What would have been DeMaurice Smith’s legacy as NFLPA boss, I wonder, if he had not been re-elected Tuesday to lead the union into the second collective bargaining era of his career? What has Smith, the University of Virginia-educated lawyer, delivered since his election in 2009? I think you’re watching it.
Bad football is a pervasive theme of the 2017 NFL campaign. You could put together a feature-length film consisting merely of offensive tackles being slapped aside, bulldozed or put on ice skates in the first two weeks of the season. The league’s newfangled next-gen route-tracking technology gives us painfully precise recreations of wobbly out routes and wayward post-corners. On Sunday we’re sending the good people of London a scintillating showdown between Joe Flacco and Blake Bortles.
I’ve seen blame cast on the rise of spread offenses in college football. It’s not a bad theory. A convincing argument can be made that college quarterbacks aren’t being challenged to learn certain complexities of offensive football they might have been tasked with two decades ago. It’s also a theory entirely too abstract to quantify.
Here’s a hard fact that has nothing to do with college football and everything to do with the quality of the pro game in 2017: Players are younger today, on average, than they were in 2010. The year before the new CBA was ratified, just one team, the Houston Texans, opened the season with an average age under 26. One year ago that number rose to 11.
What happened? DeMaurice Smith’s NFLPA happened.
In an effort to curb exorbitant rookie salaries that owners and players alike agreed were getting out of hand, the NFLPA overcorrected, enacting a rookie wage scale that incentivized NFL teams to stockpile young talent and save surplus cash for a handful of second contracts. The union also agreed to shortened practice time in the offseason, a measure that had the full backing of players but should have been more carefully scrutinized. The consequences are clear.
As Kevin Clark at The Ringer chronicled last year, executives and coaches agreed that players were more inexperienced than ever.
“Everything from defensive linemen not knowing where their eyes should be looking, not knowing where blocks are coming from,” Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh told Clark. "Defensive backs not recognizing routes, not knowing how to burst, stop, start, and change direction so they don’t tear their ACLs. Offensive linemen not knowing where blitzers are coming from. Just not a lot of technique anywhere."
Smith was not alone in accepting these new measures. Shortened practice time in the offseason and smaller contracts for inexperienced players were measures embraced by players in 2011. (There were other player-friendly aspects of the CBA, including improved health, pension and insurance benefits.) But it’s not simply the job of union leadership to appease players; while the membership is looking five years down the road, leadership must be looking 20 years ahead.
In rescuing a veering semi from careening off a cliff, Smith steered the rig into the side of the mountain. The shift rendered the middle-class contract endangered. Players who at 26 might have played three more seasons of quality football in the NFL of yesteryear found themselves on the street, replaced by inexperienced rookies at a fraction of the cost. Players got younger, and pro football got worse. And yet Smith, who negotiated the 2011 collective bargaining agreement with NFL owners, kept his job.
And the new deal didn’t just diminish the middle class of NFL players. It transformed the player agent industry too. Predictably, the simplification of rookie contracts to a structured scale and the reduction of second-contract opportunities for average players reduced the need for hands-on boutique player representation, paving the way for large conglomerate agencies with substantial financial backing to stockpile rookies and live on lowered fees.
In essence, the NFL has become an exaggerated version of the meat market it already was, with a line of young talent coursing through a revolving door, and a handful of superstar quarterbacks throwing five-yard passes to bewildered young receivers from pockets comprised of ingénues. As a general manager, you can get away with leaning on young replacements as long as everyone’s doing it.
At the beginning of last season there were more undrafted free agents on NFL rosters (481) than first- and second-round picks combined (480), according to Elias. This statistic was celebrated as a triumph of the collective little guy, but at what expense? In 2012, before the realities of the new bargaining agreement dawned on roster builders, there were 412 UDFAs on opening-day rosters. The difference of more than two players per team comes at the expense of veterans who might have previously enjoyed modest second contracts in exchange for competent, effective performance. More cynically, that 481 number is evidence of a new class of players who might owe their roster spots more to the warped economics of the 2011 CBA than to their own merit.
Whether union leadership lacked the foresight to see this coming, or they saw it as a necessary capitulation, all of it happened under Smith. And none of it is good.
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