NFL 2011 Lockout: Another Uncapped Year In 2011?

For now, the league has closed its doors, but it might reopen faster than expected.

There's a good chance the 2011 season could be played under the same uncapped rules that governed the NFL in 2010, writes Mark Maske from the Washington Post.

After the owners imposed a lock out in response to the NFLPA decertifying last weekend, the players are now seeking an injunction to lift the lockout and an April 6 hearing has been set. Maske argues: 

"If that injunction request by the players is granted, the sport would reopen for business and the league would have to put work rules in place. Sources from throughout the sport on both sides of the dispute said over the weekend that the system the league would enact at that point would be very likely to be the same system that was in effect last season, when there was no salary cap in the final year of the just-expired labor agreement between the NFL and the players’ union."

Another uncapped year? More likely than not, that would spell bad news for the majority of players. Because while an uncapped year sounds good in principle, the experience from 2010 shows that it actually isn't. Particularly for the players.

The rules written into the last CBA that governed a potential uncapped year were designed as ‘incentives' to get both sides back to the negotiating table. Let's review four key incentives and how they worked out.

Incentive One: No salary cap, and more importantly, no salary floor. In 2009, the cap was $128 million and the floor was $111 million. ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas recently pulled together a list with how much each team currently has committed for the 2011 season, and an interesting dynamic emerges from the 2011 committed salary figures: only three teams currently are above the 2009 cap (Cowboys: $M 136.6, Packers: $M 129.8 and Jets:  $M 128.5), while 21(!!!) teams are below the 2009 salary cap floor. 

The lack of a cap benefits teams, not players, in two ways: They can get rid of players whose salary don't match their production without penalty, and they are free to spend waaaay below the the cap floor of $M 108. The Buccaneers for example have the lowest current salary commitment for 2011 with $M 59.7. They decertified for that?

If owners continue to be financially conservative with player salaries, another uncapped year could easily see them making more money than the amount that was left on the table when the union decided to decertify.

Incentive Point Two - Limited free agency. A player must have six NFL seasons to be eligible for free agency (instead of 4). Many players who had expected to become free-agents will be restricted free agents instead, and the teams will likely tender them to fairly low contracts. In the case of Marcus Spears, who was tendered to a lower figure than his two backups last year - that would add insult to injury.

Incentive Point Three - Three tags per team. In an uncapped year, each team will have one franchise tag and two transition tags (rather than just one tag) to place on key players to prevent their departure. Three tags per team means 96 of the league's top players can't enjoy the fruits of their labor via free agency. Bummer.

Incentive Point Four - Final Eight Plan. The top eight playoff finalists from 2010 will be allowed to sign free agents only at the rate at which they lose them (Steelers, Ravens, Packers, Falcons, Bears, Seahawks, Jets, Patriots). Called the Final Eight Plan, the number of players those teams lose to free agency will determine how many they can sign from other clubs. In essence, that takes the big and most successful clubs largely out of the free agent market. If as a player you were hoping for a big payday from one of these teams, fogettaboutit.

The owners could of course always appeal the injunction, but may choose not to, as another uncapped season might actually be in their interest - if they can rein in their own spending on players.

Attorneys for the players’ side have of course said they'd challenge any rules put in place by the league if the lockout is lifted. But since the 2010 uncapped rules are something the NFLPA already accepted once before, they may find it a little harder to argue an anti-trust case against rules they had previously agreed to in collective bargaining.

Let's see where this is headed. I think we may soon need a lawyer to help us out with all this stuff, because it's getting more complicated by the hour.

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