DeMaurice Smith is in a position where he needs to meet his constituents as fast as he begins to work on their behalf in the most challenging time for the NFL Players Association in two decades.
To that end, the executive director, a surprise choice less than two months ago to follow the late Gene Upshaw, made a stop at Halas Hall on Thursday. He wants to learn from the players while educating them on the unknown that lies ahead after owners opted out of the collective bargaining agreement, setting the sides up for a potential uncapped year in 2010 and lockout in 2011.
``Where I start is where the players start,'' said Smith, who met with owner Michael McCaskey before visiting with players. ``What are we negotiating about? What's the issue? If the deal was not good for [owners], explain to us why. If the owners had to opt out because of financial concerns, it seems to me the best way to negotiate, and frankly I don't know anyone's negotiating style that doesn't start with, `What are we negotiating about? What are the facts? What are the issues? What is the proof?'
``So for us, like any other negotiating point over a business matter, the players are interested in, `OK, what is the profit margin for the teams? How much money did they make last year? What is the average rate of return per team, per game? How much does the average team make per playoff game? What is the five-year rate of return for the cost of investment of teams given the money and operating income that is generated? What is the operating income per team for the last 10 years?'
``I represent a group of players who are now being asked to negotiate, being forced to negotiate over the issue.''
Upshaw was emphatic that if an uncapped year arrived, the players would never again agree to a salary cap system that, in theory, allows the teams in smaller markets to compete on the same level playing field as the teams in larger markets. Smith emphatically stated he has the same position.
The immediate future doesn't necessarily favor players in an uncapped system. First, while the salary cap is $127 million this season, as significant is a minimum. Teams must spend 86.4 percent of that amount or $109.7 million. In an uncapped year there is also no floor. Teams cans spend as little as they want.
Second, under the system in place now, players can become unrestricted free agents after four years. Players will need six accrued seasons to become UFA's without a salary cap.
Here are two more factors that all favor ownership:
*** Teams will be able to designate an extra transition player. Currently, teams can only place the franchise tag or transition tag on one player. In this instance, they would be able to use the franchise tag and transition tag or use the transition tag on two players.
*** There will also be a top eight plan, which will limit player movement. In it, the four teams in the conference championship games would be unable to sign an unrestricted free agent until they lose one of their own. The other four teams from the divisional round of the playoffs would have salary restrictions on free agents they signed. The bottom line is those eight teams would be hard pressed to buy any top free agents.
Getting back to the issue of free agency and the extended wait to reach the open market, Tony Grossi of the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported Sunday that an estimated 170 players--10 percent of the league's work force--will be affected in a shift to an uncapped league.
That means first-round picks in 2005 that signed five-year contracts are prohibited from becoming a UFA. That means players drafted in 2006 who signed four-year deals must wait. Players entering their fourth year are angling for that longterm extension. It's something Devin Hester had to consider last summer when he agreed to a $40 million, four-year extension. He was due to be an unrestricted free agent after this season. But nothing has really changed. Players entering the final year of their rookie contracts have always been motivated to get a new contract. They're always seeking the bonus money and the pay day. That's always been at the forefront.
"Everybody always wants to be paid,'' said one prominent agent who asked that his name not be used because he isn't certain how new NFLPA leadership feels. ``Sure, you'd rather do a contract now but you always want to do it now. That's nothing new.
"The biggest problem is no minimum spending. No salary cap is going to work against the players. It's going to allow teams to dump veterans and not worry about acceleration [of bonus money] against the salary cap. If there's no cap, you're going to see a blood bath of veterans getting released. It will be ugly. Guys who are protected by big acceleration are no longer going to have that protection. Without a salary cap there will be no more ramifications for cutting a veteran. Teams will be able to dump everyone they want with no consequences to their salary cap.''
The Bears have 16 players coming out of contract at the conclusion of this season. The potential change from four years of service required for unrestricted free agency to six years would affect eight players.
Would have to wait for free agency without new CBA
DE Mark Anderson
G Dan Buenning
FS Josh Bullocks
FB Jason Davis
NT Dusty Dvoracek
DB Glenn Earl
DB Danieal Manning
LB Jamar Williams
Unrestricted free agents at end of season
TE Michael Gaines
DE Israel Idonije
DE Adewale Ogunleye
RB Adrian Peterson
Would be restricted free agents with or without a new CBA
CB Marcus Hamilton
WR Brandon Rideau
LB Nick Roach
DT Matt Toeaina
The Bears are unlikely to extend any of the eight players that would be impacted by a shift to an uncapped system without seeing significant production this season. None of them has a job right now as a starter in 2009.
``I can't sit down here right now and start to contemplate what the uncapped year, if we're there, what that year would look like in 2015 because,'' Smith said. ``I don't know.
``The reality of it is in the uncapped year that we would move forward with right now, there would be effects on the ceiling but also effects on the floor. It's hard to project what an uncapped situation would look like going forward because obviously you could contract on all sorts of other modifications in the uncapped year. I don't spend a whole heck of a lot of time thinking about what that uncapped year will look like five years from now.''
An interesting debate could be sparked on what impact an uncapped system would have on the family-owned organizations in the NFL that do not have outside business interests generating revenue. Would clubs like the Bears, who don't own their stadium, be at a disadvantage? No one can say at this point.
There has been mounting talk for years that a rookie wage scale needs to be implemented. Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford, the No. 1 pick in the draft, received a contract for with $41 million guaranteed. That's more than the prize of free agency--defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth--received on the open market. It's more than Peyton Manning. It's more than Tom Brady. It's more than Ben Roethlisberger. It's why teams are deathly afraid of being at the very top of the first round of the draft. Committing that money to Stafford has to be every bit as frightening to the Lions as making history at 0-16 was.
But the NFLPA isn't one of the groups clamoring for a new system. As Upshaw used to say, if the clubs don't give that money to the top draft picks, there is no guarantee it's going to go to veterans. The rookies are veterans by their second season. The more money they get, the better. Ultimately, the NFLPA believes, Stafford's contract will drive contracts for veterans like Jay Cutler.
``I have not had one current player say [they want a rookie wage scale],'' Smith told the Dallas Morning News. ``Not one. What they tell me is, `None of us decided who was going to get picked. None of us decided who was going to be the right guy for the right team, and none of us were involved in how much we were going to pay him. And none of us signed the check.'
``So at the end of the day I don't understand why this is an issue for the players. We don't pick draft picks, we don't decide who goes to the right teams, we don't decide the draft order, and none of our players sign the checks. So, I know who does, and everything I know so far about this process is that a certain team decided on a certain player, and that team and that owner and that GM decided how much they were going to pay him. Well that's not a players' issue.''