Unless the NFL and the NFL Players Association miraculously come to an agreement on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement in the next two months, 2010, the last year of the collective bargaining agreement, will be uncapped.
Executive director of the NFLPA, DeMaurice Smith, recently reiterated a statement made by his predecessor, the late Gene Upshaw, that if the cap goes away, the players will never agree to it again.
That belief might be misplaced, for a number of reasons.
There is one reason why some teams won't like an uncapped year: the "Final Eight Plan," which prevents teams in the Divisional Round (the second week) of the playoffs from going on New York Yankees-like spending binges.
Teams that lose in the second week will be limited in their ability to sign unrestricted free agents. They'll be able to sign one UFA to a large contract (more than about $5 million per year), and as many players as they want to small contracts.
Teams that reach the Conference Championships, however, get both presents and coal in their stockings. Win or lose, by being one of the final four teams, they will be subject to three major limitations:
- They can resign their own players with no additional restrictions beyond those placed on any other team.
- Beyond that, however, they can only sign one free agent for each one they lose, and the departing free agent's new contract sets a limit on the size of the new player's contract.
- The teams can trade for players given franchise and/or restricted free agent tenders, but they cannot circumvent the above rule by trading for a player they couldn't sign as a free agent.
- The teams are free to sign players that clear waivers, but not all players go through the waiver process before becoming unrestricted free agents.
In very simplistic terms, if 2010 is uncapped, 2009 is not the year a team wants to be Cinderella showing up at the ball.
We already know three teams that will be subject to the Final Eight Plan: Indianapolis, San Diego, and New Orleans. The NFC team that claims the other first-round bye is guaranteed to be the fourth, and the Wild Card winners will be the other four.
But there are more reasons why players won't like it.
1. Two years of free agents are thrown under the bus.
Right now, it takes four years of service for a player to reach unrestricted free agency. In 2010, however, the lack of a salary cap also triggers a clause in the CBA that pushes the bar to free agency to six seasons.
Thus, all the players from the classes of 2005 and 2006 with expiring contracts will potentially be restricted free agents, subject to one-year tenders at rates of $1 million to $3 million, rather than unrestricted free agents.
According to the Associated Press, 212 players will be affected by this change, including Denver Broncos quarterback Kyle Orton, Dallas Cowboys receiver Miles Austin, New England Patriots guard Logan Mankins, and San Diego Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman.
Moreover, each team still has its franchise tag, which could further reduce the availability of free agents.
2. The "Final Eight Plan" will limit the demand for free agents.
As mentioned above, the Final Eight Plan limits the demand for free agents. And what happens when demand drops?
Prices tend to fall. Even if something is rare, it's cheap if there's no market for it.
With fewer blue-chip players available, those few that do reach free agency might get top dollar, but it's likely that a lot of other players will earn less than they might have with a larger market.
3. There's no "dead money" to worry about.
The CBA allows teams to spread out the bonus money a team gives a player over the length of the contract. If a player is cut or traded, however, any remaining bonus money from future years "accelerates" onto the current cap and/or the next year's.
For example, the Redskins could not have cut Albert Haynesworth this year, as they would have had to cut other players just to fit his signing bonus into this year's cap.
With no cap in 2010, though, teams might be able to cut such "dead weight" with little or no impunity. It wouldn't be surprising to see some first-round draft busts, such as the New York Jets' Vernon Gholston, or "problem children" such as the Patriots' Adalius Thomas, handed their walking papers next year.
4. Owners don't have to pay as much.
A tiff erupted between Smith and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell over the possibility that the NFL could reduce disability and/or pension payments for disabled payments (which the NFL wisely chose not to do). Similarly, the owners won't have to contribute to pension plans and other benefits for current players.
More importantly, while the CBA places a maximum amount that teams can spend on player salaries, it also places a minimum amount; this year, teams are required to spend 87.6 percent of their salary cap allotments on player salaries.
When the salary cap goes away, though, that floor will go away as well, so stingy owners could decide to save money by simply spending less on their rosters. Moreover, other benefits, such as contributions to the players' pension plans, would also be suspended in an uncapped year.
It's hard to say exactly what will happen if 2010 turns out to be uncapped. But it stands to reason that many people who might be looking forward to it now will be unhappy if it actually comes to pass.