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The CBA is hugely important to NFL football in 2021 and beyond - here’s a quick update

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a little housekeeping

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell Super Bowl Press Conference Photo by Cliff Hawkins/Getty Images

A little bit of a Twitter-war broke out this week between Mike Florio of PFT and ESPN when Florio quoted Adam Schefter as the source in one of his PFT articles, and Schefter shot back:

The report in question was that the NFL owners had given a rough deadline of around 18 March to finalize the currently-under-negotiation collective bargaining agreement, which, if approved, will replace the current one, which was took effect in 2011.

The row between Florio and Schefter, which eventually roped in Dan Graziano and saw shots fired by PFT at ESPN, occupied a lot of Twitter space and provided gruel for roughly a half-dozen PFT ‘articles’ from Mike Florio.

Meanwhile, there was actual news happening.

Whether the owners did or did not set a deadline on the player’s union is largely immaterial. Everyone involved understands that if the new league year begins on 18 March without a new agreement in place, there will be at least a partial reset on the process, and — with the leadership of the NFLPA set to change in March — it could be tantamount to a full reset.

The player’s representatives — one from each team — have met twice in the past week to consider where the negotiations stand, and to try to get a final agreement in place with the owners that they can take to the players for a yes-or-no vote in the very near future.

The best precis I have seen this week on the current status of the CBA process comes from Pro Football Rumors:

On Thursday, the NFLPA gathered in Los Angeles to discuss the owners’ latest proposal for the collective bargaining agreement. Although there is no true deadline for an agreement, Dan Graziano of ESPN.com (on Twitter) hears that there is some sense of urgency within the union to work out an accord. It’s expected that more meetings between the two sides, or at least internally for the NFLPA, will be scheduled for next week.

Some player representatives continue to be staunchly opposed to an expanded 17-game season, which is the foremost issue in the talks. Owners are looking for the new CBA to give them the option to add an extra game between 2021 and 2023. The proposal would boost the players’ cut from 47% of league revenue to 48.5%, a number that would inch even higher if the option is triggered.

The union is looking for ways to make the expanded season “more palatable for players,” Graziano reports. The owners’ say they’ll eliminate one preseason game for every regular season game that’s added. Meanwhile, their proposal still calls for only one bye week. In theory, we’d speculate that a compromise could include the addition of a second bye week, to give players additional in-season rest.

Both sides are aiming to get a new deal done in time for the start of the 2020 league year on March 18, Graziano hears. If that happens, the fresh CBA would supersede the final year of the existing one and take both sides through 2029.

Here are my key takeaways from this report, some of which I am seeing for the first time:

If the 17-game season is approved, it would probably take effect around 2022

There’s zero surprise here. The arrangement of a new schedule will require a ton of logistical work, and there will be a huge number of associated practical issues (such as adjustments to player contracts and salaries) to be worked out as well. With no source at all, I had earlier expressed my opinion that this change would most likely be implemented in ‘22 or ‘23. The only thing I see ‘new’ in this report is that the 17-game season is being proposed as an option that the owners could trigger, rather than a fixed event defined in the agreement.

The owners, so far, have proposed to continue with just one bye week. Speculation is that a potential second bye-week may be kept in reserve as a last-minute bargaining chip... a concession that could be given to the player’s reps to sweeten the deal.

I had assumed that the owners would include the 2nd bye week in the negotiations because it would, in fact, be more lucrative. A second bye week would result in 19 weeks of games instead of 18 weeks, meaning that by adding one game to the schedule, the league would be adding two weekends of football to the TV schedule. Cha-ching!

I am assuming that the speculation by PFR is correct — that the owners will “concede” the extra bye week late in the process, seemingly giving up something to the players that they, the owners, wanted all along.

Only one pre-season game would be elimiinated

I had been working under the assumption that the pre-season would be shortened by two games, but, that was in the belief that there would be a second bye week. Maybe this is another “bargaining chip” the owners are keeping in their pockets as a late concession. Maybe they really want to keep three pre-season games. While not truly fascinating, this looks like an interesting detail to watch as the negotiations reach their final stages.

The revenue split will go from 47% to 48.5% (and possibly higher if the season goes to 17 games)

I had written about this topic before. I believed the union would push for a 50/50 revenue split and I thought they might get it. I’m actually surprised that they haven’t achieved more than 48/5%, but the higher split linked to the 17-game season option being triggered sounds like good negotiating on the part of the owners and may be seen by the NFLPA leadership as the most effective way to make it happen. The revenue split is the single biggest win the NFLPA can achieve, so linking that to what the owners really want seems like a good strategic move by one side or the other — I’m guessing the tactical advantage here is with the owners, who would delay the highest revenue split by up to three years by linking it to the 17-game option.

If approved in time, the current CBA would be terminated immediately and replaced with the newly-approved deal, which would run through 2029

I suppose this should have been obvious, but, I confess, it surprised me when I read it. I had assumed that the new deal would simply pick up when the old deal ended, but, of course, that won’t happen. It seems like common sense to me now.

A lot of the unusual provisions that apply to the 2020 season under the current CBA (like the ability of teams to use both the franchise tag and the transition tag this off-season) will disappear with the substitution of the new agreement with the old.

It also means that the concessions won by the NFLPA — revenue splits, limitations on practices, changes to salary structures, and the like — will take effect immediately; players won’t have to wait a year to enjoy the benefits of the agreement they are being asked to vote for.

Malcom Jenkins on the Rich Eisen show

I didn’t see the entire interview — just the extended clip in the tweet above — but I thought that what I heard was instructive, and hinted at some thin spots in the general reporting about the negotiations we’ve seen in the past couple of weeks, which has, for the most part, focused on the owners’ interest in a 17-game season.

Salary Cap Distribution

The NFLPA is the representative of all NFL players. One of the interesting things about the 2011 agreement was the implementation of the rookie wage scale, which effectively took money out of the pockets of newly drafted players and put that money into the pockets of veterans.

SInce the NFLPA doesn’t represent the interests of college players soon-to-become NFL players, that agreement in 2011 was a move by the union to take care of its then-current members, even though it was at the expense of its future members.

I have seen nothing at all to indicate that the union or the owners want to walk back on the rookie wage scale; it is probably with us for a while.

But there have been a number of things that have happened with the combination of the rookie wage scale and the salary cap:

  • The career of the “middle class” players has been shortened, since they are being cut sooner and replaced with lower-cost young players on rookie contracts.
  • The extra salary cap dollars freed up by the rookie wage scale has gone to the stars in the league (especially quarterbacks), while the salaries of the middle and lower-tier players have not seen much escalation.

Malcom Jenkins made it clear that a huge issue for the “rank and file” members of the NFLPA is that the non-star players want a bigger piece of the pie.

I have written before that I believe in two ideas that would benefit all veteran players.

The first idea I have promoted is unpopular with most other NFL fans; that is, I think rookie contracts should be shortened from 4 years to 2 years, allowing drafted players to reach free agency in half the time, and giving them a crack at competitive market money while they are still in the normal career window of an NFL player. Don’t worry... I haven’t seen anyone report that rookie contracts will be shortened by this CBA. I guess I’ll have to put my passion for this idea on the shelf until 2028, when I can break it out again.

The second idea is one which I have seen reported in recent months as part of the current negotiation; that is, increasing minimum salaries for players. The rookie wage scale implemented in 2011 created a bigger pool of cash for veteran players, but most of it flowed to the already-rich superstars. Prior to the 2011 agreement, a $20m per year quarterback was almost an obscene idea. Now, just 9 years later, Russell Wilson is earning $35m per season, and there is talk of $40m per year for Pat Mahomes.

Meanwhile, the typical backup offensive lineman is toiling away for much the same money as his counterpart was in 2009.

The comments by Malcom Jenkins show that the bulk of the 2,000 or so players that comprise the NFLPA want to see more money flow to the more anonymous players at the expense of the superstar megabucks contracts that have become the norm in recent years.

I suspect that this will be one of the most important parts of the new agreement, but one that isn’t getting many headlines.

Franchise tags & 5th year options

Just before the end of the clip, Rich Eisen asked Jenkins about changes to the franchise tag system and Jenkins started a verbal dance that showed he didn’t really want to answer the question.

The franchise tag system is one of those strange products of the collective bargaining system that isn’t really what anybody wants, but represents a compromise that allows other, larger goals to be met. Now that we have it, despite the fact that it doesn’t work as intended, nobody really likes it, and that it creates strife between players and teams, it’s not going away — at least not with the agreement currently on the table. That much was clear from Jenkins’ uncomfortable verbal jitterbugging.

I think that the franchise tag system needs to be amended or scrapped, but — as I mentioned already — having it in place allows other agreements between the parties, and nobody seems to have a better idea, so it remains in the seeming unending purgatory or the “too hard basket”. On top of everything else, it affects only a handful of players per season, making it easy for the union to dismiss as a roadblock to an agreement. Maybe it’ll be dealt with next time, in 2029.

So...

The CBA negotiation is possibly the most important news story in the NFL right now. It affects the shape of the 2020 season, and at least the next 8 seasons to follow. But it gets overshadowed by coaching changes, roster concerns, free agency and the draft.

This article only scratches the surface of a topic that I find fascinating. The CBA will set the salary cap, set rules for off-season training and in-season practices. It controls roster size, annual schedule, and sets the rules for free agency and the draft.

With the new CBA in place, and certainty about the length and structure of upcoming seasons, the owners can negotiate lucrative TV contracts and start the next phase of the league’s integration with emerging legalized gambling. There is no aspect of the game that is untouched by the collective bargaining agreement.

The coming five weeks will probably see reporting on this issue open up from a trickle to a flood, and — whether or not you are in favor of expanded regular seasons and playoffs, or opposed to more limitations on padded practices or higher veteran minimum salaries — if you’d like to see the league continue its operations uninterrupted by strike or lockout, then you should take an interest in and hope for a quick agreement on the proposed new CBA.

If the players accept it and it takes effect on 18 March, we will see a lot of certainty in the league for the coming decade or so. If it is rejected, however, then it will be back to the drawing board with new union leadership and the probability of disruption to the game. It’s happened before. I for one — despite being opposed to a 17-game season or expanded playoffs — will be rooting for the smooth implementation of a new agreement to avoid disruption of the game.