NFL unlocked? Election day

Here is my analysis of the major terms of the ten-year CBA that is now pending approval by the Players.

As we sit on the precipice of a ten-year CBA – the turbulence appears to have ended; the landing strip is ahead – there are so many questions about what’s happened, what is happening, and what will happen. Here are some answers.

What happened last week?

At this time last week everyone expected a certain timeline: both sides would meet with mediator Arthur Boylan on Monday/Tuesday where he would “bless” the agreement; Players would meet with the 32 team representatives in Washington on Wednesday and vote; Owners would meet in Atlanta on Thursday and vote; and football would begin as soon as this past weekend.

All went according to plan except the Wednesday portion. Player reps arrived in Washington and were exposed to the finer points of what had been negotiated, many of them for the first time. Communication was difficult, with many of the reps having questions (and some participating from other locations via conference call). Beyond that, many of them had flights to catch later in the day and chose to leave rather than stay over.

ICONOwners voted Thursday and left to pay respects to Mrs. Kraft.

There was some frustration on the Owner side that the Players did not advance the ball as they had expected. The Owners went ahead and voted to approve the deal before heading to Boston to pay tribute to Myra Kraft. And then the emotional reaction to the Owners’ press conference ensued.

In actuality, in what many considered a “power play” by the Owners, the Players could have done the same thing. Had they voted on “their terms” on Wednesday, they could have reversed any public perception as to which side was holding up football.

Once emotion and anger faded, as these always do, the two sides got back to ironing out the “finishing details” of this complicated document. And here we are.

My metaphors continue (as some of you groan): the labor pains are ending; the baby is being delivered. One note on that: DeMaurice Smith and Roger Goodell have elbowed out the other physicians (lawyers); they are delivering this baby themselves now.

Can you explain why the issue of recertification loomed so large?

When the lockout started, the NFL refused to justly recognize that the NFLPA had decertified. The lockout ends with the same issue in different form: the NFLPA’s desire for the NFL to truly recognize that as a decertified union, it must take the process of recertification seriously.

This issue may have been the root of the heated emotions on Thursday. Owners and NFL attorneys felt that the NFLPA could recertify online in a matter of hours. That sparked the same reaction from the Players as back in March, when the Owners scoffed at the notion that the NFLPA had actually decertified.

The NFLPA has been clear that the recertification is a serious process and wants to do it in a similar way it did it in decertifying: receiving signed authorization cards from all of the players, gaining recognition from the IRS, Department of Labor, American Association of Arbitration, etc.

Was that the only aspect which irritated the Players?

No. The Owners had demarcated this Tuesday as a hard deadline for the NFLPA to reconstitute. Under the proposal ratified by the Owners, if the Players did not recertify by then, certain benefits that must be collectively bargained would revert back to 2010 levels.

The NFL has since withdrawn this demand, trusting the NFLPA to recertify in the way it wants, by Friday, so that the 2011 League Year can open on Saturday.

Which open issues fostered discussion this weekend?

The various unresolved matters discussed were: workmen’s compensation filing limitations, contractual injury protection, workout bonus payments, one-time Franchise tag designation, short-term injured reserve, the possibility of a seventh-year opt-out clause in the agreement, end of deal rights (figuring out rules for the final league year, as was done for 2010), the settlement of the Brady v. NFL and Judge Doty’ lockout funding cases, and a NFLPA recertification timeline.

Some of these have likely been resolved prior to players' vote (i.e., settlement of the Brady and Doty cases). The other aspects may be informally resolved (at least at the hand-shake level) but may need to be finalized once NFLPA recertifies. No details have yet emerged, in regard to these issues, though.

What about the opt-out?

Players were trying to have a re-opening of the deal at their option after year seven of the ten years. Owners have balked, noting that future television contracts may not be as aggressive with a potential ending of the deal. Of course, we have only been in this situation these past several months due to the fact that the Owners did have an opt-out in the previous CBA, shortening a deal that was supposed to run through 2013 by two years. My sense is there could be a mutual opt-out but it is more likely there is none for either side.

What is the process from here?

The 12-member NFLPA executive committee is scheduled to meet in Washington today to vote on whether to recommend the proposed deal – as well as to recommend recertification – to the 32 player representatives. The 32 player reps would then vote to approve and recommend the deal/recertification to the rest of player group. Once this occurs, players under contract will be permitted to report to team facilities on Wednesday, to hand in union authorization cards. When a majority (50% + 1) of players vote to recertify, the NFLPA may collectively bargain with the NFL in regard to unsettled issues. All players could then possibly report to training camp on Friday, with a chaotic free agency period beginning on Saturday.

What would you do as a team executive in approaching the onslaught ahead in free agency?

NFL teams have been preparing for this time since February, albeit no one knew the period ahead would be as condensed as it is shaping up to be. As I have been saying, the compressed schedule ahead presents a real opportunity for teams’ front office and personnel staffs to separate themselves from the competition and give their teams an edge. Smart and savvy management will be rewarded in the coming weeks.

As to the to-do list ahead, teams must first clear their roster of dead weight. There are players on every team that have been on the chopping block during this suspended animation and they will now be released. Many players – Vince Young and Donovan McNabb among them – have roster bonuses ahead that will obviously not be paid. Further, there are 8 or 9 teams that must clear Cap space – through releases or restructures – to comply with the $120.375 million Salary Cap.

The first group of players I would bring under contract are the undrafted free agents. This will be a replay of what occurs usually moments after the Draft, as teams normally sign 10-20 players to fill out their roster. Signing this group first will give coaches bodies to practice with.

The next group of focus will be the teams’ own free agents. Priorities have long been established and it is time to a ct on them and re-sign the players teams want to keep, discarding those it does not.

Then comes the new group of unrestricted free agents. Like every year, the players at the top of the list will come off the board in the opening hours of the League Year. The difference this year is that the second wave of signings will come within hours, not days, of the first group. And as every year, some teams will be active players in free agency – Redskins, Eagles, Broncos, Raiders, Texans, Browns, etc. – and some teams will not – Packers, Chargers, Patriots, Titans, Colts, etc.

The last group of players that I would worry about is the draft picks. Teams have rights to these players so they are not going anywhere. Further, rookie contracts will be far easier to negotiate in this new CBA than in the past, both at the top and throughout the Draft. I would anticipate most of the lower-round picks being negotiated in one day, with the top round selections taking less than a week.

Rome wasn’t built in a day, but 2011 NFL teams may be built in a few.

Optimism reigns and Hope floats. The end of locked-out, courtroom football is upon us.

Follow me on Twitter at adbrandt.

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