If you want further proof of the big-money P.R. game in which the NFL and the players’ union currently are engaged, look no farther than one of the most recent entries on NFLLabor.com, the league-owned site dedicated to tracking the current back-and-forth regarding the process of, at some point, working out a new Collective Bargaining Agreement.
In comparing the first seven days of the 2010 free-agency process to the first seven days of free agency in 2009, the article shows that 52 unrestricted free agents have signed new deals — up from 39 in 2009.
But the item needs to be read carefully. The total of 39 contracts in 2009 focuses only on players who would have been unrestricted free agents under the rules of the uncapped year; namely, players with at least six years of service. Including the four- and five-year players who signed contracts in the first week of free agency last year, the actual number is 87.
The raw data makes even more curious a March 10 Associated Press article declaring that it’s “business as usual in NFL free agency.”
Barry Wilner of the AP claims that, as in past years, there was a “spending spree” to start the process. But he points only to the Bears as a team that went nuts; this year, the Bears are the only team that splurged. Sure, the Giants signed safety Antrel Rolle to a five-year, $37 million contract and the Dolphins by all appearances paid too much for linebacker Karlos Dansby. The Lions gave good-not-great contracts to receiver Nate Burleson and defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch, and receiver Anquan Boldin finally got the new contract he coveted, a four-year, $28 million deal from Baltimore. (The Bengals also got into the act a few days late, with a four-year, $28 million contract for receiver Antonio Bryant. Without specific details regarding guaranteed money and payout in the first two years, however, it’s impossible to know whether the per-year average of $7 million has been artificially inflated by large non-guaranteed salaries in years three and four.)
All that said, only one team truly behaved like multiple teams had behaved in most past free-agency cycles, plunking down large sums of cash in the hopes of getting a leg up on their competitors.
In prior years the first wave of free agency, during which the money flows more freely, typically lasted a full week. This time around it lasted a weekend. And there simply were fewer teams paying market value for the available players, despite the absence of the salary cap.
Perhaps Wilner’s point is that everyone expected for years that free agency in an uncapped environment would result in reckless and frenzied acquisitions, and that in reality nothing has changed. The actual reality, in our view, is that the process has changed, due in part to the absence of more than 200 players who in any other year would have been unrestricted free agents and in part to the use of artificial salary caps known commonly in the business world as “budgets.”
Meanwhile, you can bet that the NFLPA is tracking all of the signings very closely and comparing the dollars committed to the money spent in 2009 and previously. And unless the market for restricted free agents picks up quickly, it’s safe to say that the union at some point will be claiming that most of the teams have agreed, expressly or implicitly, to engage in a uniform belt tightening.