SBJ/March 6 - 12, 2006/This Weeks News

Agents keep faith, even as original deadline passes

The consequences of not extending the NFL collective-bargaining agreement were potentially so dire that last week top NFL agents refused to believe that there would be no new NFL labor deal, even when it appeared that all hope was lost.

Even when NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue announced at a press conference last week that owners had broken off negotiations, NFL player agent Eric Metz said “It is not over yet. These people are getting their deal done.”

Agent Drew Rosenhaus said, “I am still hoping they reach a CBA agreement. I will hold out hope until midnight.”

Hours before some NFL teams were set to begin cutting out the hearts of their teams to fit under the salary cap, the NFL announced that it had extended its free agent deadline by three days, to 12:01 a.m. today.

It was not known at press time for this story if the league and the NFL Players Association would meet their new deadline for a deal to extend the collective-bargaining agreement. But agents last week said that not to do so would hurt not just the players, but the teams. “There will be a lot of teams that will not be able to put the same quality team on the field as they have in the past,” said agent Peter Schaffer. “The ultimate losers in this are going to be the fans.”

With no labor extension, said Ben Dogra, SFX Football agent, there was the potential for “the most dynamic change” in years in the NFL. “Teams are going to cut players who are really good football players who they never would have cut,” he said last week. “You are going to see more players cut this year than any year you have ever seen.”

That means rosters that took years to build would change in a few weeks. Last week, about half the teams in the league were over the salary cap of $94.5 million. Those teams, agents said, might have to cut not just starters, but players considered to be at the “core” of the team. At the same time, those teams may not be able to replace those players.

“I would guess that only about a third of the teams will be capable of participating in free agency in a meaningful way,” said Tom Condon, president of IMG Football. That compares to about 75 percent who are able to spend significant amounts on free agents in a normal year, he said.

The reason that it would be so bad if there was no extension is that the NFL CBA was designed to cause pain to both teams and players as it closed in on the end of the deal. Owners and players wrote the labor document that way as an incentive to keep extending the deal years before it expired.

Expiration wasn’t set to happen until after the 2007 NFL season, but the 2006 season was the last one with a salary cap. NFL Players Association officials have said repeatedly that they would never again agree to a salary cap if they ever got to the uncapped year.

But before players would be able to reap the benefits of a free market system in that uncapped year, they would have to get their deals done in one of the most restrictive environments ever.

For example, with no extension, signing bonuses and other bonuses, which have traditionally provided NFL players with much of their compensation, would hit teams’ salary caps much harder in the 2006 year. In 2005, signing bonuses could be prorated over five years, but that had dropped to four years this year, the shortest it has ever been. Incentives that agents and teams put into player deals to get around the salary cap in years past wouldn’t work the same way this year, agents said, because incentives would count against the cap the minute they were earned, instead of counting against the cap after the season ended.

“It makes it much more difficult to construct lucrative contracts for quality free agents,” said agent Leigh Steinberg. “Incentives become difficult. The option bonuses become more problematic. The structural changes are daunting.”

Steinberg was among the top agents who predicted a last-minute extension to the beginning of free agency.

Dogra compared the situation to a game of chicken, with two Hummers driving toward each other at 100 miles an hour. Hours after the extension of the deadline was announced, Dogra said, “To me, it didn’t make sense that it would happen. I didn’t see the two Hummers, the NFL Hummer and the one driven by [players association executive director Gene] Upshaw, colliding.”

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