Getting Down to Actual Business
When the ball is kicked off tonight to start the 2013 NFL season, front offices can finally exhale. The majority of work for this year’s versions of their teams is done; it is now time to view the fruits of their labor.
The general manager is already thinking about the future of the team and knows which players may be playing their last season under his watch. The college scouting staff has long closed the book on 2013, and is well into the process of discovering the class of 2014. The cap/contract manager is mostly projecting uses of remaining cap room for this season in planning for next year. During the season the cap charges change from “Top 51”—only the top 51 salaries on the team—to a complete accounting of every player, including practice squad and injured players, and every miscellaneous charge. Cap planning is well under way for 2014.
Sure, there are injuries and roster moves to make during the season. There also may be a contract extension or two along the way, although several teams do not negotiate during the season (Geno Atkins/Bengals and Brian Cushing/Texans were completed on the eve of this season). Once the season begins, the stewardship of the team moves from the front office to the coaching staff.
The NFL offseason is its own reality show. It exposes the seamy underbelly of the game: contract squabbles, rumbles of player unrest, disputes on injury treatment and recovery targets, arrests and other player misbehavior.
I have always referred to the offseason as “Me Time,” when the most team-oriented sport becomes very individualized. Players often say they are doing “what’s best for their family,” which is code for “what’s best for me.”
The offseason is also the time when the “Whisper Crew”—friends, hangers-on and other associates—is in full throat, whispering that the player needs a new contract, agent, girlfriend, house, car. In my time both as an agent and a team executive, I dealt with countless issues related to the Whisper Crew.
It is when the games are not being played that the team is molded, architected, assembled and built for battle. I always had a nice chuckle when I was asked: “What do you guys do during the offseason?” Actually, it would be more appropriate to ask: “What do you guys do during the season?”
As we turn the page from the “Me Time” to “We Time,” let’s take a look at a few checklist items as teams are turned over to the on-field staff for the season.
Cuts keep coming
This past weekend was truly taxing for players, agents and team executives alike, with the constant churn of some teams’ lower third of rosters. Teams like Jacksonville, Kansas City and Cleveland—all with new coaching and scouting staffs—were particularly active.
This is the time that teams’ scouting staffs separate themselves. They spent August watching unknown players late into preseason games to determine if they were better than their bottom-of-the-roster players. When those names hit the wire, they made their cases to the general manager for roster adjustments.
The end of the roster is never secure. I remember as an agent sweating out cutdown day with my client, Matt Hasselbeck, a sixth-round pick of the Packers. We celebrated when the cut list did not include his name; he had made the Packers as a third quarterback!
The Chicago Bears released Rick Mirer and then-Packers coach Mike Holmgren liked Mirer; Mirer took Hasselbeck’s roster spot and Matt was moved to practice squad. Players can never rest easy. For many, they are only as secure as the next name on the waiver wire.
Each team is allowed up to eight players on their practice squad. While the vast majority of practice squad players make the minimum $6,000 weekly salary, several will receive more due to competitive bidding, some even make an active minimum salary of $405,000, or about $23,824 per week. Recruiting can be intense, as all teams feel that once a player has been in their system, they will not leave for another team. Practice squad players are always free to sign with another team’s active roster, though they cannot move to another practice squad.
I have seen various reactions to being placed on the practice squad. Most are happy to be on the team in any capacity, although some are still fuming they didn’t make varsity. I vividly remember center Scott Wells (now with the Rams), released as a rookie and brought back to practice squad, coming into my office to sign his practice squad contract still angry and red-faced about his release.
Vested Vet Vetting
The CBA mandates that any player on the roster for the opening weekend who has four or more years of service be entitled to full salary for the year through termination pay. A vested player who is released can file for unpaid salary after the season, although he may file only once in his career. Teams keep track of vested veterans and are keenly aware of these players during the crafting of the final roster.
The financial obligation to vested veterans lessens considerably after this week, from full pay to the unpaid balance of 25% pay or one week’s minimum salary for 10-year veterans, whichever is higher. With more teams moving to a “draft and develop” philosophy—unafraid to play young players and trusting their scouting—there appear to be fewer vested veterans on teams every year.
Let the season begin. More importantly, let the “season” of the business of football, the offseason, end.
10 THINGS I THINK ABOUT THE CONCUSSION SETTLEMENT
1. I think these are salad days for NFL owners. They have a management-friendly CBA in place for seven more years, record television contracts yet to kick in, 23 of 32 team franchise valuations over $1 billion and a fanbase with an insatiable appetite for their product. And now, the major threat to the owners' continued prosperity—the prospect of billions of dollars in damages from an unfavorable result in the concussion lawsuit—is removed. Asset valuations will continue to soar.
2. I think the plaintiffs’ attorneys got a stark sense of what NFL owners are like in a business setting. Plaintiff attorney Christopher Seeger commented, “Jerry Jones is a hard-ass.” You think? I can see Jones wagging his finger at the opening offer from the plaintiffs—likely in the billions—and saying, in his Arkansas drawl, something like, “Now that dog won’t hunt.” The multibillion “ask” became $765 million.
3. I think the NFL faced a continuing public relations battle if the suit continued in any form. The steady drip of stories portraying physically and mentally infirm plaintiffs trying to squeeze compensation out of the big, bad $9.5 billion entity did not play well for the league. That was a key part of the owners’ motivation to settle.
4. I think every owner has to be pleased with a total bill of approximately $24 million paid out over twenty years, with insurance picking up a chunk of it. For the price of—in player guarantee terminology—a Ryan Fitzpatrick or Santonio Holmes, the concussion suit is resolved.
5. I think a major issue the retirees’ faced was causation. For instance, take a case of a 58-year old who played six years in the NFL, yet played contact football since age nine. What percentage of his present suffering was actually due to the NFL? What about the fall he had on the ice five years ago? What about his forgetfulness being related to simple aging? These are the kind of questions each former player would have faced.
6. I think the plaintiff attorneys recognized their key challenge, which was not a legal one but a practical one: time. Wending through thousands of these cases—all individualized—could have taken a decade. Even if ultimately successful, some retirees with immediate health challenges could not afford to wait that long. The owners had the leverage of time; the retirees did not. And a key rule of negotiations is that the party that can better withstand the status quo is always in a better negotiating position.
7. I think the psychology of the plaintiffs’ lawyers was to take the best deal they could get and move on. Were there no settlement, they faced the prospect of flying around the country for the next few years in depositions about each player and hiring a roster of highly paid experts to opine on each player’s neurological damage. The savings on experts alone is in the millions.
8. I think Judge Anita Brody handled this case brilliantly. Rather than rule on the NFL’s motion to dismiss, she shrewdly put this in the hands of a skilled mediator and pushed both sides to settle. She smartly was in tune with some hints from both sides that there may be a settlement in the offing and took herself out of the equation.
9. I think it is ironic that one of the critics of the settlement figure was Kevin Mawae, former president of the NFL Players Association. If anyone should understand the complexities of negotiation and trying to get the best deal possible, it should be him. The NFLPA has been widely criticized for the CBA deal it made with the same owners who just made this concussion deal, and not all of it has been fair. Negotiations are difficult, especially with these guys.