NFL Players and NFLPA Leadership Big Winners in 2014 Free Agency

Michael Schottey@SchotteyNFL National Lead WriterMarch 13, 2014

NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith and President Dominique Foxworth
NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith and President Dominique FoxworthRob Carr/Getty Images

Did you hear the joke about the NFL players being swindled in the most recent collective bargaining agreement? 

Three years ago, as of March 11, the NFL owners locked out the players from participating in the sport they love. What followed was a tense and strenuous negotiation process that resulted in a new CBA and restarted the NFL veritable moments before the labor disagreement could have disrupted the upcoming NFL season. 

As ESPN's Andrew Brandt always says: "Deadlines spur action."

Since the NFL resumed under new, but mostly familiar terms, much has been said about who "won" and who "lost" the deal. In a way, while any business negotiation is—essentially—about money, the NFL lockout was more about the proper division of the overall metaphorical pie. 

The pie that is NFL revenue has been growing, exponentially, in recent years. Thanks to both the owners and, certainly, the players who make the game popular by being the ones to actually play it, the NFL is at the point where the U.S. government can probably just set up another mint underneath the league offices in New York City and save a few steps. 

So, as any rich people are wont to do, the owners wanted more of that potential money for themselves. The players—no fools in their own right—fought to protect their own interests, both monetarily and otherwise. 

Russell signed a six-year, $68 million contract before washing out of the league.
Russell signed a six-year, $68 million contract before washing out of the league.Paul Sakuma/Associated Press

In the aftermath of the lockout, it became clear that NFL rookies would be getting the short end of the stick. Frankly, this benefited both sides as NFL teams were sick of being sidled with massive rookie deals (which, honestly, were of their own design) while veteran players were tired of being left out in the cold as a team spent a huge chunk of its cap on the latest JaMarcus Russell-like bust. 

At the time, it was also clear that the salary cap had been lowered a bit—why the owners looked to lock out the players in the first place—but the salary floor (the minimum amount teams could spend) had been raised, as had minimum contract values. 

The players also got concessions in terms of less work. With less contact in offseason practices and less offseason practices altogether, the hope is that longer careers benefit both sides of the equation. 

Overall, the new CBA was heralded as a win-win deal and everyone from owners to players to coaches and fans were mostly just happy that football was back. (Except the referees who were locked out a little while later, but that's a whole different story.)

Then, time passed. 

The story in 2012 was that the cap would be "flat" in upcoming years. Not only was the cap rising slower than expected, but it had actually been reportedly finagled into looking bigger than it truly was. From ESPN's John Clayton:

Starting with the 2014 season, revenues are expected to rise significantly because of increased television dollars and the overall strength of the game. What won't rise much is the salary cap.

After having flat caps of $120.375 million in 2011 and $120.6 million in 2012, the NFL management council told clubs Tuesday that the cap won't increase much in the next three years. In fact, the 2015 cap may go up to only $122 million, according to management council projections.

Although the cap numbers for 2013, 2014 and 2015 still can be negotiated, projections point to very little increase. The cap may rise by only $300,000 in 2013, going to around $120.9 million. Even though increased network television money is coming in 2014, the cap is projected to go only into the $121-plus million range.

The actual salary cap for the upcoming 2014 season: $133 million. 

Along the way, before that cap number was reported, there had been much hemming and hawing about what the cap might be and how badly the NFLPA had screwed up the negotiation process. Jason Cole, a contributor to Bleacher Report but writing for National Football Post, reported that the union might use a $2 million option to raise the cap to maybe $128 million. 

Cole does a fantastic job, and I have nothing but the utmost respect for him, but his sources were off by about $5 million. Also, NFLPA Assistant Executive Director George Atallah said, via USA Today's Tom Pelissero that: "there were absolutely no adjustments made to any benefits to inflate the cap."

Cole wasn't the only one who felt the NFLPA had negotiated a raw deal. 

Last year, Ben Volin of The Boston Globe cited the fact that "The salary cap isn’t even supposed to increase in 2014" in a piece titled: "Now More Than Ever, We Realize the NFL Owners Won." He further wrote: 

Many agents, naturally, are incensed about the deal and are pining for the days of Gene Upshaw.

“There was never any transparency from the union to the players,” another agent said. “It was basically, ‘We’ve agreed to terms on the deal, we expect everyone to ratify it, and let’s pop champagne bottles.’

“De Smith was a slick trial lawyer who came in and sold the players on a fancy PowerPoint presentation. Ninety-eight percent of the players have no understanding how bad this deal is.”

I don't know who Volin's agent source is, but one has to assume he's eating his words—along with some filet mignon if his client happens to be a free agent this offseason. 

Former NFL defensive lineman Sean Gilbert has sought to oust union director DeMaurice Smith because of the "bad deal," saying, per Yahoo reporter Rand Getlin:

The owners not only drove a hard bargain, they sealed that bargain for a decade. That was unprecedented and it has to make you wonder one simple question: Why would the owners – the people who are experts in the money side of the football business – ever agree to such a long-term deal if they weren't completely sure that the deal was to their liking?

Gilbert's cautionary tales on the CBA ring hollow as his nephew makes out like a bandit.
Gilbert's cautionary tales on the CBA ring hollow as his nephew makes out like a bandit.CHUCK BURTON/Associated Press

Gilbert, who has given his book about how terrible the current CBA is to every player, also happens to be Darrelle Revis' uncle. You know, the same Darrelle Revis who signed a $12 million contract, via Adam Schefter of ESPN, with New England, which has a second-year option, per Pelissero of USA Today, of $20 million. 

Hey, if Gilbert's book doesn't sell, I know someone who could lend him some money!

Again, no disrespect to Cole, Volin or even Gilbert, who were simply working with the best information they had available—though, it is worth noting that Gilbert's crusade to warn players about the terrible CBA coincides with his public run to replace Smith.They were just wrong because that information, at the time, was incorrect.

All of the pearl clutching by journalists, agents, former players and, yes, even current players like free-agent linebacker Jonathan Vilma, who tweeted, citing and linking Volin's article above: "Should've known when that guy got a $20mm raise...smh Now more than ever, we realize NFL owners won."

Vilma, injured last season and recently released by the New Orleans Saints, may not get a big contract at 31 and after years of declining play, but other players are. 

Excuse me for burying the lede a bit, here, but NFLPA records released to me report that, as of the morning of Thursday, March 13, 61 players had been signed for a total contract amount of $982,160,000—that's almost a billion dollars in money spent on 61 players.

DeMarcus Ware will earn $20 million guaranteed from the Denver Broncos
DeMarcus Ware will earn $20 million guaranteed from the Denver BroncosRonald Martinez/Getty Images

Now, that's just on paper. As we know, NFL contracts are not fully guaranteed (maybe next CBA?) and some of that money is just a mythical number the players will never see as they age, get injured or are cut. However, the total guaranteed amount of those 61 new contracts is still $453,080,000.

Players, apparently, are not the only ones excited about the new cap space as teams have seemingly raced to spend that extra money. Remember, while owners certainly don't want to spend more money on labor than they have to, their employees—coaches and general managers—are enabled to spend to their heart's delight, because their jobs quite literally depend on fielding a quality football team. 

As we talk "winners and losers" around any big event in our culture—especially in sports—we must include the NFL players and the NFLPA leadership in the big-winner category. This year's free-agency barrage has resulted in making a lot of players—both those with elite talent and, frankly, those with considerably less talent—very rich. 

ESPN's Dan Graziano agrees with me, writing:

That time has come. Once the clock hits 4 p.m. ET on Tuesday, all the complaints you've been hearing about the lousy deal the players made in 2011 are going to start sounding awfully silly. The end result is that everybody -- owners and players alike -- is making out on this new CBA. This spring, it's going to be the players' turn to look like the winners.

Moreover, the stress release of finally seeing a big cap jump coinciding with big jumps in NFL revenue takes a huge burden off of the union leadership, which clearly got the good-faith and fair deal they had promised to their members this entire time. 

Michael Schottey is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff on his archive page and follow him on Twitter. 


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