There are a few last minute issues that the players want addressed before declaring a done deal, kind of like agreeing to marry someone and then demanding they dye their hair and get plastic surgery days before the wedding.
One of them is the $320 million in benefits they forfeited last year during the final year of the previous collective bargaining agreement. The primary one is the settlement of the anti-trust lawsuit filed against the NFL, specifically plaintiffs Chargers wide receiver Vincent Jackson and Patriots left guard Logan Mankins, who are reportedly asking for $10 million each.
What happened to the players pre-lockout rallying cry of "Let us play"? Now, with football in sight it's "Let's get paid." The owners may have initiated the lockout, but it's the players who are keeping the doors from reopening right now. This is a public relations fumble worthy of Earnest Byner by the erstwhile NFLPA, which has gotten excellent leadership from executive director DeMaurice Smith.
On almost all other issues -- an 18-game season, overall compensation, player safety, long-term health care, off-season workout obligations, physical risk vs. owners' financial risk -- the players' position is the just one. But their moral compass is off on the settlement and benefits requests.
Fans don't won't to hear about last-minute snags and attempted stick-ups. The assumption was a tentative agreement was in place and that football would be back in business by the end of this week. The players side is standing in the way of that.
Which brings us back to Mankins and Jackson and the anti-trust lawsuit with Tom Brady's name on it. Blocking is what Logan Mankins does for a living and he's exceedingly good at, as the three Pro Bowls on his resume attest. But this is not the kind of block that Mankins wants to take credit for. This is blocking a deal to bring back football.
One of the admirable traits of Mankins is that he stood up and put principle above principal last season, withholding his services when he felt he was unfairly treated. But the $10 million settlement request on his behalf is a departure from that probity he learned growing up in the cattle ranching community of Catheys Valley, Calif.
There is also the matter of these demands seeming a bit indecorous with Patriots owner Robert Kraft, one of the peacemakers of the labor process, dealing with the loss of his wife, Myra, who passed away yesterday.
There is no disputing that Mankins was victimized by the final league year rules and the Patriots' manipulation of them. Instead of being an unrestricted free agent last offseason or getting the $10.7 million 2010 franchise tag (the average of the top five highest salaries at the position) for offensive linemen, Mankins got a restricted free agent tender at $3.26 million. That tender was reduced to $1.54 million, 110 percent of his 2009 salary, when he didn't sign it by June 15.
In protest of his plight and the Patriots' alleged failure to honor a promise of a long-term deal for him, Mankins sat out the first eight weeks of the season. He returned, played at a Pro Bowl level, made approximately $800,000 and then got slapped with the 2011 franchise tag ($10.1 million).
Update (4:38 p.m.): So now Mankins's agent, Frank Bauer, is saying settlement demands were made without Mankins's consent.
If Mankins deserves damages from the NFL that's fine, but he should also be going after the NFLPA and his fellow players. It was the NFL Players Association and its members after all that signed off on the previous CBA, which contained these onerous and punitive provisions.
Right up until they read the fine print, many NFL players were crowing that the uncapped year was going to be a financial windfall for them. On the surface no salary cap sounded great, but the rules were heavily bent toward the teams if they had bothered to peruse what the NFLPA approved. The same logic applies to the $320 million in benefits the players want back. They negotiated them away in the last deal, a deal they approved.
The real issue here is the franchise tag. I despise the franchise tag. It's not quite the reserve clause from the olden days of baseball, but it's a distant relative. You're either a free agent or you're not. If both Mankins and Jackson were free agents now, instead of tagged, we're not having this discussion.
Eliminating or limiting the application of the franchise tag should have been one of the chief priorities of the players in this bargaining battle. It is unconscionable that teams can franchise players multiple times or in consecutive seasons. Often times players are tagged with no real eye toward a deal, only squeezing one more year of service out of their bodies (see: Samuel, Asante).
Details are scant on the new CBA, so it's hard to know what the players achieved -- or are still trying to. Owners were able to alter the tag, so that there were more position-specific tags. Instead of all lineman being lumped together there would be a breakdown between center, guard and the lucrative tackle spots.
A fair settlement for Mankins and Jackson, who parroted Mankins's plight last season, would be for both players to get the full value of their slashed $3.26 million RFA tenders and a pledge that their teams won't franchise them following this season. In addition, like some of the plaintiffs in the 1993 case, it could be declared that neither Mankins nor Jackson can be franchised by any team ever again.
That's a fair deal.
Many piled on the owners for their obvious avarice at the outset of these negotiations, and rightfully so when all 32 franchises show up on the Forbes list of the 50 most valuable sports franchises on the planet.
But the players are exhibiting the same gridiron greed as we reach the denouement of football's labor horror show.
...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.