The NFL’s collective bargaining agreement was approved by 60 votes. Of the approximately 2,500 players eligible to vote (if you were on a practice squad for one week in 2019, you counted the same as Aaron Rodgers), 1,978 men voted . . . a 79.1 percent voter turnout. Or 18 percent more than voted in the 2016 presidential election. The big issue to me isn’t that one of five NFL players sat this crucial election out; it’s that 48.5 percent of the voters said no to the deal. The naysayers hate the fact that there will be a 17th regular-season game, likely beginning in 2021, and think union boss De Smith caved too easily to the 17th-game demand.
“I can respect guys voting no because of that,” said Saints punter Thomas Morstead, a member of the league’s 10-man Executive Committee, which helped negotiate the deal with NFL owners. “The owners felt the current model was broken and they had to have 17 games. The Executive Committee’s job is to negotiate the best deal they can, and put that in front of the players. I think that’s what we did.”
Now that’s it official, here are the rules the NFL will be playing under for the longest CBA in league history, the next 11 seasons:
• Playoffs. The new 14-team playoffs, with the top seed in each conference getting the only byes, will very likely begin this season. The league will most likely play three first-round games on Saturday and three on Sunday of wild-card weekend, though the league might decide to go 2-3-1: two Saturday, three Sunday and one on Monday night.
• The 17th game. I won’t be surprised if a smart coach says to his five or six most senior every-down players, I’ll try to find 50 to 60 snaps to pull you during the season, so you’re not playing 17 full games—you’d be playing the equivalent of 16. For now, the league is operating on the belief that all NFC teams one season will play nine home games and eight on the road one year, and the next year, all AFC teams will be home nine times and away eight. And no, there won’t be neutral-site games, or a huge increase in games outside the United States. The 16 additional games could be used, all or in part, to create a lucrative new package of games to be streamed by an Amazon or Facebook, a deep-pocketed new media company.
• New minimums. Rookie minimum salaries, scheduled to be $510,000 in 2020 under the last year of the old CBA, now go up to $610,000. By the last year of the deal, the minimum rises to $1.065 million for a first-year player.
• More jobs. Practice squads will increase from 10 to 12 players in 2020, and to 14 in 2021. Starting this year, 48 players can be active on gameday; teams will be able to borrow from the practice squad weekly to be part of the 53-man active roster.
• Meh on the cap. Though the salary cap rises from $188.2 million in 2019 to $198.2 million this year, that $198.2m figure is misleading. Most teams have about 25 minimum salary guys on the team. So with the increase of $100,000 per minimum guy, and the addition of two more $100,000-per-year practice-squadders, that’s about $2.7 million less to spend—or maybe $195.5 million per team. For cap-strapped teams like New Orleans and Pittsburgh and Atlanta, those relative pennies count.
• Softer discipline. Players no longer will get suspended for positive pot tests—they’ll be tested only in the first two weeks of training camp. The league doesn’t want to catch players anymore. (But a DUI gets an automatic three-game ban.) And commissioner Roger Goodell will be replaced in most disciplinary cases by a neutral arbitrator.
• TV help. It’s expected the players’ piece of the revenue pie will rise from 47 percent to at least 48.5 percent in 2021 upon completion of the new TV deals. Dissatisfied players want a 50-50 split with owners, which may come one day, but could well depend on the more militant players being willing to withhold services. That’s exceedingly rare in NFL annals. By the end of this CBA, it will have been 43 years since NFL struck or were locked out in a contract hassle. That’s because the vast majority haven’t had the stomachs to strike.
• Old-timer aid. About 11,000 former players from bygone eras will have their pensions increased by about 53 percent (from $30,000 annually to $46,000), while 700 or so players who played just three seasons will get pensions for the first time, and about 4,500 will get $50,000 health-savings-reimbursement accounts. One source told me this was worth $300 million in the first year of the deal.
We’ll never know if the perceived threats about players turning down this deal would have materialized. The threats went this way: Players won’t get as good a deal in 2021 if they turn down this one. Ownership sources swore that was true, and the deal the players took in July 2011 wasn’t quite as good as the one they turned down in 2010. We’ll also never know if late votes by players in the two or three days before the Saturday night deadline took into account the tanking economy right now.
The biggest takeaway, from me, will be how the 959 men who voted no—that’s a huge number—look at their union now. And how they look at their union boss, Smith. For a union that took a very deep breath Sunday night after passage of the CBA, there still could be storm clouds coming from unhappy players.