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Clocks strikes 12; so begins a new NFL

It's the dawn of a new day in the NFL, and it remains to be seen whether things will ever return to the way they were.

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No, the game as it's played between the lines won't change. But today marks the start of the 2010 league calendar, which triggers changes in everything from team payroll limits (and minimums) to player benefits.

These developments are consequences of the league's labor unrest, which threatens to linger as the NFL and its union trade more barbs than proposals.

It all began in May 2008, when owners voted to opt out of the current collective bargaining agreement. As a result, 2010 became its final year instead of 2012.

There are many questions about where things go from here, not the least of which is whether the 2010 season could be followed by a work stoppage.

In terms of the makeup of my favorite team, what is the significance of today?

This marks the start of the 2010 league year, meaning free agents could be signed beginning at 12:01 a.m. But because of rules that have kicked in, it won't be business as usual.

For example, the "Final Eight" rule restricts the ability of teams that advanced deep into the playoffs to sign free agents. Clubs that reached the conference championships — Colts, Jets, Saints and Vikings — can sign only the same number of free agents they lose. There also are restrictions, though a bit less stringent, on teams that made the division round: Cardinals, Chargers, Cowboys and Ravens.

Why is there no salary cap?

When the collective bargaining agreement was consummated in 2006, it was agreed that if the owners exercised their opt-out clause, there would be no salary cap in the final year. With the salary cap being a critical piece of the deal, this was supposed to spur both sides to reach an extension before the agreement's final season. That would be 2010.

As a result, teams are not limited in how much they can spend on payroll. But they also are not required to spend a minimum amount as they were under the former system.

Why is this year's group of free agents considered subpar?

One of the primary consequences of an uncapped year is the impact on free agency. Previously, players needed just four seasons of service to qualify for unrestricted free agency (provided their contracts had expired).

In an uncapped scenario, players need six seasons before becoming eligible for unrestricted free agency. Players with less than six seasons whose contracts have expired are classified as restricted free agents. Generally, those are players who are in their prime years.

Why are so many prominent restricted free agents angry about their circumstances?

It's called restricted free agency for a reason. Many restricted free agents had been looking forward to unrestricted status, which can bring a big payday.

In the case of Bucs offensive tackle Donald Penn, he is likely locked into a one-year, $3.2 million deal with Tampa Bay unless he can force a trade or another club shockingly gives up the first- and third-round picks required to pry him away. On the open market, he likely would command a multiyear deal with guaranteed money and a higher annual salary.

Other restricted free agents can be tendered at a lower level, meaning the draft pick compensation is less. But for coveted players, their teams are going to protect them accordingly, thereby severely limiting their options.

Beyond the impact on free agency, how else are players being affected by the uncapped year?

The other main impact comes in the form of reduced benefits. Players typically enjoy a benefits package the average worker can only hope for. But this year, the 401(k) program, annuity program, health reimbursement accounts, severance pay and performance-based pay are among the things that won't be funded by the league. The NFL says these totaled more than $335 million in 2009.

What are the league and union fighting over, and what happens if they can't work things out?

In a word, money. Lots of it. Specifically, the league believes players are receiving too big a share of the NFL's revenue, roughly 59.5 percent before this year.

The nuclear option is the owners commencing a lockout of the players if a labor agreement can't be reached before the start of the 2011 season. That means no football until there's a collective bargaining agreement in place.

The good news is there's plenty of time between now and then to get together at the bargaining table. It's in everyone's best interest to make a deal.

Stephen F. Holder can be reached at sholder@sptimes.com.

Clocks strikes 12; so begins a new NFL 03/04/10 [Last modified: Friday, March 5, 2010 7:20am]
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