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Owners need a new play

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff  March 4, 2011 12:59 PM

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Remember all the talk prior to the 2010 NFL season about how hard it was for teams to do long-term deals with the impending labor uncertainty in the league? How it was imprudent to hogtie your team with a long-term contract if there was no collective bargaining agreement on the horizon?

Yesterday, mere hours before expected armageddon, with uncertainty the only certainty in the NFL, teams like the Houston Texans and New Orleans Saints were signing players to long-term deals. The Saints signed running back Pierre Thomas to a four-year, $12 million extension. The Texans inked tight end Owen Daniels to a four-year, $22 million contract. Those extensions are just as meaningful as the 24-hour extension of CBA negotiations that the NFL and the NFL Players Association have entered into under the guidance of federal mediator George Cohen.

If deals like the ones given Thomas and Daniels are getting done in this environment then so can the mother of all NFL contracts -- a new CBA. It just requires the owners to drop the crying poor pretense and play let's make a deal.

The owners have been harboring plans for a lockout almost from the moment they exercised the early opt-out clause in the CBA in 2008. These guys didn't become billionaires by doing bad business deals, but that's exactly what they felt they did in 2006, when they were cajoled into providing a parting gift of labor peace for outgoing NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue -- and, for the most recent NFL season, 59.6 percent of total revenue to the players.

Anyone who covers the league has heard the terms "lockout fund" and "war chest" for at least two years now. The DirecTV deal that was part of the $4 billion in lockout-proof television funds recently shot down by US District Judge David Doty, the MVP of the CBA negotiations so far, was advertised as lucre for the lockout at the 2009 NFL owners' meetings in Dana Point, Calif.

But luckily for football fans it seems the owners have gotten cold feet about going ahead with their Cold War. There has been a noticeable shift in tone in the characterization of negotiations in Washington. The players are already willing to commit to a longer extension of seven to 10 days.

If the owners have really had a change of heart -- or at least of strategy -- and want to abandon the long-planned lockout then they will follow suit. Otherwise, we're headed for lawsuits, including a messy anti-trust one where Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and offensive lineman Logan Mankins, along with former Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel are all plaintiffs.

That could be uncomfortable for the folks in Foxborough, and you have to believe that Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who has been more optimistic and outspoken than most about the need to get a deal done, is pushing for an agreement to avoid that ugliness and Doty's unfriendly gavel.

While the more hawkish owners are going to want to proceed with the plan to lock the doors, enact a stalemate and bring the union to its knees to wring every possible concession out of their employees, that strategy is now as outdated as the Single Wing offense.

Really, at this point the negotiations boil down to risk, which has always been at the center of this dispute. For the owners it has been the risk that comes with stadium/construction debt on their balance sheets. For the players, it has been the risk of being betrayed by a body that was beaten and battered in the name of the NFL shield.

Now, there is additional risk for the owners and that's alienating their customers by proceeding with such a transparent lockout plan when there is the opportunity to get some, but not all, of the concessions they've demanded from the players -- rookie wage scale, an 18-game season, an additional $1 billion taken off the top of the Total Revenue pie.

Doty flagging the NFL for illegal procedure by ruling it knowingly and purposely negotiated favorable lockout payment conditions in the television contracts at the expense of increased rights fees, was not just a landmark victory for the players in US District Court. It was a huge win for the NFLPA in the court of public opinion.

It very plainly undressed ownership's long-standing plans for a lockout and for the casual fan gave them a very clear antagonist in a complicated process, where no one is without sin. Who negotiates a deal, as the league did with DirecTV, where you actually get more money if the games aren't played unless you're planning on not playing them all along?

That strategy was based on the union rank and file turning on executive director DeMaurice Smith, a man the owners have vastly underestimated, while the owners counted their TV money and paid their bills. Doty's ruling has stripped the owners of their financial hammer. Smith, who as a US attorney was once the recipient of death threats, has not been intimidated by NFL owners or commissioner Roger Goodell and has galvanized the players.

Like the Patriots in their playoff loss to the Jets, the owners' original game plan is not working.

Some of the league's most high-profile teams, including the Patriots, have high debt/value ratios, according to Forbes. If Doty's ruling is upheld and the television money is held up then not doing a deal becomes arguably a bigger risk than doing an imperfect one.

The owners can proceed with their scorched earth policy of a lockout and hope to emerge totally victorious from the ashes, or they can keep negotiating. It's a pressure-packed situation, not unlike what their employees deal with on the field all the time, when a play breaks down or a split-second judgment call needs to be made.

It's time to see if the owners are capable of making those famous in-game adjustments.

If they don't or won't, we all lose.

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The word

Christopher L. Gasper riffs on the news

Dearth

...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.

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