In the NFL labor wars, it's all relative

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In the NFL labor wars, it's all relative

By Michael Felger

After decades as a doormat, NFL players have gotten tough. Good for them. It's about time.

They've also grown acutely suspicious and distrustful, for which you can hardly blame them, either.

The germination of the current labor impasse is the owners' demand for more money from the players for "operating expenses.'' The initial demand was for 1 billion, which would be in addition to the 1 billion the owners already collect off an estimated 9.3 billion in total gross revenue. The owners' asking price was said to be down to 325 million by the time talks blew up last Friday.

Remember, the owners were saying for years they couldn't survive without that extra billion, which turned out to be quite a claim, since they'll now apparently accept 675 million less than that. But that's not what would make me most suspicious if I were a player. After all, that's just negotiating.

No, if I were a player I'd keep going back to those "operating expenses.'' The owners say the new funds will be used to grow the game (new stadiums, new media expansion, overseas opportunities, etc). But, naturally, the money will also be used to pay employees and cover expenses incurred in the operation of the league and its teams. And if the owners say they need more money to operate the game, isn't it reasonable for the players to ask for more details about those operations since it's coming out of their pocket?

Yes, these are private businesses, and as such they are not required to open their books. But the owners generate their profits through a revenue split with the players. And in a revenue-split model, when one side asks for a greater slice of that revenue at the expense of the other, there usually has to be a justification for it.

It would be one thing if the players trusted the owners. But the owners haven't come close to earning the players' trust, especially after the Robert Kraft-negotiated TV deal was blown up in federal court two weeks ago.

That deal would have provided the owners with lockout insurance at the expense of additional revenue that should have been split with the players. Remember Kraft scolding the players at the Super Bowl for bringing that action to court, as Tom E. Curran so brilliantly pointed out? If the players had taken his advice and gotten the lawyers out of the room, they would have lost most of their leverage.

After hearing that, would you trust this guy if you were a player?

But it goes beyond that. Just look at the first few names on any given NFL masthead. Consider for a moment how these teams might be run at the very top.

Start in Arizona, where Bill Bidwill, who inherited the team, is chairmanowner, his son Michael is team president and his other son, Bill Jr., is a vice president. Or check out Dallas, where Jerry Jones is the owner, president and general manager, Stephen Jones is the COO and director of player personnel, Jerry Jones Jr. is an executive VP and chief sales and marketing officer and Charlotte Jones Anderson is the VP of brand management (whatever that is). Or how about Minnesota, where Zygi Wilf is the ownerchairman, Mark Wilf is the ownerpresident, Leonard Wilf is the ownervice chairman and Jeffrey Wilf is an ownership partner (whatever that is). Cincinnati has always been a good one, too, where Mike Brown is the president, Katie Blackburn (Brown's daughter) is the executive VP, Pete Brown is the senior VP of player personnel and Paul Brown is the VP of player personnel.

Sort of feels like Bushwood Country Club, doesn't it?

We'd like to introduce our new VP in charge of brand management, Spaulding Smails.

Try reading up on Bill Bidwill sometime. I say "try," because there doesn't seem to be much there. It seems the length of his accomplishments entail being born and inheriting a football team. If Bidwill has had any other job in his life (he was in the Navy for a time in his 20s), or earned a dime from anyone other than the Cardinals, I couldn't find it. His net worth is still said to be in the hundreds of millions. He's said to enjoy military history, cars, coffee and food.

Oh, and losing football games.

Okay, so NFL front offices have become the lucky sperm club. In some places these family members actually work (unfortunately for the fans in Dallas and Cincinnati, the Joneses and Browns really do pick the players). In other places the owners wouldn't know if the ball is puffed or stuffed (in the last 63 years under Bidwill family ownership, the Cards have won a grand total of three playoff games).

The point is that the sperm club salaries fall under the heading, "operating expenses.'' So do their business expenses.

Again, before the players give the owners more money off the top of the gross revenue pie, don't you think it's fair for them to ask just what goes into those expenses in the first place?

What if, for example, some of these family members make as much as the left tackle? Would that surprise you? It wouldn't surprise me. And all the owners must draw a salary, right? Look at some of their titles. Some of them hold three positions. Does that mean three salaries? Whatever, all that money qualifies as an operating expense. So do private planes and company trips. And when it's a private business, there's no reason why that trip can't be in Vail and Spaulding's car can't be a Bentley. It's just another "operating expense."

Do you get it, now?

The owners would be better off just saying they think the players are making too much. Then there'd be no explanations necessary. You're making too much. We want more. Plain and simple. It's capitalism. We'd all get it.

But when owners say they need the money to operate the game, then shouldn't the specifics of that operation be on the table?

Maybe the owners operate their teams on tight budgets with few perks. Maybe there are no frivolous salaries or needless expenses. Maybe everyone flies commercial. It's possible family members are hired purely on the basis of merit and are paid like anyone else would be from the outside.

But probably not.

That's why audited financials are the issue. That's why you can't blame the players for asking:

If "operating expenses" are the problem, why don't we take a look at Spaulding's plane first?

E-mail Felger HERE and read the mailbag on Thursdays. Listen to Felger on the radio weekdays, 2-6 p.m., on 98.5 the Sports Hub.

Will the Harris signing mean more time on the edge for Hightower?

Will the Harris signing mean more time on the edge for Hightower?

David Harris is expected to be a savvy middle linebacker who will line up his teammates when they help. He's expected to provide some level of leadership, even in his first year in New England, as an accomplished-but-hungry 33-year-old who has not yet reached a Super Bowl. 

What Harris is not expected to do is improve the Patriots pass-rush. He was in on one sack in 900 snaps last season.  

But in a roundabout way he might. 

MORE: How does Derek Carr's new deal impact Jimmy Garoppolo?

There are dominos to fall now that Harris has been added to Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia's defense. How much will Harris play, and whose playing time will he cut into? Those questions don't yet have answers, but one of the more intriguing elements of the Harris acquisition is how he will benefit Dont'a Hightower's game.

If Harris can pick up the Patriots defense quickly -- and all indications are that there should be few issues there -- he could take some of the all-important communication responsibilities off of Hightower's shoulders. 

Ever since taking the reins from Jerod Mayo as the team's signal-caller, Hightower has had to be on top of all requisite pre-snap checks and last-second alignment changes. It's a critical role, and one that Hightower performs well, but those duties place some added stress on the player wearing the green dot. Perhaps if part of that load can be heaped onto Harris' plate, that might allow Hightower to feel as though he's been freed up to focus on his individual assignments.

Harris' presence might also impact where on the field Hightower is used. Hightower may be the most versatile piece on a Patriots defense loaded with them, but with Harris in the middle, Hightower could end up playing more on the edge, where he's proven he can make a major impact (see: Super Bowl LI).

For Belichick and his staff, having the ability to use one of their best pass-rushers -- and one of the most efficient rushers league-wide, per Pro Football Focus -- on the edge more frequently has to be an enticing byproduct of the move to sign Harris. Especially since there are some question marks among the team's end-of-the-line defenders behind Trey Flowers and Rob Ninkovich. 

We'll have to wait for training camp before we have an idea of how exactly Harris fits in with the Patriots defense. But the effect he'll have on his new teammates, and Hightower in particular, will be fascinating to track. 

How does Derek Carr's new deal impact Jimmy Garoppolo?

How does Derek Carr's new deal impact Jimmy Garoppolo?

Ever since Derek Carr signed a five-year, $125 million extension with the Raiders to give him the highest average annual contract value in league history, some version of the same question has been posed over and over again. 

What does this mean for other quarterbacks looking for new deals? 

Despite the fact that Carr's average annual value surpasses the previous high set by Andrew Luck ($24.6 million), and despite the fact that Carr's contract provides him the security that alluded him while he was on his rookie contract, his recent haul may not mean much for the likes of Matthew Stafford, Kirk Cousins and other top-end quarterbacks.

They were already expecting monster paydays down the road that would hit (or eclipse) the $25 million range, and Carr's record-setting contract may not even serve as a suitable baseline for them, as ESPN's Dan Graziano lays out.

So if Carr's contract did little more for upper-echelon quarterbacks than confirm for them where the market was already headed, then does it mean anything for someone like Jimmy Garoppolo? 

Carr and Garoppolo were both second-round picks in 2014, but from that point, they've obviously taken very different roads as pros. Carr started 47 consecutive games in his first three years and by last season he had established himself as one of the most valuable players in the league. Garoppolo, by comparison, has started two games. 

Both players still hold loads of promise, but unless Garoppolo sees substantial playing time in 2017 and then hits the open market, he won't approach Carr's deal when his rookie contract is up.  

ESPN's Mike Reiss projected that a fair deal for Garoppolo on the open market might fall between the $19 million that was guaranteed to Chicago's Mike Glennon and Carr's contract, which includes $40 million fully guaranteed and $70 million in total guarantees, per NFL Media.

Perhaps something in the range of what Brock Osweiler received from the Texans after Osweiler started seven games for the Broncos in 2015 would be considered fair: four years, with $37 million guaranteed. Because Osweiler (before his deal or since) never seemed as polished as Garoppolo was in his two games as a starter in 2016, and because the salary cap continues to soar, the argument could be made that Garoppolo deserves something even richer. 

Though Garoppolo is scheduled to hit unrestricted free agency following the 2017 season, there is a chance he doesn't get there quite that quickly. The Patriots could try to come to some kind of agreement with their backup quarterback on an extension that would keep him in New England, or they could place the franchise tag on him following the season. 

Either way, Garoppolo will get paid. But until he sees more time on the field, a deal that would pay him in the same range as his draft classmate will probably be out of reach.