Sometime in the next few days, or maybe weeks, the NFL is going to add a 17th regular season game and two more playoff teams, which in turn will add to the number of teams in playoff contention.
The NFL owners have been steamrolling in this direction for years. And for all the resistance from the players, it's long been obvious that their compliance is for sale.
It's going to happen at some point. It's going to be good for the game. Fans, eventually, are going to love it because football, in the sports world, is king.
But the players are not going to love it, at first. That's why they should make sure they get a lot -- a lot -- in return.
It sounds like they are getting some pretty big concessions as it is, and "a lot" is a subjective phrase, of course. But there are some seemingly important things that the NFLPA seems to have oddly left off the table -- at least in the initial details that haven't leaked out.
Players are reportedly getting an increase in revenue share that, over time, will amount to $5 billion in extra salaries. There will be an increase in the NFL minimum salary, by as much as 25 percent according to one report. There will reportedly be an increase in the salary "floor," which essentially forces teams to spend the money they bring in.
The players are also going to get what their union believes is a more equitable discipline policy, according to a source, for both drug-related and personal conduct-related offenses. There likely will even be better offseason rules, like a shortened offseason workout program and perhaps even less hitting over the summer.
But here's the thing: During the nine years of this current CBA, many players -- and their agents -- grew increasingly unhappy with the current deal. And two general complaints were heard most often:
- The need for guaranteed contracts.
- The need for better post-career health care.
Those issues are where the NFL Players Association should make its stand.
Now, the former might be an impossible fight. The NFL is simply not the same sport as baseball and basketball, so football players will never see anything like the obscene $324 million the Yankees guaranteed to Gerrit Cole over the next nine years, or the seemingly routine $100 million-plus guaranteed deals thrown around in the NBA.
The fully guaranteed, three-year, $84 million contract the Vikings gave quarterback Kirk Cousins two years ago was an outlier. It's hard to imagine an NFL player at any other position ever seeing a deal like that.
Simply put: The NFL is too violent, the risk of injury too extreme, for owners to hand out fully guaranteed deals. And if they did, those contracts would absolutely shrink. The Jets signed running back Le'Veon Bell to a four-year, $52.5 million contract last offseason with $20.5 million guaranteed. If they were forced to fully guarantee that deal he wouldn't have sniffed $52.5 million. He would've been lucky if the contract ended up half that size.
But the players certainly could push for more guarantees -- say, maybe 50 percent of every contract, at least. Or they could push for a better system, where a team couldn't simply cut them in the spring or summer to save money. Maybe something like where their salary is guaranteed if they're on the roster on the first day of the league year in March.
They could also push for a repeal of the "fully funded rule" which forces teams to immediately cough up the full amount of a guarantee, even if they pay it to a player over multiple seasons. The idea of putting big money into escrow (and out of their own pockets) has been an odd (and weak) deterrent to some owners in this league that rakes in about $15 billion in revenue per year.
Really, though, those guarantees aren't as important as post-career health care. This is a violent sport with horrific repercussions for some, and the NFL has been simply terrible in the way it has dealt with the health of former players. We all should have free healthcare forever, which is a debate for another time. But if part of your job requires you to physically abuse your own body and put yourself in danger for the profit and entertainment of others, long-term care shouldn't just be a necessity. It should be a right.
Former players understand this, which is why so many have been vocal against adding a 17th game, which just adds more pounding to the bodies of players. The effect of that is debatable. Players on successful teams routinely play 17 or 18 games, sometimes 19 or 20. Nobody complains that the playoffs are too long, and no one seems bothered by the NFL's plan to throw two more teams into the playoff mix.
So the players will surely survive adding one more game. They just need to make sure it's really, really worth it. The extra money is great. They should get as much as they can. But they can't leave the two most important things on the table.
They need to make sure they get some form of the guaranteed contracts they have always wanted -- and not just for the elite players or the ones lucky enough to hit free agency at the right time. And they absolutely need to make sure that they get the healthcare coverage to take care of their physical issues long after their short careers are over -- possibly even for the rest of their lives.
If they don't, they should tell their union that playing 16 games and their current revenue system will work just fine.