When the ball is kicked off tonight to start the 2013 NFL season, front offices can finally exhale. The majority of work for this year’s versions of their teams is done; it is now time to view the fruits of their labor.
The general manager is already thinking about the future of the team and knows which players may be playing their last season under his watch. The college scouting staff has long closed the book on 2013, and is well into the process of discovering the class of 2014. The cap/contract manager is mostly projecting uses of remaining cap room for this season in planning for next year. During the season the cap charges change from “Top 51”—only the top 51 salaries on the team—to a complete accounting of every player, including practice squad and injured players, and every miscellaneous charge. Cap planning is well under way for 2014.
Sure, there are injuries and roster moves to make during the season. There also may be a contract extension or two along the way, although several teams do not negotiate during the season (Geno Atkins/Bengals and Brian Cushing/Texans were completed on the eve of this season). Once the season begins, the stewardship of the team moves from the front office to the coaching staff.
The NFL offseason is its own reality show. It exposes the seamy underbelly of the game: contract squabbles, rumbles of player unrest, disputes on injury treatment and recovery targets, arrests and other player misbehavior.
I have always referred to the offseason as “Me Time,” when the most team-oriented sport becomes very individualized. Players often say they are doing “what’s best for their family,” which is code for “what’s best for me.”
The offseason is also the time when the “Whisper Crew”—friends, hangers-on and other associates—is in full throat, whispering that the player needs a new contract, agent, girlfriend, house, car. In my time both as an agent and a team executive, I dealt with countless issues related to the Whisper Crew.
It is when the games are not being played that the team is molded, architected, assembled and built for battle. I always had a nice chuckle when I was asked: “What do you guys do during the offseason?” Actually, it would be more appropriate to ask: “What do you guys do during the season?”
As we turn the page from the “Me Time” to “We Time,” let’s take a look at a few checklist items as teams are turned over to the on-field staff for the season.
Cuts keep coming
This past weekend was truly taxing for players, agents and team executives alike, with the constant churn of some teams’ lower third of rosters. Teams like Jacksonville, Kansas City and Cleveland—all with new coaching and scouting staffs—were particularly active.
This is the time that teams’ scouting staffs separate themselves. They spent August watching unknown players late into preseason games to determine if they were better than their bottom-of-the-roster players. When those names hit the wire, they made their cases to the general manager for roster adjustments.
The end of the roster is never secure. I remember as an agent sweating out cutdown day with my client, Matt Hasselbeck, a sixth-round pick of the Packers. We celebrated when the cut list did not include his name; he had made the Packers as a third quarterback!
The Chicago Bears released Rick Mirer and then-Packers coach Mike Holmgren liked Mirer; Mirer took Hasselbeck’s roster spot and Matt was moved to practice squad. Players can never rest easy. For many, they are only as secure as the next name on the waiver wire.
Each team is allowed up to eight players on their practice squad. While the vast majority of practice squad players make the minimum $6,000 weekly salary, several will receive more due to competitive bidding, some even make an active minimum salary of $405,000, or about $23,824 per week. Recruiting can be intense, as all teams feel that once a player has been in their system, they will not leave for another team. Practice squad players are always free to sign with another team’s active roster, though they cannot move to another practice squad.
I have seen various reactions to being placed on the practice squad. Most are happy to be on the team in any capacity, although some are still fuming they didn’t make varsity. I vividly remember center Scott Wells (now with the Rams), released as a rookie and brought back to practice squad, coming into my office to sign his practice squad contract still angry and red-faced about his release.
Vested Vet Vetting
The CBA mandates that any player on the roster for the opening weekend who has four or more years of service be entitled to full salary for the year through termination pay. A vested player who is released can file for unpaid salary after the season, although he may file only once in his career. Teams keep track of vested veterans and are keenly aware of these players during the crafting of the final roster.
The financial obligation to vested veterans lessens considerably after this week, from full pay to the unpaid balance of 25% pay or one week’s minimum salary for 10-year veterans, whichever is higher. With more teams moving to a “draft and develop” philosophy—unafraid to play young players and trusting their scouting—there appear to be fewer vested veterans on teams every year.
Let the season begin. More importantly, let the “season” of the business of football, the offseason, end.