Commentary

More than they bargained for

Dwight Freeney is wrong if he thinks owners are colluding against veterans

Originally Published: June 3, 2013
By Ashley Fox | ESPN.com

Dwight Freeney is flat-out wrong.

Jim Irsay, Robert Kraft, Arthur Blank and the other 29 NFL owners weren't colluding against Freeney. They weren't colluding against Charles Woodson, John Abraham, Osi Umenyiora, Michael Turner, Richard Seymour or any of the other 30-somethings who, like Freeney, hit the free-agent market in March and sat, and sat, and sat waiting for an opportunity to play elsewhere.

Collusion is a convenient cry, but it is too late for that, for Freeney or for any other veteran who in 2011 agreed to a new collective bargaining agreement with the National Football League that now is proving to have been a bigger win for the owners than the players.

Collusion? Try delusion.

It's not that the owners aren't capable of collusion. They came dangerously close a few years ago during the uncapped year, when the league allegedly implemented an understood cap that Washington, Dallas, New Orleans and Oakland ignored. But the owners didn't collude in this instance, and even Freeney admitted he has no evidence that they did.

This just in: The economics of the NFL have changed. The system has changed. The practice rules have changed. The result is veterans by and large no longer can cash in one last time before hanging up their helmets for good. The days of the three-year, $16 million contract for a player in his mid-30s are gone.

In 2011, the players' union spent months collectively bargaining an agreement that reflected the wishes of veterans. The veterans wanted more down time in the offseason. They wanted fewer offseason minicamps. They wanted weekends off from February to July. They wanted drastically less hitting in practice during the regular season. Essentially, they wanted a schedule that would help preserve their bodies in an attempt to lengthen their careers by reducing the opportunity for injury.

It is why a head coach can't talk football with any player prior to April, even if the player wants to do it. It's why the NFL now has this silly three-phase offseason workout program in which there are now only 10 OTA days and one brief minicamp where players actually wear helmets and shells, and still, there is no live contact and no one-on-one drills between offensive and defensive players.

It's why during the regular season, coaches can have only 14 padded practices, and 11 of them must occur by the end of Week 11.

Because the salary cap has remained flat, what has happened is that coaches have put more value on younger players, who theoretically are less prone to injury and therefore more likely to be available for practice every day. Younger players have more upside and are cheaper, and more and more are expected to play early in their careers, and play well.

Veterans have less value because, by and large, they must have their snaps managed and are less likely to be available on those valuable occasions when coaches actually can simulate game action by hitting in practice.

The new practice rules of the collective bargaining agreement were supposed to benefit older players, but in actuality, they have worked to the detriment of older players who are trying to play out their careers as role players who hold value for their leadership skills.

This isn't about collusion. This is about what veteran players wanted. That there were unintended consequences is unfortunate, but it doesn't mean the owners are colluding against the veterans.

[+] EnlargeDwight Freeney
Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY Sports Dwight Freeney had five sacks in 2012, his lowest total since he had 3.5 in nine games in 2007.

"If the veterans watch film of other veterans, they wouldn't sign them either," said a former player who is now in personnel with an NFL team. "No conspiracy theory, just most of the veterans are old, injured and not that good."

Ouch.

That assessment undoubtedly will hurt a guy like Freeney, who aside from Peyton Manning was paid more money by Irsay, the Indianapolis Colts owner, than any player in the past decade. In 2007, Freeney became the richest defensive player in NFL history when he signed a six-year deal worth $72 million, with $30 million guaranteed.

But now Freeney is 33 years old. His sack total has declined for three straight years. He sat and sat and sat during the offseason -- much to his dismay -- and finally got a call when another player, Melvin Ingram of the San Diego Chargers, went down with a season-ending knee injury.

Freeney really should be happy that he got a two-year deal from the Chargers that averages $6.6 million and includes $4.7 million guaranteed. Certainly Abraham, who turned 35 years old in May and remains unsigned after Atlanta cut him in March, would take that to continue his career as a pass-rusher.

"I basically think the owners got together and decided not to spend the cash on free agents," Freeney told CBSSports.com last week. "I definitely think that's part of it. I think the owners made a pact. There's only 32 of them, and none of them broke ranks. I think they all decided not to spend money."

The players made a decision in 2011 to fight for a new collective bargaining agreement that would protect veterans on the back end of their careers. They got that. The owners got the 53 percent to 47 percent revenue split they wanted.

Those two new realities have collided, but that doesn't mean there has been collusion among the owners, despite what Freeney thinks.