Referee pensions and holdout fallout

Here are suggestions for settling with NFL officials and fining Jones-Drew

Originally Published: September 4, 2012
By Andrew Brandt | ESPN.com

Sunday, the San Francisco 49ers get another glimpse of what might have been when they visit Green Bay to face Aaron Rodgers, the player they bypassed in the 2005 draft to select Alex Smith.

I'll never forget that day in the Packers' war room, watching our targeted defensive players fall off the board, leaving only Rodgers with a first-round grade. Although selecting him presented scant short-term value -- Brett Favre was the most durable quarterback in NFL history -- Rodgers was picked for the long term.

I called Rodgers, keeping him on the line for an excruciating 10 minutes waiting to see if a trade partner for the pick would emerge. Silence. One can only imagine how the Packers and the NFL would be different if one of our targeted defensive players were available, if the 49ers or another team in the top 23 of the draft had selected Rodgers, or the phone had rung with an enticing offer to trade for the pick. Fortunes move in mysterious ways.

Pension tension

The battle between the NFL and the locked-out referees has reached its reckoning point.

The "blood issue" here appears to be the referees' attempt to protect the pension they negotiated in 2006. The NFL insists on replacing it with a defined contribution 401(k) valued between $16,000 and $22,000. The NFL points to the changed economic environment since 2006 -- the same argument it used with the players -- saying that much of corporate America and more than half of NFL teams have moved away from pensions.

An obvious compromise solution would be for the NFL to raise the numbers on the defined contribution, pushing referees to budge on the pension.

My sense is these negotiations have become personal, especially when NFL owners say things such as, "They think we can't play without them!"

The gap isn't huge; this deal can be struck in a phone call.

The Back is back

Decisions are about options, and Maurice Jones-Drew had none. The Jaguars took a principled stance against reworking existing contracts.

Now, the issue becomes the Jaguars' decision whether to levy $1.2 million in cumulative holdout fines. As concerned as the team was about contract precedent, one would think it would be equally concerned about the fines having meaning. If not, every player would know they could hold out with impunity.

Were I in the Jaguars' position, I would only impose a small percentage of the fines now in exchange for Jones-Drew agreeing to a de-escalator clause that reduces his 2013 $4.95 million salary by, say, $500,000 if he gains fewer than 1,000 yards in 2012. A similar clause exists in Chris Johnson's contract with the Titans, most likely related to his holdout.

Jaguars owner Shad Kahn stood his ground with Jones-Drew but one hopes he learned of the danger of injecting personal comments. Player negotiations are sensitive and raw; that fire should not be fueled.

Dez Detail

The team rules now imposed on the Cowboys' Dez Bryant require a security team around Bryant. The obvious question arises: Who pays for that?

It cannot be Jerry Jones and the Cowboys, because that would be "non-contract consideration" under the collective bargaining agreement, subject to penalty. (And the Cowboys know all about cap penalties.) That would mean either Bryant or those around him is responsible for payment.

Of course, were it not for Bryant's exceptional talent, the Cowboys would have no "Dez Rules," because the Cowboys would have moved on. For now, Bryant's talent outweighs character concerns.

Brandt's Business Bits

• Labor Day weekend -- when the NFL's labor force is drastically reduced -- is the year's busiest time for pro scouting departments, analyzing whether players on the waiver wire are better than bottom-of-roster players on their teams. There's no greater NFL roster churn than on Labor Day weekend.

• Front offices also were working feverishly to assemble practice squads. The minimum weekly pay for practice squad players in 2012 is $5,700. However, players who have the leverage of multiple bidders may receive significantly more. Several practice squad players will earn weekly pay of $23,000, the minimum for first-year players on the active roster.

• Players cannot truly exhale about making a roster until today at 4 p.m., when Week 1 salaries activate. Unlike the training camp per diems to this point, the real checks begin now.

• This is an especially difficult time for veteran free agents. As per the CBA, any vested veteran -- one with four or more years of service -- on an opening-day roster is guaranteed full salary. Thus, teams will hesitate to sign players such as Terrell Owens, Chad Johnson, Chris Cooley, Ryan Grant, Deion Branch, Kellen Winslow and others this week to avoid the full salary guarantee for the year. Their cost lessens considerably next week.

• Finally, today marks the beginning of full accounting for the 2012 salary cap. Until now, teams had been operating under a "Top 51" accounting, excluding salaries for players below the top 51 salaries on the team. But as of 4 p.m. today, everything counts on the cap: all 53 salaries, injured reserve players, practice squads, injury settlements, etc. Teams have to "get under and stay under" from this point forward.