The first dominoes in the NFL's fast-moving labor crisis began tumbling yesterday, and those sounds being heard around the league were the careers of veteran players going thud.
Without an extension of the collective bargaining agreement between team owners and the players union, NFL clubs are preparing to jettison an unusually large number of solid performers in order to comply by today with a relatively restrictive salary cap of $94.5 million. Free agency for 2006 begins tomorrow.
The NFL extended by six hours the deadline for teams to terminate contracts and request waivers on players, from 4 p.m. today to 10 p.m. Meanwhile, club owners are scheduled to meet in New York today for an update from commissioner Paul Tagliabue.
While the broader roster bloodletting is expected to happen today, the purge started yesterday as Denver cut a handful of starters, including 1,000-yard rusher Mike Anderson and defensive end Trevor Pryce, and Buffalo dumped ex-Ravens defensive tackle Sam Adams and safety Lawyer Milloy. Carolina cut running back Stephen Davis.
Negotiators for the owners and the NFL Players Association disagree over how much of league revenues should go to the players. Reportedly, management has offered just over 56 percent and the union wants at least 60 percent. Without an agreement, 2007 will be a capless season, but already the upcoming transition year is fraught with challenges and uncertainties for both sides.
While teams with greater cap room may opt to make just a few moves to create flexibility for offseason free agency, some franchises that are already tens of millions over the cap will be required to make deep roster cuts.
"It gets to be a very emotional decision," New York Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi said at last weekend's NFL scouting combine as league coaching and personnel staffs braced for this eventuality.
"You want to keep all your players unless there is someone you just know is finished, or for one reason or another you want to release," he added. "For the most part, even if you have players you're not certain you can win a championship with, you want them for depth. And if you're willing to pay them, you kept them. But you can't keep anybody now."
After yesterday's moves, teams facing a projected cap crunch of $20 million or more are Oakland and Kansas City, according to ESPN.com. Miami, Tennessee and Washington are more than $15 million over the $94.5 million threshold.
Conversely, teams with the most cap room, $20 million or more, are Minnesota, Arizona, Cleveland and Green Bay,
Big-money players thought to be in jeopardy are Raiders quarterback Kerry Collins; Tampa Bay running back Mike Alstott and linebacker Derrick Brooks; Washington defensive backs Matt Bowen and Walt Harris, and Dallas offensive lineman Larry Allen.
In addition to Pryce and Anderson, Denver released starting tight end Jeb Putzier, which gave the Broncos at least $10 million in cap relief. Miami dumped offensive tackle Damion McIntosh, who was a $4.3 million cap liability. Together, Adams and Milloy represented about $6 million in cap room to the Bills.
Collins is a prime example of a player at risk. As Oakland's starting quarterback in 20005, he had a decent season, throwing 20 touchdown passes and 12 interceptions and posting a 77.3 passer rating. But he's also scheduled to earn $12.8 million in 2006, with nearly $9.2 million applied to the team's cap, according to ESPN.com. Since Oakland is over the cap by $26 million as of yesterday, Collins - who represents about one-third of the overage - appears to be a prime candidate to be tossed overboard.
The Ravens are in good shape with nearly $12 million in cap room, although they still have a handful of their own free agents to sign.
With a CBA extension, the cap was expected to rise to as much as $105 million for 2006, giving teams more maneuverability in keeping their own players and signing free agents.
But the current cap crisis is only the first in a series of consequences that could occur as a result of NFL management and labor failing to reach a contract extension by the end of today. Some will hurt the players; others the teams.
Although clubs like the Vikings and Cardinals, with lots of cap room, appear perfectly situated to take advantage of the surplus in available veteran talent hitting the market, there are some inhibitors built into the CBA, which runs through the 2007 season.
For instance, a so-called 30 percent rule limits increases in a player's salary to 30 percent year-to-year. That means many contracts for big-ticket players will have to include hefty base salaries and big signing bonuses, which now can be prorated over fewer years. So cap room will be chewed up in a hurry.
And while the union contends players will enjoy the benefit of no cap ceiling in 2007 - a byproduct of no CBA extension - it will take veteran players two more years (six seasons) to reach unrestricted free agency. Plus, there's the peril of also having no salary floor, a protection that currently exists.
In addition to the NFL's labor problem, a separate but related debate has owners at odds with one another.
Although the bulk of the league's revenues are divided equally among the 32 franchises, locally generated cash streams are not. Clubs that generate less money locally are concerned about having a proportionally larger chunk of their local revenues go toward player salaries. At the same time, a group of high-local revenue clubs, such as Dallas, have balked at sharing that type of revenue with other teams.