Wednesday whys: A free agent success story

Why is Charles Woodson’s selection as NFL Defensive Player of the Year a testament to free agency?

As I’ve mentioned many times, signing Woodson to the Packers as a free agent in 2006 was quite a challenge, even as perhaps his only suitor. We were coming off a 4-12 season, Brett Favre had not decided if he was going to return, and Charles’ recruiting visit came during a frigid snowstorm. I felt like the Chamber of Commerce trying to convince him of the quiet charm of Green Bay, where time has stood still since the Lombardi era.

After a month of negotiating with the Poston brothers over Charles and LaVar Arrington (sometimes the best deals you make are the ones you don’t make), we finally gained a commitment from Charles, whose primary question before agreeing to the deal was, “Do you all wear black cleats?”

My personal feeling has been that big plunges into free agency often compound mistakes made earlier in personnel evaluation, as free-agent signings usually replace high draft choices that did not work out (certainly the case in Green Bay with Joe Johnson replacing 2001 top pick Jamal Reynolds and Woodson replacing 2004 top pick Ahmad Carroll). One can look at almost every major free-agent signing and find a draft choice that did not work out at that position.

Nonetheless, the 2006 signing of Woodson is a big reason the Packers were playing into January 2010. With a philosophy that is very wary of free agency, the Packers pulled out the one of the biggest fish in the history of free agency, hooked into the same boat that pulled in Reggie White.

Interestingly, the concern when free agency started in 1993 was that the best players would go to the places with the brightest lights and best weather. The signings of White and Woodson in Green Bay belie that theory. Players sign for two reasons: money and opportunity, which sometimes are not in the same place.

After some initial problems acclimating to Green Bay and some insubordinate defiance with coach Mike McCarthy, Charles eventually came around and grew to enjoy the team and the small-town atmosphere. It’s now a free-agent signing that has flourished.

As we get set to face a different world of NFL free agency in a few weeks with a diluted class due to the new restrictions requiring six rather than four years, it will be interesting to see how teams operate without the constraint of a salary cap. The signing of players like Woodson shows that selective and targeted acquisitions can work as part of an overall plan.

Why is American Needle v. NFL so hyped as a case and what do we need to know about it?

At issue is the treatment of the NFL in the context of antitrust law, as well expressed by our own Bob Boland today. In the event the NFL is treated as a single entity – essentially a home office with 32 satellite branches – there are significant legal consequences. Antitrust law requires co-conspirators, and if the league is fundamentally one business with 32 offices, it can’t conspire with itself, therefore making it immune from antitrust attack.

Why is this significant? Well, there are several restraints in place on players in the NFL – the draft, the salary cap, free-agency restraints, practice squads, franchise and transition player designations, etc. – that now enjoy antitrust protection because they are part of a collectively bargained agreement. The problem arises when the agreement expires in a year.

In the past, the late Gene Upshaw used the “decertification strategy” in negotiating a better deal for the players, renouncing the NFL Players Association’s union standing to allow players to sue as individuals rather than as a union challenging the above-mentioned restraints in antitrust court. Using that strategy and leverage, the NFLPA obtained free agency for the first time in 1992.

The prospect of that same decertification strategy next year gives new NFLPA chief DeMaurice Smith a large bargaining chip in the negotiations. A sweeping victory for the NFL in this American Needle case removes this chip and puts it on the NFL’s side of the ledger.

The importance of the case extends well past the NFL and NFLPA, thus the supporting briefs submitted. For the NFL, the NCAA, the NBA, NHL, ATP, NASCAR, MLS, MasterCard, Visa and Electronic Arts have filed briefs. For American Needle, the NFLPA, MLBPA, NBPA, NHLPA and the NFL Coaches Association have filed supporting briefs.

Of immediate concern is the effect of the case on collective bargaining. Progress has been marginal as the league continues to slow play and/or deny union requests for more financial information.
Oral arguments are today; a decision is expected in May or June. Expect the NFL-NFLPA negotiations to continue to move at a snail’s pace until then.

Why is the joint announcement by Major League Baseball, the MLBPA and the Florida Marlins an important one that may affect the NFL?

The Marlins had the lowest player payroll in baseball three of the last four seasons ($37 million in 2009, just $4 million more than Alex Rodriguez’s 2009 salary). As a team receiving revenue-sharing money, the union has been assessing whether these proceeds were being used properly, i.e., on players. An arbitrator will now handle any disputes going forward.

How is this relevant to the NFL? The NFL also has a revenue sharing program: the Supplemental Revenue Sharing (SRS) system. The SRS will continue in 2010 based on 2009 revenues, but its operation into 2011 based on 2010 revenues is the subject of a current dispute.

The NFLPA may take a cue from the MLBPA to not only having revenue sharing proceeds distributed but to analyze whether revenue sharing proceeds are earmarked to increase player payroll. Without this requirement, SRS revenues can be used for, well, anything the team would like, not necessarily on players.

Pet Peeve Why of the Week

Why do advertisers on NFL games insult our intelligence so much?

Whether it's the Bud Light infomercial condiment shooter, the Geico pothole or Luke Wilson's incessant AT&T ads, can we get a little less inane on these commercials? We deserve better than that. The first time seeing Luke Wilson in those ads was OK, but now he's more ubiquitous than the UPS guy drawing on the whiteboard.

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