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Football Notes

Uncapped year will be no bargain for the players

By Albert R. Breer
Globe Staff / February 28, 2010

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At one point, NFL players looked at the concept of an uncapped year as a dream that was unlikely ever to come true. And now that it has, the reality has become more nightmarish than they ever could imagine.

On Thursday, the NFL Players Association made a late stab at moving to put the conditions of 2006-09 back in place for one more year, telling the owners that it would help spark a new collective bargaining agreement and keep the Good Ship Pro Football from drifting into uncharted waters.

The union was summarily rejected.

So 212 fourth- and fifth-year players will be restricted free agents (not one player in this group has signed a long-term deal since season’s end), where they would have been unrestricted in the past. The salary floor will disappear with the cap, and players looking for money will do so in an uncertain economic climate while their union sniffs around for collusion.

Worst of all, despite the lifting of salary limits, many teams are planning to impose strict budgets to prepare for the possibility that whenever a new CBA is struck, the cap will return and penalties for free-wheeling free agent forays could follow.

Easy to see, then, where the poison pills put in the 2006 agreement to spark talks and keep things from getting to this point will be swallowed harder by the players than the owners.

“Teams are going to be very hesitant to act as if 2010 is a ‘file-delete’ year,’’ said Andrew Brandt of the National Football Post, who was a Packers vice president and chief negotiator from 1999-2008 and a player agent before that. “There’s a natural caution out there from cap managers, even though there’s no cap. And there are rumblings that if and when the cap comes back, there’s going to be a lot of retroactive accounting.

“This is the issue for teams, moreso than just throwing out big numbers. If you cut someone with a big deal, you’d have to worry about a huge acceleration on a pro-rated bonus to the cap, and this year you wouldn’t have that problem. But you have the thought with new deals: Will this come back to haunt me?’’

Take the example of Patriots outside linebacker Adalius Thomas.

Thomas collected a $12 million signing bonus on his five-year deal in 2007, pro-rated against the cap over the life of the contract, and an $8 million option bonus in 2008, pro-rated over the four remaining years. That leaves $8.8 million that hasn’t been counted against the cap yet, and that would be the dead money on the Patriots’ cap in 2010 if they were to cut him.

With no cap, the penalties won’t be incurred.

But there’s no saying that a deal signed in 2010 won’t be accounted for later against a future cap, which could cause problems for big spenders after next season. And there’s no telling whether some creative accounting - say, disguising a signing bonus as a first-year salary to bury the charges into 2010 - won’t be penalized later.

It hurts players that some teams crying poor-mouth will slash payroll, but it might hurt more that even the “haves’’ in the NFL are emphasizing restraint to keep from mortgaging their competitive futures.

“We’re going forward with the way we’ve done it,’’ 49ers GM Scot McCloughan said. “We’re doing just fine and we don’t need to adjust.’’

The Steelers (who usually don’t splurge in free agency anyway) are another team that has publicly said they will impose a cap on themselves, based on the 2010 numbers.

“That’s more an individual, team, Pittsburgh Steeler philosophy,’’ said Pittsburgh director of football operations Kevin Colbert. “We’re going to operate as we always have. Whether or not you want to use the term or whatever you want to call it, our deal is, ‘This is how we’re going to approach it, this is our budget, these are the things we as the Steelers are going to do.’ ’’

Other teams are more evasive about their plans, but the lack of a salary cap probably won’t send anyone into a total philosophical shift.

And that isn’t collusion. It’s the reality that short-term gain in 2010 could bring a hefty penalty down the line.

“I plan under the circumstances where we’re at,’’ said Packers GM Ted Thompson. “We are where we are, this is what we’re going to be in, in 2010. You just go about your business.

“I’m not trying to foresee 2011, I’m not doing any of that stuff. We have plans within our organization of how we’re going to approach this season, and that’s what we’re going to do.’’

Does that mean spending will be curbed altogether? No, it doesn’t.

A scarcity of elite talent on the market could create bidding wars for certain players at positions like linebacker (Karlos Dansby) or cornerback (Dunta Robinson, Leigh Bodden). It’s also possible that - with the market shallow across the board - a $1.5 million-a-year player could see that number rise to $2 million or $2.5 million.

And there will be buyers.

“We’re not thinking there’s going to be a work stoppage,’’ McCloughan said. “I think teams, common sense-wise, a lot of teams are going to be nervous to give a lot of guarantees to the standard guy, knowing there’s a chance of a work stoppage. We’re not.

“If we’ve got a good player we think we can get done, we’re going to get him done. But again, no one really knows. It’s uncharted waters. Anything can happen.’’

That, for players, is precisely the problem. As Brandt said, “It almost seems like the owners are embracing life without the salary cap.’’

As it stands, they have every reason to.

A LITTLE TUNA HELPER
Holmgren’s system similar to Parcells’s
The new structure of the Browns football operation has just one precedent, so it makes sense that first-year team president Mike Holmgren (left) would check out how the Dolphins have done business the last two years.

While Holmgren says, “I know what they do there, and I would say that it’s not exactly the same,’’ he has reached out to Miami executive vice president Bill Parcells.

“He told me a little bit of how he does things,’’ Holmgren said. “It’s how he would approach things, the pros and the cons of doing this, because me and him, we were coaching a long time.’’

The similarity in the set-ups is simple: a football czar oversees the club, with a general manager and coach underneath him. But there’s a distinct difference, too. When Miami hired Parcells, he imported new GM Jeff Ireland and coach Tony Sparano, who worked with the Tuna in Dallas from 2003-06.

But while Browns GM Tom Heckert had worked with former Holmgren assistant Andy Reid in Philadelphia, he’d never been a colleague of Holmgren’s, and coach Eric Mangini was held over despite coming from a different coaching tree.

Holmgren’s hope is that things will evolve as they did in Green Bay, where he and GM Ron Wolf forged a relationship despite different pedigrees.

“If it works as well as it did with Ron and me, then great,’’ said Holmgren, “because I couldn’t have asked for anything better as a young head coach than to have had Ron Wolf.’’

Holmgren was adamant that the Browns will remain Mangini’s team, saying he “reminded me a little of myself when I started out.’’ And as such, he will not impose his Bill Walsh-influenced offensive system on Mangini.

“The more I got to know him, I realized, ‘Heck, there’s a good coach here,’ ’’ Holmgren said. “He believes in his system and he brought some ideas. We talk about philosophy a lot, we talk about how to run a practice, time off, communicating, smiling more [laughs], that kind of stuff.

“Once we’ve laid the foundation, then we can get nuts-and-bolts of, ‘OK, why are we doing this?’ ’’

BRAIN TRUST
In Kansas City, Haley puts heads together
Some young head coaches might feel threatened by having a cadre of ex-head coaches on the staff.

Kansas City’s Todd Haley (left) is not one. Haley already had ex-Oklahoma coach Gary Gibbs as his linebackers coach, and this offseason he added former Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis and ex-Browns coach Romeo Crennel to run the offense and defense, respectively.

The idea, Haley says, is to have different voices in the room, guys that aren’t afraid to speak their minds, so the best decision can be made collectively.

“It’s priceless, especially now with a year under my belt,’’ Haley said. “Obviously I got hired late in the game last year [after going to the Super Bowl as Cardinals offensive coordinator], and I’ve got a bunch of good coaches on my staff as it is. But to me, the thing I learned this year is you want more guys that have a familiarity in thinking the same way.

“We’re not all going to agree on something, but our vision on the types of players we want, the way we want to play football, is common. Then, it’s just a matter of interacting with guys in there, and it’s guys you’ve been in the trenches with many times. It’s priceless.’’

Haley got his coaching start with the Jets in the late 1990s on a Bill Parcells staff that also included Weis, Crennel, and Chiefs GM Scott Pioli. Those three went to New England, while Haley went to Chicago before rejoining Parcells in Dallas.

Now they go to work as the Chiefs evaluate college players and their own personnel.

“The four of us and Mo [assistant head coach Maurice Carthon] and a couple of the other coaches have been through some good fights before, so we know there’s not going to be that time where people try to establish some sort of position in arguing for a player or arguing against a player,’’ Pioli said. “It’s critical because this is a time where you can’t be shy about your opinions.

“ ‘Easier’ may not be the right word, but it will be efficient.’’

After a 4-12 season, there’s plenty of work to do.

ETC.
Food for thought on interview process
Some personnel people in the NFL have discounted, to a degree, the interview process that players undergo at the combine, because players are so well-coached in what to say and what not to say by handlers. The solution? Take players out of their comfort zone. Falcons coach Mike Smith said that two years ago, when his team was considering players for the third overall pick, an off-field pressure situation was one thing that put them over the top on Boston College quarterback Matt Ryan. “We had dinner with Matt at a restaurant there in Boston,’’ Smith said. “That’s an intimidating thing, to have seven guys and him at the table, and Matt handled himself very, very well. Then the next morning we got together and talked football. We put him up on the board and it became real obvious that he had all of the skills that we were looking for to be a successful quarterback in the NFL.’’ Similarly, the moxie Mark Sanchez showed in private workouts was a determining factor in the Jets’ taking him fifth overall last year. So while a lot of the interviews have already been conducted, the most important ones are still on the horizon.

Lion-hearted on defense
The Lions have said time and again that they felt they got the best quarterback (Matthew Stafford) and tight end (Brandon Pettigrew) in the 2009 draft with the two first-round picks they held. But neither player was the team’s best rookie last year. That honor goes to Louis Delmas, who had 94 tackles, two picks, and a sack in 15 games. The club was happy the way Stafford took charge of the offense, and the same goes for how Delmas became a leader defensively. “He’s our top defensive player, and he’s a rookie,’’ said coach Jim Schwartz. “He’s next to guys that have played eight or 10 years in the NFL and right away he was taking charge. His skill set is exactly what we’re looking for in the position - a little bit of a hybrid corner/safety, can play in the box but can also range deep. But more than anything, if you guys know him a little bit, it’s his energy, his attitude, those kind of things. When we’re good on defense, it’ll be because our defense plays with Louis’s personality.

Putting changes in motion
The crop of quarterbacks in this year’s draft is an interesting one in that almost every prospect has major questions. Both Sam Bradford of Oklahoma and Colt McCoy of Texas are coming off shoulder issues, and Jimmy Clausen of Notre Dame has had his character called into question. But no one is undergoing the fundamental overhaul that Florida’s Tim Tebow is in revamping his delivery. Count NFL types skeptical that it can work. Mike Holmgren, one of the game’s most respected tutors of quarterbacks, said, “It’s always been my opinion that the motion is the most difficult thing to change in any quarterback. He’s trying to change it, but it’s really hard to do, particularly in pressure situations.’’ Tebow said it’s more of a “tweak,’’ but it’s hard to call it that when he’s being coached to change his drop point, his windup, and his release point. The biggest problem? Changing a quarterback’s release can compromise his accuracy, and that’s an area in which Tebow has problems to begin with.

Position of strength
The NFL may be as pass-happy as it’s ever been, but that’s not hurting the value of defensive tackles. Nose tackles Vince Wilfork, Ryan Pickett, and Aubrayo Franklin have been franchised, a fourth would’ve been had Casey Hampton not reached a three-year extension, and defensive end Richard Seymour, who would play tackle in some systems, was given the exclusive tag. On top of that, the consensus top two prospects in the draft, Ndamukong Suh and Gerald McCoy, are defensive tackles. What gives? Well, to be creative in rush packages, teams have to get opponents in long-yardage situations, so while the aforementioned players may never put up big sack totals, they’ll always affect a defense’s ability to knock the quarterback around. “If a team can run on you, they’ll do it ad nauseam,’’ said Browns coach Eric Mangini. And if they do that, the opportunities for guys like Dwight Freeney and Jared Allen get cut down significantly.

Three and out
Expect Bradford to ascend the draft board. Football people will tell you time and again: If you’re convinced a guy is going to be a franchise quarterback, you have to take him. Chances are, someone picking high will see that in Bradford, a deadly-accurate passer who surprised some by weighing in at 236 pounds, and pull the trigger . . . While so much of the early draft talk around the Patriots has centered on the club’s willingness to break its outside linebacker mold and take sawed-off Michigan rush man Brandon Graham, it’s worth noting that there is a guy out there who fits the taller, lankier prototype for the position. And that guy, Texas’s Sergio Kindle, played for a defensive coordinator, Will Muschamp, whom Bill Belichick is very familiar with . . . One last interesting draft dynamic to watch comes in the secondary. Safety has become more of a prime-time position the last 10 years, particularly in where those players are drafted, so it’ll be interesting to see what happens with the elite players at each position: Florida’s Joe Haden at corner and Tennessee’s Eric Berry at safety.

Albert R. Breer can be reached at abreer@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @albertbreer; material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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