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The uncapped season: Can the Cowboys gain an advantage?

[Intro by Dave Halprin] Not much happening for the Cowboys so far in free agency and the only story of interest  is the potential trade/cut of safety Roy Williams. Hat tip to Masada for breaking it on BTB with this FanPost.  So while we wait, read Jim Vance's story below about next year's free agency which could be a strange one with 2010 potentially an uncapped year. [End intro]

We have all heard that 2010 is an ‘uncapped' year and that can have wondrous or disastrous effects on the NFL depending on the reader's perspective. There is speculation that some teams may benefit more than others. In fact, there is speculation that some teams may surge so far ahead of others in talent acquisition that the league may become two tiered, imagine the Durham Bulls playing against the Yankees. At first glance, an uncapped year would seem to be a boon for players and for those owners who are willing to spend what it takes to get the right players - but, like Mom used to say , "Don't leave home without your cap."

An uncapped year seems like an opportunity for Jerry Jones and Dan Snyder to bring in enough star players to put their respective teams in a strong position for a championship run long after the owners and players union come back together and agree on a new contract. I don't think that will happen, here's why.

This is what we know - during their spring meeting in 2008 the owners voted unanimously to end the CBA (collective bargaining agreement) with the players union two years before its planned termination. The agreement gave the owners and the NFLPA options to end the agreement early and provided for mutually agreed upon ‘incentives' designed to drive both parties back to the table and reach a new agreement. The 2009 season will be status quo, the first ‘incentive' kicks in before the 2010 season. I'll come back to those incentives in a moment but first let's look at why the owners wanted change and how we might get to an uncapped 2010.

The key issue that led the owners to vote to terminate the current agreement after the 2011 season - money! The CBA now in effect (signed in March 2006) guarantees that roughly 60% of revenues go to player salaries and the owners state that this business model does not work.

The owners stated the following three issues forced their decision:

  • The owners debt on new stadium construction projects and other related expenses
  • The owners inability to recapture signing bonuses from players who don't fulfill their contracts
  • The owners desire for a rookie wage scale to prevent first year players from making more than established and proven veterans

A recent Forbes report supports the owners contention that profits have decreased. In the same report, Forbes states that the most valuable franchises are those who have negotiated new stadium deals and will therefore generate revenue from luxury suites, stadium advertising and retail operations surrounding the stadium.

Of those three owner issues, the rookie wage scale will be the easiest one to resolve.  Incoming rookies will have no input in the negotiations and current players and owners will benefit from restructuring how rookies are paid. The other two issues, stadium debt and recapturing signing bonuses will be more contentious. In any negotiation it is natural for both parties to want to gain more than they give. The owners are claiming the new stadiums are required to increase profits. These new stadiums are risky and expensive and the owners feel they are taking all the risk and should therefore benefit from the rewards - the players union is going to try to get access to that revenue as well.

The NFLPA's new President Kevin Mawae says, "Rookie salaries are not the big issue. What is a bigger issue is teams not willing to share all total monies with other teams. There are 25 new owners in play since the CBA of '93. Those guys brought in different business models. Somewhere along the line, the owners have to find common ground, too. Old money. New money. Some sell their stadium rights. Some don't. Should those monies be part of total revenue sharing?"

So, this is what led us to an uncapped 2010 season. Will this uncapped season allow Jerry Jones to stock up on talent and give the Cowboys a significant competitive edge before the next contract is agreed on? I don't think so.

Here are the ‘incentives' that will be in effect in 2010 that are designed to force both sides back to the negotiating table.

Incentive Point One- A player must have 6 years of service (instead of 4) to become a free agent. Consider that the average playing life span of an NFL player is 3.5 years - increasing the qualifying time for free agency will significantly decrease the number of players available.

Incentive Point Two - Teams will have one franchise tag and two transition tags (currently teams have one each) to place on key players to prevent their departure. If each team used all three tags there would be 96 of the league's top players eliminated from free agency in addition to every player with less than six years service. This results in a further decrease in available free agents.

Incentive Point Three - Playoff Teams will have a ‘Final 8 Rule'. The rule will restrict the final eight teams in the playoffs from signing free agents. The final four teams shall not be permitted to negotiate and sign any unrestricted free agent to a player contract except for players who acquired their status by being cut or were on a final four team when their contract expired. Playoff teams five thru eight will be allowed to sign one player with a salary of $4,925,000 or more and any number of players with a first-year salary of no more than $3,275,000 and an annual increase of no more than 30 percent in the following years.

There is a mechanism to permit the final eight teams to sign an unrestricted free agent for each one of their own unrestricted free agents who sign with another club as long as they don't spend more than what their own lost player received from his new club.

In the uncapped year, these limitations on free agency will decrease the number of available players. One trend to look for in 2009 is a team attempting to sign the better players to longer term contracts thus tying up their services beyond 2011 and further reducing the pool of attractive free agents.

An uncapped year sounded like a gift from heaven for a free spender like Jerry Jones. However, these free agency limits will deplete the pool of players and the big spending owners will be forced to shop at Sears instead of Nieman's. I don't think the uncapped year will be as exciting as I had hoped.

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