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NFL, Players Facing a World Without A Salary Cap

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The clock ticks down. Relentlessly. To the end of the football world as we have known it.

Maybe that's a little too dramatic. When the season opens in September, they'll still be kicking off and tackling and the game figures to look the same. It's everything else that surrounds the NFL – the labor situation, free agency, economics – that undergoes a radical change in a very short time.

Free agency begins March 5. The new league year will likely dawn without a salary cap, a scenario unseen since 1993. There will be no limit on what teams may spend for players but there will also be no floor.

The salary cap, designed to keep some equilibrium between the teams that generate the most revenue and those of more modest means, disappears as part of the changed labor picture.

The league and the NFL Players Association last agreed on a labor extension in 2006. Included was the right of either side to opt out.

Citing the difficult economy and an agreement that it deemed too one-sided, NFL owners exercised their right and said they needed something more balanced. Talks so far have not yielded an accord.

So the 2010 season becomes an uncapped year and the last in the CBA. Rules to govern the 2011 season and whether there will even be one figure to be the focal point of hard negotiations.

Until such time as there is a new agreement, there is a new world. Much changes.

Things to know:

-- The free agent market will be thin. In capped years, players needed four years of service to become unrestricted free agents who could negotiate with any team. In the uncapped year, they need six years of service.

This impacts 212 players league-wide, including a couple of Redskins. Quarterback Jason Campbell and cornerback Carlos Rogers both completed their fifth season in the NFL and finished out the contracts they signed as rookies. Under the old rules, they could be unrestricted free agents. Now they will be restricted free agents, with the Redskins able to make them a qualifying offer.

If another team meets or bests that offer, the Redskins can match it. If they choose not to, they receive specified draft choices for losing the player. The history of restricted free agency does not suggest a ton of movement.

-- Teams may not take this opportunity to spend freely. The talent pool likely won't drive a big market and teams know their budgets. The Pittsburgh Steelers already have said they will abide by a self-imposed cap.

-- There are other obstacles to a robust market. The labor agreement specifies in an uncapped year that the eight teams alive in the divisional playoff round face further restrictions in free agency. They cannot sign a free agent until they have lost one and even then they must make certain the economics of that exchange stay within certain parameters.

Other financial burdens on teams – including numerous player benefits – also vanish in an uncapped year.

When the current system went into place in 1993, NFL teams spent furiously on free agents. They'd never before had the opportunity to do this and a heavy flow of cash would trigger the salary cap. Yes, the first year of free agency was an uncapped year. Competition for player services did indeed drive prices higher.

According to the NFL Players Association, salaries rose 33 percent from the previous season. With the cap in place in 1994, the average salary declined eight percent. The average was $483,900 in 1992 and soared $1 million in 1999.

Benefits accrued to team owners as well. According to Forbes magazine, team values increased from $288 million in 1998 to $1.04 billion 10 years later, though owners take exception to the way data was used to compile these figures.

Now the NFL and the players must reach a new accord and create another system that works for both and allows the game to grow. Perhaps the uncapped year will be the spur that brings the parties together. It won't be business as usual. And it starts soon.


Larry Weisman covered professional football for USA TODAY for 25 years and now joins the Redskins Broadcast Network and Redskins.com to bring his unique viewpoint and experience to Redskins fans. He also appears on Redskins Nation, airing twice nightly on Comcast SportsNet, and on ESPN 980 AM radio, all in the Washington, D.C. area. Read his Redskinsblitz blog at redskinsrule.com and follow him on Twitter.com/LarryWeisman.

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