Penny wise and football foolish?
Two years since the NFL was in labor limbo, shut down by an impasse that ended just in time to send teams to training camp, the economic landscape of the game is becoming apparent. The owners look to be winning, and big, and a number of quality, proven players are losing — money off their contracts, years off their careers.
For sure, franchise-type quarterbacks — Joe Flacco and Tony Romo recently, Aaron Rodgers soon to come — are getting paid more than ever. Former Steelers receiver Mike Wallace landed a $60 million deal with the Dolphins. But with the salary cap stuck at about $123 million and not likely to rise soon, it's creating a trickle-down effect on players with years of meritorious service who are signing contracts they wouldn't have considered two years ago or aren't signing at all.
Only a year after the Bills locked up pass rusher Mario Williams with a $100 million contract that guarantees him $50 million, no non-quarterback is landing a deal anywhere near that.
Just look at the players available: James Harrison, Dwight Freeney, Karlos Dansby, Andre Smith, John Abraham, Ahmad Bradshaw, Brandon Lloyd, Bryant McKinney, Richard Seymour, Nnamdi Asomugha. With so many teams struggling to find cap space, some quality players — Steelers receiver Plaxico Burress, for one — will play for the league minimum next season, and some are happy to get that.
Steven Jackson, a nine-time 1,000-yard rusher, landed only a $12 million deal with $4 million guaranteed from Atlanta; in recent years, he would have received that in a signing bonus alone. Wes Welker jumped from the Patriots to the Broncos — or perhaps was pushed — for $12 million over two years.
Owners such as the Rooneys will say everyone won in the 2010 labor talks, the first conducted by NFLPA chief DeMaurice Smith, who replaced the late Gene Upshaw. If the NFL is healthy economically, they'll say, then everyone in the league is healthy.
Ralph Cindrich, the Pittsburgh-based sports agent and former NFL linebacker, disagrees with such talk. He blames the inflexible salary cap and one-sided labor agreement for creating unfavorable conditions that he believes will adversely affect the quality of the game, as teams are forced to constantly rebuild from season to season — shedding veteran players along the way — merely to stay below the cap.
As a result, multiple teams have a few, high-priced players who command premium cap space but a ton of minimum-wage players at the bottom.
“The cap is just horrendous, and it's not going to get any better, and there's no question in my mind it affects the quality of the game. It's a direct result of the owners' win at the bargaining table,” Cindrich said. “It was very apparent and obvious right at the that time (that the owners won), and it will become more pronounced, more obvious.”
Cindrich added, “Every owner is tight with a buck, but they just gave the commissioner (Roger Goodell) a $20 million raise. That (2010 labor agreement) was a home run, and they all view it as a home run. They listened to the hawks this time around, (the Cowboys') Jerry Jones and (the Patriots') Robert Kraft; they did a great service to their fellow owners.”
But, as least in Cindrich's opinion, a disservice to the sport.
“The quality of the game has gone down, in my opinion, and with the rule changes (designed to make the game safer) you're going into ground you don't know,” Cindrich said. “It's like you're so strong now, you think you're impervious to everything, but Rome started falling in a short period of time.”
SALARY CAP HELP
With cap specialists so prized by the teams, the Steelers recently added a second in Samir Suleiman, a former James Madison receiver who spent nine years with the Rams, most recently as director of football operations.
His title with the Steelers is football administration coordinator, a role that will allow him to assist director of football and business administration Omar Khan with salary cap management.
Khan has interviewed for multiple NFL general managers' jobs, so having Suleiman will help protect the Steelers should Khan leave.
A LOOK AHEAD
The Steelers' offseason program will begin April 15 and include organized team activities from May 21-23, May 28-30 and June 3-6, plus a three-day minicamp June 11-13. The players will be off after that until the start of training camp.