The C word

Before discussing the C word infiltrating NFL discussion this offseason, allow me an indulgence about the passing of Manute Bol, as I learned of his death while away for a few days.

Twenty years ago I represented a 5” 3” NBA player named Muggsy Bogues, one of the truly great stories in sports as well as a great guy and the only NBA player I could see eye-to-eye with. When the Washington Bullets drafted Bogues in the first round in 1987, one of his teammates was the 7’7” Bol. When Muggsy joined the Bullets, Bol knew the marketing schtick that was coming. I remember his first line to Bogues: “Muuuuggsy! Dey gonna make a ceercus of you and me! We gonna be de Carnival freak show!” Manute understood what he was and embraced it for all it could do, including the humanitarian work he did right until the end. RIP, Manute Bol.

The C word

A repeated question that I receive about this year in the NFL is the following three words: Is there collusion? My answer is simple: no, there is not collusion, at least not exhibited in its formal definition of teams comparing notes about spending and deciding in concert to act – or not act --in a certain way.

In this unique year of no cap football in 2010 with no system in place for 2011, there is no need for collusion to lower spending on players; the system allows for a rollback in player costs. The rules in place to balance the presence of an uncapped year are the recipe teams are using to spend less this year.

In 2006, when the most recent CBA was negotiated, there was a palpable fear on the part of ownership in the prospect of a season without a Salary Cap. That fear was not there entering into uncapped 2010, and now we see why.

No floor more important than no cap

Along with no ceiling on spending came no floor on spending. Therein lies the rub.

Despite some speculation, I never thought we would see teams like the Cowboys, Redskins and others engaging in Steinbrenneresque spending without a Cap. I thought it more realistic that teams would use 2010 as a year to slow player costs, get their debt under control and wipe the slate clean for new system in 2011. Even perenially active teams such as the Cowboys, Vikings and Raiders have been quiet this offseason, with only the Bears and Dolphins negotiating top-of-market deals for more than one player each.

There are now a couple of team payrolls below $75 million and I would expect several teams to be under $90 million in payroll for 2010. And here's the real potential problem for the players: what if these lower spending teams use this model in 2010 and win? That would get some attention. Last year’s floor for Cap spending was $108 million and the average team payroll was approximately $115 million.

And, in another windfall to teams that has not received much notice, teams are also not required to fund many player benefits this season, a savings of roughly $10 million per team

Restricted free agents stuck

Players such as Vincent Jackson, Marcus McNeill, and Logan Mankins were scheduled to be unrestricted free agents (UFAs) with the pot of gold that comes with that until the lack of a new collective bargaining agreement dictated that they would be restricted. And restricted they are, without the long-term extensions they so desire and in the midst of some contentious dealings with their teams. These players are casualties of the uncapped year.

Players under contract stuck

And the lack of contract extensions is not limited to the RFA market. Players under contract – Andre Johnson, Chris Johnson, Darelle Revis, Nick Mangold, Reggie Wayne, Robert Mathis, Champ Bailey and others – are registering their complaints at varying decibel levels at not being brought up to the marketplace for their peers.

Team management has the built-in response of using the rules of the uncapped year and the uncertainty of the future system – or lack thereof –- to explain their inertia in dealing with these players. When a team found a way to reward a player in a similar position – the 49ers and Patrick Willis – many around the league grumbled about the 49ers laying out a road map for maneuvering around the rules or, as they are being accused, circumventing the rules.

The big three

And beyond all of this are the three white whales. In January, it seemed that it would only be a matter of time before Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and Tom Brady would have deals that set the new standard for pay in the NFL. Now in late June, there are no extensions for these three A-list players with contracts expiring soon (Brady and Manning after 2010, Brees after 2011). This bears watching over the next month leading into training camp.

The uncapped year is not going swimmingly for the players. The owners are now further emboldened in their slow play negotiating style knowing that the uncapped year is a losing proposition for the players.

Collusion? Don’t think so. Taking advantage of the rules in place to offset the uncapped year? Absolutely.

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