Labor Day Means Layoff Day

It is certainly ironic that on Labor Day weekend across America the labor force of the NFL is slashed by almost 20%. This is a difficult weekend for the entire mix of the NFL – players, front office, medical staffs, coaches, agents and, of course, landlords – as the privilege of playing in the most popular sports league in the nation is pulled from hundreds of players.

Most of the names on the waiver wire have been with their clubs since the bleak days of winter, working out at the club’s facility, listening to coaches, heeding the advice of team trainers and doctors, and hoping to never hear the phone ring on Labor Day weekend. They have done everything the club has asked them to do, have played in the preseason games and tried to make a play or two to turn everyone’s heads. They have, simply, worked their rear ends off to make the club. But, in the end, they do not.

I have been at the Packers’ offices for the nine prior Labor Day weekends and always have the same thought: these players have spent the last six months doing everything we asked them to do and they are not going to be with us. Their position coach would give them a pep talk and wish them luck before returning to staff meetings to prepare for the opening game. In select cases, the head coach would also meet with the player. I suppose the former agent in me took over when I felt empathy for these young men, especially when they stopped in and shook my hand appreciating the opportunity they were given. At times, I felt worse than them!

The cold reality is in the numbers. Prior to the dissolution of NFL Europe this year, we carried 88-90 players going into training camp. Looking at that practice field the first day of camp, reality was that almost half that group would be employed elsewhere in a month. Now is that time. As they say their goodbyes today – although 8 per club will be re-signed to the Practice Squad – many will never play in the NFL again.

There will be many vested veterans cut this weekend. Due to the collectively bargained rule concerning termination pay for vested veterans, few, if any of these players will be signed prior to the opening game next weekend. Vested veterans are entitled to full salary if they are on the opening-day roster, no matter when they are released. For that reason alone, we will not see players such as Daunte Culpeper, Joey Harrington, Marcus Pollard, Roosevelt Colvin, Ashley Lelie, Rudi Johnson, Joe Horn, Shaun Alexander and others signed by any team prior to the opening games. Perhaps they will be signed after next weekend, when the termination pay requirements are 25% of salary rather than 100%. We had several occasions where we released veteran players prior to the vesting date – next Saturday – only to sign them after the first game.

Cap managers and general managers always have to budget for more than the 53-man opening day roster. Prior to the cuts, I would work out different scenarios if we kept certain players over others and our potential Cap room in each scenario. Beyond the roster, though, there are many fixed costs.

There is the Practice Squad for 8 players making a minimum of $5,200 a week. There are players on Reserve/Injured and PUP (Physically Unable to Perform), all counting against the Cap. There are injury settlements to be done. There is potential termination pay. There are incentives that may become charged against the Cap when earned. There will be more injuries and players to replace them. And, most importantly, there needs to be sufficient Cap room for in-season extensions with core players, a staple of solidly-managed teams.

Thus, after six months of being on a team during the long and tedious off-season, hundreds of players are sent to the unemployment line this weekend. Labor Day weekend is a holiday for most workers. Unfortunately, it is the beginning of an extended holiday for many now-former NFL players.

Injuries, Part 2 – The Cold Truth

Quote of the Day: “A word to the wise ain't necessary – it's the stupid ones that need the advice.” — Bill Cosby

This is the time of year for injury settlements and, unfortunately, injury grievances to follow.

Injuries to marginal players represent a completely different story than injuries to front- line players. Once these players are injured, word given from the head coach and general manager to the Cap manager/negotiator typically goes something like this: “Get that guy out of here.” The NFL is a hard and cold business; when marginal players are no longer serving a role in practice and, more importantly, taking up a roster spot, it is time for them to go.

In these situations, the players are waived/injured, meaning they are available to be claimed by any team in the league, which they never are. After the 24-hour waiver period, they revert to the teams reserve/injured list, separated from the active 80-man roster. They then remain on that list until such time as when they are waived, meaning they are sufficiently healed. That time frame may be a few days or it may be the entire season, depending on the injury. When the “Get that guy out of here” mandate comes, that is usually a signal for an injury settlement. I would call the agent, explain our medical staff’s estimate of the time frame for the injury, and try to work out a settlement for that amount of time. If the time frame for the injury is contained in the preseason, the amounts are miniscule and outside the Cap.

In the event the time of injury runs into the regular season, the amounts get larger and count against the Cap. For instance, if a player with a minimum first year split salary – rookies beyond the third round usually have “splits,” meaning a different (lower) salary if they are not on the active list – is $195,000 and a settlement is reached now for four weeks – one week of preseason money (approximately $900 per week) and three weeks of regular season money – the player would receive 3/17th of his $195,000 salary, or $34,412 with such amount counting against the Cap. The three-week threshold is vitally important to players as it represents a credited season for pension purposes.

The key information in these situations comes from the team doctor – in our case at the Packers it was Dr. Pat McKenzie, a trusted friend who had the players’ best interests always in mind. Sometimes agents put full trust in what the team doctor says. (I was always to put the agent in touch with our doctor to eliminate the middleman.) At times, however, agents will want a second opinion and we will then negotiate from there. When teams and agents cannot work out a settlement, a more aggressive step may be taken: an Injury Grievance.

Injury Grievances come in all shapes and sizes. Some are quite legitimate and we would continue, as with the injury settlement, to negotiate a settlement. In other cases the team is caught by surprise as the player never appeared injured and/or barely received treatment while with the team (this occurred many times while I was with the Packers). It was very frustrating to receive a grievance from a player that was just trying to get his last shot at some income from football, knowing that there was no true playing future. The union does not have any minimum qualifications for filing an injury grievance, so there are a fair share of frivolous cases. Although grievances require a Cap charge of half the amount of the player’s salary, these are the type of grievances that we would let idle without trying to settle prior to the hearing date, usually a year later.

Preseason was typically the time of year I became a first-year student in orthopedic medicine. I learned all about MCLs, lateral meniscus tears, chondral surfaces, patellar tendonitis and, of course, everything about how long a hamstring, calf, quad, ankle, or foot sprain or strain took to heal.

With all the bickering between teams and agents on healing times and settlement amounts and team doctors’ opinions versus player doctors’ opinions versus neutral doctors’ opinions, this suggestion seems warranted: why not have an “Injury Panel” of respected sports medicine doctors approved by the NFL and the NFLPA to mediate disputes between teams and players and hand down swift and binding mediated opinions as to the cost and disposition of these injuries? The panel would save the teams, the players, the agents and the union (which handles all the injury grievances for the players) a lot of time, money, and aggravation. I have floated it in a couple places without gaining much traction, as the haggling over injury settlements appears to be a tradition that will continue.

Injuries are the name of the game this time of year in the NFL, if not all times of year. Coaches and staffs prepare for many scenarios, but usually don’t prepare to lose a lot of players. If there were a medical and training staff that could greatly reduce the incidence of injured players, they would be the true executives of the year in the NFL.

Injuries — The Preseason Curse Part I

Quote of the Day:

“The world is moving so fast these days that the man who says it can't be done is generally interrupted by someone doing it.” — Harry Emerson Fosdick

The bane of the existence for NFL teams this time is a simple yet dastardly word: injuries. This is the time of year where teams hold their breath on every play of every preseason game and hope they come away healthy. Sitting in team boxes watching these games, the common refrain from staffs all over the league when a player stays down on the ground is “Get up, please get up!” In the case of Osi Umenyiora, he did not get up and could miss the entire season due to an injury in a meaningless game.

There is a definite need for preseason games to evaluate the 80 players on the roster and make those tough decisions, especially on players 53-60. However, the opportunity for injury exists on every play, thus the held breath when a player – especially a starting player – takes awhile to get up.

This is why starters play so little in the preseason. Tom Brady and Peyton Manning are nursing injuries; even if they weren’t it would be hard to expose them to much contact. LaDainian Tomlinson has only 14 preseason carries in his eight year career. Seems about right. When we had Ahman Green at his peak, my recommendation was to put him in a glass box in the preseason to only be opened on Labor Day. A running back has only a finite number of carries in his body and it seemed pointless to use those carries in meaningless games.

A sometimes-misunderstood fact is that when players are placed on injured reserve, they are still part of the team’s Salary Cap. Some players have “split” contracts – a lower amount superceding the Paragraph 5 amount in the event the player is placed on a reserve list – that provides the team some cash and Cap relief upon being placed on reserve/injured. Split contracts are a function of leverage at the time of negotiation. Usually, players picked in the third round have one year of split; players in lower rounds may have splits in the first two years of their contract.

Cap managers must maintain room in their budgets for players on reserve/injured. By the end of most seasons with the Packers, our list was up to ten or twelve players. It is not only the cost of paying the injured players, however, but also the cost of the players to replace them, which adds up. Usually, there are very few players with any pedigree on the street, but the Umenyiora case presents an interesting option. The replacement cost for his loss may be 8M – the reported number for which Michael Strahan would return to the Giants to play. Combined with Umenyiora’s 1.7M salary, the injury may cost the Giants close to 10M. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

Umenyiora is the latest casualty of preseason games. The movement to shorten the preseason and lengthen the season is underway, although subject to negotiation with the union. That may help this necessary evil of injured players in the preseason.