NFL faces un­cer­tain off­sea­son

La­bor strife com­pli­cates pur­suit of trades, free agents

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - BY MARK MASKE AND BARRY SVR­LUGA

As the Green Bay Pack­ers and Pitts­burgh Steel­ers pre­pare for next Sun­day’s Su­per Bowl, the off­sea­son has al­ready be­gun for 30 other NFL teams. That means eval­u­at­ing ros­ters, scour­ing the free agent and trade mar­ket, and pre­par­ing for the draft.

But this year is far more com­pli­cated than usual, with the pos­si­bil­ity of la­bor strife in the com­ing months threat­en­ing to turn the nor­mally or­derly NFL off­sea­son cal­en­dar into chaos.

The un­cer­tainty over a new col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing agree­ment be­tween team own­ers and the play­ers’ union looms over the plan­ning of ev­ery club, none more so than the Washington Red­skins, who were ex­pected to be among the most ac­tive NFL teams in free agency and the trade mar­ket be­cause of their nu­mer­ous and dis­parate needs.

“It’s a ques­tion that I think ev­ery­body’s ask­ing them­selves in

— Red­skins Gen­eral Man­ager “We have to be pre­pared for free agency. . . . If some­one’s go­ing to change the rules, I’m sure I’ll get an e-mail, and then we’ll ad­just. ”

Bruce Allen

the NFL,” Red­skins Coach Mike Shana­han said ear­lier this month. “With the new CBA, ex­actly what di­rec­tion are you go­ing to go? I can’t tell you for sure right now.”

Play­ers and union of­fi­cials have said they ex­pect the own­ers to lock them out, but no one re­ally knows for sure. One thing is cer­tain: Even if the cur­rent col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing agree­ment ex­pires March 4, there will be a draft in April.

Be­yond that, how this off­sea­son will un­fold on the player-ac­qui­si­tion mar­ket is un­known — leav­ing teams to pre­pare to build their ros­ters un­der old rules and pre­vi­ous timeta­bles, know­ing that a work stop­page could put ev­ery­thing on hold and a new agree­ment could change those rules.

“We have to be pre­pared for free agency,” Red­skins Gen­eral Man­ager Bruce Allen said. “We have to be pre­pared for the end of the league year on March 4, and that’s what we’re work­ing to. If some­one’s go­ing to change the rules, I’m sure I’ll get an e-mail, and then we’ll ad­just.”

Free agency usu­ally would be­gin in March. But it’s not clear what the rules for free agency will be this time. If the sport shuts down be­cause of a lock­out, there won’t be a free agent mar­ket for the fore­see­able fu­ture.

But un­til a lock­out is cer­tain, front of­fice staffs and coaches are, to a cer­tain ex­tent, guess­ing what will hap­pen on time, what will be de­layed, and when they might be able to as­sem­ble a fi­nal list of play­ers to bring to train­ing camp.

“What we’re do­ing is just say­ing we’re go­ing to do it as busi­ness as usual,” In­di­anapo­lis Colts Pres­i­dent Bill Po­lian said. “And then, what ad­just­ments we might have to make on the back end will take care of them­selves. . . . Once we know what the land­scape is, then we go from there.”

Red­skins ham­pered?

The land­scape, though, is murky, and it could pre­vent deals both large and small.

This is where the Red­skins, in a nor­mal off­sea­son, could be a fac­tor. The coach­ing staff has al­ready iden­ti­fied a vast ar­ray of needs and, in part be­cause the team doesn’t have picks in the third and fourth rounds of the draft, of­fi­cials ex­pect the Red­skins to be ac­tive in a free agency pe­riod that could be un­like any the league has seen.

“ There are 400 free agents out there,” Shana­han said. Among the most prom­i­nent vet­er­ans el­i­gi­ble for un­re­stricted free agency are quar­ter­backs Pey­ton Man­ning of In­di­anapo­lis and Michael Vick of Philadel­phia.

Ac­tu­ally, ac­cord­ing to the league, 495 play­ers would be el­i­gi­ble for un­re­stricted free agency if there is a la­bor set­tle­ment that re­stores the free agency re­quire­ment to what it was — four sea­sons of the NFL ser­vice time — un­der the sport’s pre­vi­ous sys­tem. In a typ­i­cal year, just more than 300 play­ers are el­i­gi­ble.

But if there’s a lock­out, sign­ings will cease, mak­ing it im­per­a­tive for teams to move quickly on their own play­ers, stars or not.

“We’re try­ing to sign a lot of our play­ers that are free agents as well,” Shana­han said. “Hope­fully, we’ll get them back on our team. ... It’s not al­ways the starters that are im­por­tant. It’s backup play­ers with the right char­ac­ter that you know give you a chance to win down the line.”

It’s pos­si­ble that the March dead­line for a new la­bor agree­ment be­fore the cur­rent deal ex­pires — and thus, the po­ten­tial start of free agency — could be pushed back if the two sides are mak­ing bar­gain­ing progress.

In the mean­time, there is lit­tle for teams to do but pre­pare as usual, but for a va­ri­ety of sce­nar­ios.

“You de­cide which of your own play­ers you want to bring back. You don’t know the sys­tem but you just have to make sure all your meet­ings are done, all your eval­u­a­tions are done and you’re ready to go on March 4,” said Charley Casserly, the for­mer gen­eral man­ager of the Red­skins and Hous­ton Tex­ans. “ Then from that point on, you just have to be flex­i­ble.”

Brave new world

If there is a la­bor set­tle­ment in the com­ing weeks, the salary cap po­ten­tially could re­turn — al­though Gene Up­shaw, the late ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the NFL Play­ers As­so­ci­a­tion, of­ten said that the salary cap never would re­turn if it was al­lowed to go away— and the re­quire­ment for un­re­stricted free agency might be re­stored to four sea­sons in­stead of six. There also could be a rookie wage scale, as the own­ers have pro­posed to the union dur­ing ne­go­ti­a­tions.

Some ob­servers say if there is a lock­out, there’s no rea­son to be­lieve it would end be­fore late sum­mer or early fall, when the pres­sure to re­solve the dis­pute would in­crease as the sched­uled open­ing of the reg­u­lar sea­son in Septem­ber nears. Un­der those cir­cum­stances, the league and union prob­a­bly would have to make ar­range­ments for an ab­bre­vi­ated free agency pe­riod be­fore teams would be­gin to pre­pare for the sea­son.

“You could be look­ing at sign­ing all these play­ers in a twoweek win­dow,” Shana­han said.

The prospects for a whirl­wind free agency pe­riod at the end of an ex­tended lock­out would mean play­ers who change teams would have lit­tle time to be­come ac­cli­mated to their new sur­round­ings. The sit­u­a­tion wouldn’t be ideal for the play­ers or the teams, like the Red­skins, that might pur­sue ma­jor per­son­nel over­hauls.

“ There won’t be that much of a dif­fer­ence from this team to that team, in terms of your plan or how smart you are,” Casserly said. “But there are some teams with very few free agents and a coach­ing staff that’s been kept in­tact. Those teams will have a tremen­dous ad­van­tage head­ing into next sea­son if this thing ends with a mad rush at the end.”

A set­tle­ment by March and a lock­out aren’t the only pos­si­ble end games. The play­ers could de­cer­tify the union, a move that could pre­vent a lock­out and en­able the play­ers to po­ten­tially file an an­titrust law­suit against the own­ers. It’s not clear what the rules for free agency would be in that case, but teams would likely be able to make off­sea­son moves while wait­ing for la­bor is­sues to be set­tled through po­ten­tial lit­i­ga­tion.

There also has been spec­u­la­tion that the own­ers could declare an im­passe in ne­go­ti­a­tions and uni­lat­er­ally im­ple­ment a new eco­nomic sys­tem con­sis­tent with their lat­est of­fer to the play­ers in col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing. It’s not clear what the sys­tem for free agency would be un­der that sce­nario.

The two sides con­ceiv­ably could leave the cur­rent un­capped sys­tem in place and con­tinue their la­bor ne­go­ti­a­tions with­out a work in­ter­rup­tion. But that seems un­likely, given the own­ers’ stance that the sport’s cur­rent eco­nomic sys­tem is flawed.

If a la­bor con­fronta­tion en­sues, the draft might be about the only thing on the NFL’s off­sea­son cal­en­dar that is rel­a­tively un­af­fected.

“We’re hop­ing that it gets re­solved,” Shana­han said. “My plan is the same as it’s al­ways been and if it changes, it changes.”

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