One of the biggest questions as the NFL prepares to start the 2010 season is: What does an uncapped year mean?
For the NFL, the 2010 year of the Collective Bargaining Agreement begins March 5. The chances of the owners and the players miraculously hammering out a new CBA before March 5 are about equal to the high temperature in Cleveland being 100 degrees that day.
It could theoretically happen, but don’t lay any money on it.
As spelled out in the current CBA, there are rules to govern an “uncapped” year. While any NFL owner now can spend as much as they want without suffering a penalty, there are new limitations on free agency in an attempt to keep competitive balance.
Players formerly qualified for free agency after four years in the league; that number has now increased to six and directly affects 212 players. Those 212 players now are restricted free agents and can be tendered one-year contracts to keep them from leaving.
Turning down that contract offer can bring penalties ranging from a first and third round draft pick from the team the player does go to down to simple right of first refusal.
With that in mind, expect movement in free agency, but some players who may have been certain to move under the normal CBA now have a much tougher road ahead of them.
How that affects the Cleveland Browns remains to be seen as Abram Elam, Jerome Harrison, D’Qwell Jackson, Brodney Pool, Matt Roth, Jason Trusnik, and Lawrence Vickers are all the affected players.
Harrison had a great four-game stretch to end the season, and appears to be in his prime, so the Browns may want to demand a first and third round pick for Harrison should other teams bid for his services.
What this new system could do is force more trades. For example, Shaun Rogers demanded a trade prior to last season after he felt head coach Eric Mangini had disrespected him. One major reason that trade didn’t take place was because of the $9.7 million cap hit the Browns would’ve taken on the deal.
That obstacle is no longer there. If team president Mike Holmgren feels Ahtyba Rubin will be a better (and younger) nose tackle and decides to pull a Bill Belichick and trade Rogers now while his value is at a peak, there will be no ramifications from a salary standpoint.
For the record, I want Shaun Rogers to stay, his ability to get through opposing lines and swat kicks means he should have a place on this team in 2010.
For other NFL teams, the new situation has differing impacts. The final four playoff teams now can’t sign a free agent unless they lose a free agent. The next four playoff teams in line—Baltimore, Dallas, Arizona, and San Diego—also have restrictions, but not as severe as the final four.
For a team like Dallas, with pretty much unlimited room to spend, this is significant since Jerry Jones could pull a New York Yankees if left unchecked.
No one, besides the NFL Player’s Association, wants to lose the salary cap in the NFL permanently. The lack of a salary cap in Major League Baseball is slowly killing the sport as more and more mid-market teams find their fan bases eroding under one failed year after another.
Every now and then, a team is able to have a good year because their young players all develop around the same time. But then they all come due for new contracts at the same time and the owners either have to increase their payroll by $50-$100 million or dismantle the team.
Sadly, fans of teams like the Cleveland Indians and Florida Marlins know all to well what the owners usually end up doing. The dreaded “rebuilding” term is leveled and ticket sales go down the drain.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has to be aware of this, and will hold the line for the owners in the new CBA talks. While a discussion over what may happen and who should concede what is talk for another time, salary cap issues will be at the top of the discussion list.
For 2010, expect the lack of a salary cap to cause some teams to be aggressive with trades and signings, banking on things working themselves out down the road.
On the other hand, don’t be surprised to see some teams pull back on salaries this year, fearful of spending too much in a down economy.
If gate sales were bad in 2009, like they were for the Jacksonville Jaguars, the prospect of no playoffs and rumors of a move to Los Angeles could further keep ticket sales down, making the prospect of spending a lot of money on salary unwise.
The only thing predictable about the next few months will be the unpredictability of it all. This is uncharted territory for everyone in the NFL, and it will be interesting to see which team’s “get it” and make the right decisions, and which teams blow it.