In the upside down world of the business of football, we have now—when there are no games to speak of—reached the “busy time” of the year. Indeed, in all of my former and current roles—player agent, team executive, media analyst—the activity level has always ratcheted up when the games cease.
It is in the offseason when NFL teams are assembled, molded and architected; it is where the final product that will be turned over to the coaches in August is produced. Similarly, at the league level, it is the time of year to step back and review/analyze/examine policies, procedures, playing rules, financial and cap projections and overall league business. Simply, as the game of football —at least NFL football —now goes into winter hibernation, the business of football comes alive. Heading to the offseason, I have many thoughts to offer on what is happening and what lies ahead. Here are ten “Brandts’ Rants”:
1. In a system choreographed to promote and maintain competitive balance—read “parity”—the Patriots sustained success is compelling. The NFL, like all major sports leagues, is set up with regulations including an inverse-order draft, salary cap, free agency, etc., all designed to allow bad teams to get better faster and prevent good teams from sustaining windows of success. In the face of these balancing mechanisms, the Patriots continue to excel. One note, however: They can lose the “No one believed in us!” and “Everyone counted us out!” lines. I know it works for them, but they are the poorest vision of an underdog in sports. The actual number of people who counted the Patriots out: 0.
2. As every year, February will be a tough month for NFL veterans. The CBA’s reduction of offseason practice time and in-season contact was designed with veterans in mind, purportedly to extend careers. Despite that, with the combined advent of fixed and reasonable rookie contracts, teams are trending younger every year. There will be blood on the NFL waiver wire starting this week. Many existing veteran contracts with tens of millions of dollars in contract value will, without any guarantees attached to them, simply turn to dust. And fans and media will, rather than bemoan the plight of the dismissed veteran with the big contract, wonder where the team will use that player’s cap room.
3. Speaking of cap room, NFL teams are circumventing its use. A collective $340 million of unused cap room was carried over by NFL teams from 2017 to 2018. And guess what? The exact same amount is being carried over from 2018 to 2019. Teams are leaving cap room on the table that could otherwise be used to pay players, often bringing it into the next year to go unused again! As I have pointed out before, the team spending requirements —only requiring 89% of cap spending over a four-year period—are based on the actual cap (projected to be near $190 million in 2019) rather than each team’s adjusted cap, which could be $50 million or even more higher. Improving NFL minimum team spending must be a union priority in the next CBA bargaining sessions. It is only from there than things like guaranteed contracts will improve.
4. Speaking of CBA bargaining, there is none and that’s not good for players. Both leaders—the NFL’s Roger Goodell and the NFLPA’s DeMaurice Smith—have had their contracts extended past the CBA expiration date. There is no reason to not be negotiating a new CBA at any time. Instead, we hear about lockouts, litigation, strikes, war chests and so on. As to an ESPN report that bargaining will proceed within six months, I will believe it when I see it. There has been and continues to be a lack of trust and, frankly, lack of “like” between league and union leadership. Were that not the case, this CBA would have been extended or renegotiated long ago.
5. The contrast between NBA/Major League Baseball players and NFL players is stark. NBA stars such as Anthony Davis and Kristaps Porzingis are currently leveraging trades from their current situations. MLB free agents Bryce Harper and Manny Machado continue to wait out groveling teams. In contrast, what has been the most leveraged NFL contract? That would be that of Kirk Cousins, a rare free agent at the game’s most important position, who got a full guarantee for a total of three years (NBA and MLB free agents snicker). And what the NBA or Major League Baseball wouldn’t give for an NFL-style franchise tag ...
6. We will soon see the folly of Le’Veon Bell’s 2018 strategy. Bell willingly forfeited $14.5 million in the name of less usage and the hope of more money in 2019. Unfortunately for Bell, a wish is not a plan. Bell may get a nice contract, but it won’t make up for the money he lost. I don’t think any team—even with a surplus of cap room and Le’Veon Bell on the market—will go into this or any offseason saying: “We really need to allocate major cash and cap resources on a running back!” This is especially the case after the Rams’ C.J. Anderson received more time in the playoffs than Todd Gurley, currently the highest paid running back in the league. Either Gurley was injured—which the Rams and Gurley deny—or the Rams made an investment of $45 million guaranteed for a player they hardly used in the biggest games of the year.
7. Don’t look for anything to change regarding replay review. As predicted here, the outrage of the moment is now turning to dispassionate talk about unintended consequences of a replay review, slowing down the game, etc. This happens all the time: Things that seem like the end of the world in the playoffs are treated as simple agenda items, among many, in March, often are “tabled” for another day, which may or may not ever come.
8. Offensive linemen Bobby Massie and Mark Glowinski signed new contracts on the precipice of free agency, and I have no idea why. With expiring contracts and free agency starting in a month, there was no remaining injury risk ahead for these players, only the certainty of teams bidding up their value. And it’s not like the Bears and Colts would have gone away once free agency started; they only would have paid more. I’m sure they got good deals, but not as good as they could have secured in five weeks. It makes common sense for pending free agents to at least see what’s behind Door No. 2 before re-signing.
9. I still maintain Nick Foles will leave the Eagles and Antonio Brown will stay with the Steelers. Foles’ parting is bittersweet for many in Philadelphia adored him (myself included), but the Eagles have rightfully committed to Carson Wentz privately and publicly. Whether through Foles buying his way to free agency, or through a franchise tag/trade by the Eagles (which makes no sense to me), both sides realize they can’t “cheat on” Wentz through this affair any longer. As for Brown, I know: He wants out; the owner is open to trading him, yada yada. However, as someone who managed an NFL salary cap for 10 years, I would not devalue my team both on and off the field, trading away my best player (certainly for less than equal value) and leaving a $21 million hole in my cap (the amount of dead money left behind). As for Brown’s petulance and drama, the Steelers gave him this cap-consuming contract fully aware of it. Greater talent = greater tolerance.
10. The 2018 season will always be viewed as the first NFL season with legalized sports betting. After fighting it in court for seven years, the NFL is still figuring out how to embrace—read: “monetize”—sports betting. It has massive revenue potential as a fan engagement tool. I look for the NFL to more fully embrace sports betting this offseason, beyond its relatively small deal with Caesar’s as “the Official Casino Sponsor of the NFL.” As I have maintained, the biggest threat for the NFL’s continued prosperity and popularity is not concussions, anthem protests or any of that. Rather, it is how to attract and maintain a younger audience. The embrace of sports betting—and the data, analytics and fan engagement tools behind it—is an essential step towards this challenge.
In walking around the Super Bowl, one fan came up to me and said: “I know you; I read your stuff; you’re that smart guy!” I’ll take it. And I’ll take you through the long and complicated NFL season. Stay with me here.
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