Now entering one of the most important off-seasons in the history of the NFL, it is time to take a cue from David Letterman and go list the Top 10 Stories to Watch in what could be a turbulent 2010 NFL off-season. Without further adieu...
10. Franchise Free Agency
The Rams - or at least 60% of them -- are reportedly being sold to an Illinois businessman who is intent on keeping the team in St. Louis. In the event the purchase price is significantly less than the value of the team calculated by Forbes magazine a few months ago, the NFL will use the price as proof to refute the NFLPA argument that all is healthy in the economic world of these teams. A bit further north, the Vikings have been rebuffed again by the state of Minnesota, as the budget was just presented without any public funding for them in it. As the Vikings have watched public financing for the University of Minnesota and the Twins, their frustration level is boiling in their revenue-deprived bandbox of a facility, casting one eye towards LA.
9. American Needle
The United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments in January on this case involving an apparel company pushed to the curb when the NFL did a collective deal with Reebok in 2002. Although none of the questioning concerned labor, there is at least the potential to insulate the league from the NFLPA strategy of decertification employed successfully by Gene Upshaw in the early nineties.
8. The 2010 NFL Draft Class
The draft compensation system will remain unchanged. The way the contracts are structured - due to the operation of the tight Rookie Pool that will continue without a Cap - the vast majority of bonus money comes in the second year of the contract, a potential amount of 250-300M. That should be getting management's attention as they structure these deals.
7. Who will Pick a Peppers
The most attractive Unrestricted Free Agent (UFA) on the market is Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers. The interesting issue for Peppers may not be who the team is, but for how much. As a player that has made north of 15M for each of the past two seasons, it is a question whether he will equal that average again.
6. Being Brett
No offseason list is complete without Brett. My belief this year is the same I have had every year since I have known him (and since the speculation started): he will play. Brett is under contract with the Vikings for 13M, so there is no contract to negotiate nor retirement list to skirt (see Jets, 2009). Brett played with a calm and poise this year. I will be shocked if he retires.
5. The Restricted Free Agent (RFA) Market
There are 212 players that under the old system - four years required to be an Unrestricted Free Agent (UFA) - they would be free and now they are not due to the lack of an extension of the CBA. This group has a greater talent level than the UFA group. Without a Cap and with a dearth of talent in the UFA pool, it is going to be interesting to see if there is an active RFA market. This is something to watch, leading to ....
4. 2010: The Offseason of Discontent
How will all of these RFAs react to being saddled with one-year tender offers when under normal circumstances, they would have unfettered bidding for their services? Probably not well. We may have dozens of RFAs not sign their contract offers in symbolic acts of defiance, excusing themselves from offseason programs, minicamps, OTAs and in extreme cases, training camp. There will be low rumbles of discontent throughout this offseason.
3. The Quarterbacks
There may be megadeals for the A List - Manning, Brees and Brady. Peyton should be first, with numbers to be in the eye-opening range of 50M guaranteed and 140M in total value. Drew Brees would appear to have a case to make Peyton money, although he has two years left compared to Manning's one. The most interesting of the three will be that of Tom Brady. Although the Colts and Saints are on record to address these contracts that expire soon, the Patriots are not. I get the sense the Patriots would rather wait on paying Brady, leaving Brady, an alternate NFLPA representative, to determine whether to make an issue of their reticence to reward him. Stay tuned on that one.
2. An Uncapped World
For the first time since the advent of NFL Free Agency in 1993, the NFL is careening towards a year without a Salary Cap, set to begin March 5. While many will point to teams such as Dallas and Washington potentially engaging in Steinbrenner-esque spending without any limits on their credit cards (unlikely), the less-discussed and more likely scenario is the pulling back on spending by teams without any spending thresholds that a Salary Cap has required in the past.
1. No NFL in 2011
It is way to early to tell if this will happen, although both sides have started preparing for this possibility. The NFLPA has started setting aside money for a strike fund, an amount said to be close to 200M. The NFL has been advising its clubs on this possibility since 2007, when it hired the attorney who guided the NHL through its recent lockout (I was at the meeting introducing him in December 2007 in Dallas). Teams have also been negotiating coaching contracts with setoffs and pay decreases for 2011 in the event there is no football. And the league has funding from broadcast contracts that will provide revenue even in the event the stadiums are dark (with appropriate setoffs later in the deals) to provide some cushion if there are no game revenues. DeMaurice Smith, the new leader of the players association, has a tough job.
Welcome to the offseason....