The uncapped year. It's something NFL players have been dreaming about for quite some time. Franchises unrestricted by the limitations of the league's stringent salary cap. Huge, baseball sized contracts and $200 million payrolls. Daniel Snyder on overload.
The late NFLPA leader Gene Upshaw used to threaten the NFL with the thought of it, sending the owners shaking in their boots. Upshaw would say, "If the cap goes, it's never coming back."
The thought of billionaires like Jerry Jones, Daniel Snyder, and Paul Allen sending salaries out of whack were enough to get the owners to commit to a deal that commits 60 percent of the NFL's profits to player salaries and has caused the dark cloud that hovers over the league like an impending thunderstorm.
The rumbling you here isn't brought on by lightning, but the discontent of the NFL franchises in the smaller markets that can't keep up with the salary floor, and nowhere near it's ceiling.
The climate has changed for the NFL owners. They want the uncapped year not because it frees them from limitations and enables them to pursue the best players no matter the cost, but quite the opposite. Now there's no floor to spend up to.
Owners can slash player payroll as low as it will go to continue to field a 53 man roster and practice squad.
That's music to the ears of the Glazers, owners of the Buccaneers, in financial difficulty because of over leveraging their assets in acquiring English Premiere League soccers' flagship franchise, Manchester United.
Since 2004, when the Glazers purchased Man U, the Buccaneers have spent the least money in the league. The fall on the U.S. economy hit the family hard and couldn't have happened at a worse time. Since the economic recession began, the family has been syphoning off money from their NFL franchise to pay for debts on the soccer team.
Already (and to the surprise of no one), Buccaneers GM Mark Dominik has announced Tampa Bay will not be major players in free agency. Several teams have followed suit.
"I expect owners will be financially responsible. I think there will be appropriate amount of financial resources made available to make sure that happens." Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank told reporters at the Super Bowl and brought to light by ProFootballTalk.com, "I don't see, although you never know with other owners, anybody going wild. I think that owners in my opinion will be very thoughtful about their investments they way they usually are."
In addition to the Bucs, Dallas owner Jerry Jones also finds himself with an extremely large debt service for his financing of the Jones Mahal, Cowboys Stadium. Even the biggest spender, Daniel Snyder, has taken steps to limit himself this offseason, hiring Bruce Allen, who made tremendous deals while working for the Glazer family during Jon Gruden's reign. He's also brought aboard Mike Shannahan, who was never a big believer in free agency in Denver.
Other owners are preparing for war with the players union—the ugly little reality that 2011 brings. For the league, Armageddon is coming a year early unless the players give back many of the concessions won in the last collective bargaining agreement.
Many teams have begun laying off employees, streamline operations, and making financial decisions with 2011 clearly in mind.
Again, the Buccaneers are prime example of this thinking, with none of their coaching staff signed beyond 2010.
While the NFL owners may have bent over backward with concessions to the players in the last CBA, one concession the players made has come back to bite them in the backside.
Two new rules go into effect at the opening of the league year if the uncapped year comes to fruition:
First, unrestricted free agency begins after six years of NFL service instead of four years, effecting over 200 players who would have been free to negotiate with any team this year but now are restricted in their movements.
The second rule effects the teams that qualified for the divisional round of the playoffs this year. The losers—the Cowboys, Cardinals, Ravens, and Chargers can only sign one unrestricted free agent from another team to a big-money deal. If they lose a player, then they can sign another player for a contract equal or less than the one for the player they lost.
For the winners, it's even more restrictive. The Saints, Vikings, Jets, and Colts can only sign a player if they lose one.
Basically, what you have folks is eight teams all but eliminated from competing for players in free agency.
Add this to the large number of teams that are looking to cut salaries and get to the salary floor, and teams who are stuffing their war chest in anticipation of the lockout, and you can quickly see how the uncapped year isn't going to be the nirvana players envisioned.
Even worse for the players, an uncapped season could turn into a complete disaster. Players who are underperforming under large contracts would usually be safe for a time because to cut them would cause a huge charge back on a team's salary cap.
Now, there's no such protection. Underperforming players will be cut with no ramifications to the team.
Perhaps it's why new NFLPA executive director De Smith tried so hard to get the league to the negotiating table to prevent the salary cap from going away.
The NFL owners knew they had him over the barrel and asked for an outrageous 18 percent cut in salaries, which of course, Smith refused.
So the uncapped era arrives and when the dust settles, there's going to be many players hoping for its speedy return.