are the folks pleading poverty after the 2006 CBA extension didn’t unfold as they envisioned. In the past five years, team profit margins have plummeted as the salary cap skyrocketed from $85.5 million to $127 million.

    The current CBA requires franchises to spend at least $107 million on 2009 player salaries. Without a minimum floor in the 2010 CBA, the money grab will be on. I envision some teams pocketing upwards of $50 million while still being able to keep their current rosters largely intact.

    The number of seasons players are required to accrue for unrestricted free agency will jump from four to six. Clubs can retain their best players through high restricted free agent tenders that would scare off suitors not willing to surrender first- and third-round draft picks as compensation. Shawne Merriman, DeMarcus Ware and Braylon Edwards are three of the biggest names who currently face that reality.

    Some standout players with more than six years of NFL experience headed toward free agency don’t have it much better. Teams will not only still have use of the franchise tag, which generates a numbing effect on player movement because of the high compensation involved. They also shall receive an additional “transition” tag. That designation allows a club to match any offer that a tagged free agent signs elsewhere (although no compensation is required from the suitor).

    The forecast is even worse for some big-name veterans. Expect a purge of aging stars because there will be no cap impact for dumping those with high salaries. Denver cornerback Champ Bailey ($9.5 million), Chicago linebacker Brian Urlacher ($6.8 million) and Dallas left tackle Flozell Adams ($5 million) could be on the endangered list without strong 2009 campaigns.

    On the flip side, there are owners — Jerry Jones and Dan Snyder come to mind — that could spend lavishly without cap restraints. But there are rules limiting who can open their checkbooks. The eight teams that reach the second round of the playoffs must first lose some of their own free agents to other teams before being allowed to dip into the market for replacements.

    Such clauses were intended to prevent a short-term New York Yankees/Pittsburgh Pirates-type disparity in talent and salary. But the NFL seems headed in that direction unless a cap system returns in 2011 — the same year that the CBA expires and a potential work stoppage looms for the first time in 24 years. Without a cap, small-market teams that build primarily through the draft — most notably defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh — will have their rosters gradually picked apart unless the rules limiting free-agent movement remain. I can’t see the union agreeing to those stipulations in the next CBA.

    Maybe the uncapped season could have been avoided if former NFLPA executive director Gene Upshaw hadn’t died in August 2008. Before his passing, Upshaw espoused that his union wouldn’t accept the cap again if a season was played without one. Upshaw, though, would have been savvy enough to realize how severely player payrolls were likely to get slashed in 2010 and pushed the NFL for early negotiations.

    More than eight months of valuable bargaining time was lost in 2008 and 2009 as the NFLPA finalized the installation of Upshaw’s replacement DeMaurice Smith. Even if the NFL desperately wanted a new CBA agreement in 2010, there probably wasn’t enough time to hammer one out by the time Smith settled into his new job — especially with upcoming in-fighting expected among some team owners about revenue sharing.

    Goodell recently had lunch with Smith, but said CBA negotiations have yet to begin in earnest. That’s enough to make any NFL fan choke who likes the game the way it is.