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The cap comes off - and a chill is felt

By Albert R. Breer
Globe Staff / March 5, 2010

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Patriots owner Robert Kraft has plenty to be proud of when discussing the last decade of pro football.

He was one of the leading men in a league that entered an era of prosperity unprecedented for any sports operation on this continent, if not this planet. And in that time frame, his franchise won more games and more championships in that league than anyone else.

But if you ask him how the NFL got to the point it finds itself at this morning - where so much of the aforementioned could be undone by serious labor acrimony - he is contrite.

Simply, Kraft says, “We did a bad deal in 2006.’’

At midnight, the NFL and its players entered the great unknown, the “Final League Year’’ written into the collective bargaining agreement, otherwise known as the uncapped year of 2010.

The salary cap that was installed in 1994 will vanish, as will the lesser-known salary floor that has always accompanied it. The pool of unrestricted free agents is barren compared with past years, and spending figures to be more restrained outside of the few elite players who wiggle through to the market.

It’ll be easier for teams to cut players, with the dead-money issues of the past gone, but harder to negotiate long-term deals with their own (see: Brady, Tom).

And as Kraft said, to find the root of the problem, you have to flip the calendar back.

In 2006, the NFL had an outgoing commissioner, Paul Tagliabue, without a work stoppage on his résumé and a ownership group infused with powerful, accomplished businessmen like Kraft, Dallas’s Jerry Jones, and Washington’s Dan Snyder that had entered the league after the 1987 strike, the league’s last work stoppage.

So with a leader motivated to avoid labor strife, and owners unfamiliar with the pressure put on them - an uncapped year loomed in 2007 - the league pushed back the start of the 2006 League Year to continue negotiating on a new CBA and eventually struck a deal. It was rushed, pushed through, and now it is regretted by the owners.

At issue: Under the previous CBA, players collected 65.5 percent of designated gross revenue (mainly gate receipts and broadcast revenue), and under the current one, they collect 59.5 percent of total gross revenue, which includes almost all monies collected by the clubs.

The result has been a fast-rising salary cap. In 2005, the last year of the old CBA, it was $85.5 million. It was about $128 million in 2009, meaning it rose nearly 50 percent in four years. Compare that with a 27 percent rise from 2001-05 (it was at $67.4 million in ’01), and consider that the 2009 salary floor ($107.7 million) is 26 percent higher than the 2006 cap, and you see the owners’ point.

That’s why, back in 2008, the owners opted out of the current CBA and put the wheels in motion to arrive where we have.

On the flip side, you see the union’s point in calling the rising salaries a market correction, as the league’s hold on the American public has grown exponentially.

So here we are. The league has now entered the “Final League Year,’’ which is inserted in every CBA as a motivator to pull the sides together toward a deal before a work stoppage is even discussed. Instead, it has done more to push the league and union apart.

Owners are upset about player costs, and players are demanding the owners open their books to prove they’re as cash-strapped as they say. Owners are refusing to, so the union is calculating its own numbers with the information available, and the owners, in turn, are disputing those figures.

Players, meanwhile, are irate about the lack of movement on 212 fourth- and fifth-year free agents (none of whom have gotten a long-term deal since season’s end) who would have been unrestricted in the old system but will be restricted in the new environment. They’re not ecstatic, either, about the prospect of cuts coming at record rates, or the fact that the free agent movement of the NFL elite is hamstrung by the “Final Eight Rules.’’

If that is not enough, the union also is unhappy with the idea that smaller-market teams could slash and burn with the salary floor gone.

Translation? What. A. Mess.

The muddle is why a 2011 lockout is considered such an eventuality that agents have been structuring deals for some time with an eye on how much players will collect, to quote some, “before the lockout.’’

That lockout would arrive on March 4, 2011, the first day of the Next League Year, and the desire to avoid that is one thing - maybe the only thing - these sides can agree on.

“I think every owner will say the same thing: We want an agreement that’s fair to the game, to the players, and will allow us to continue to invest in the game,’’ commissioner Roger Goodell said at the Super Bowl. “The idea that ownership would want a work stoppage is absolutely false. It’s a bad scenario for everybody.’’

And so it is with that bad scenario beginning to unfold that the 2010 free agent class enters the great unknown.

Millions of dollars will be spent in the days and weeks to come.

But the grander issue hovers over all of it, with not millions but billions on the line, and it is with that in mind that everyone must tread forward. Carefully.

Albert R. Breer can be reached at abreer@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @albertbreer.

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