Posted: 6:30 p.m.
One of the two major off-field issues hanging over the Bengals future appeared to clear Thursday when Hamilton County's lawsuit against the club and the NFL demanding millions was dismissed.
But the stalemate over a collective bargaining agreement between NFL players and owners still looms large for every team now that a work stoppage could be just two years away. At the very least, if there is no CBA before free agency begins March 3, all teams undergo tighter accounting rules that figure to make for a more tentative, cautious market and affect the Bengals in their bid to lock up some of their veterans.
The county can still appeal Federal District Court Judge Arthur Spiegel's 64-page decision released Thursday morning that cited statute of limitations in throwing out a lawsuit claiming the Bengals and the NFL violated state and federal anti-trust laws during negotiations of the 1997 Paul Brown Stadium lease.
But in a noon statement, the club pointed to Spiegel's opinion that, "Not one of the County representatives has indicated that the revenue information provided by the Bengals and/or the NFL was in any way incorrect or misleading."
The team also noted that the ruling read, "All of the (county) officials indicated under oath that, in substance, they believed the Bengals negotiated with them in good faith."
Those statements, along with the expiration of the statue of limitations, give the Bengals breathing room in a case that has dragged since May of 2003 as they grapple with the league's biggest labor crisis since the advent of free agency in 1993.
The ruling gives the Bengals a push into the process of plotting their free-agent strategy for 2006 with what is believed to be about $4 million as everyone waits on the next move. If there isn't an extension of the CBA in the next three weeks, that means new salary cap rules for 2006, no salary cap in 2007, and a possible work stoppage in 2008. Three reasons why they did quarterback Carson Palmer's extension at the end of last season.
The Bengals' anathema for doing contracts that push money into future years should hold them in good stead if there is no CBA extension. No money can be pushed into an uncapped year, which means all pro-rations of bonuses and not likely to be earned incentives must be absorbed into 2006. If there is no deal by March 3, there is no such thing as June 1. No matter when a player gets cut during the year, the hit is now.
Since the Bengals didn't plow an inordinate amount of money into the future, they figure to be one of about a dozen teams that head into free agency below the cap with about $4 million to spend after the costs for draft picks and one-year tenders to four restricted free agents.
That's not a lot to spend, but they're going to have company if there is no agreement by March 3. Contracts can only be pro-rated over four years and annual salaries can't rise by more than 30 percent, which all but kill those deals that have big signing bonuses propped up by artificial salaries in the out years.
Among the options the Bengals appear to be exploring is which offensive linemen to approach for extensions from a starting group in which all five are up after the 2006 season.
Waiting to see what happens with the CBA means the Bengals could wait on 26-year-old tackle Levi Jones and 25-year-old guard Eric Steinbach, their young, talented left side that emerged this past season as Pro Bowl alternates. If there is no cap in 2007, Jones and Steinbach don't become free because free agency rises from four seasons to six seasons.
Ken Zuckerman, Jones's agent, said Thursday he doesn't think the stalemate is going to reach the uncapped year and that there will be an extension in place by 2007. That means if the Bengals can't reach an agreement with Jones, they can put the franchise tag on him.
"All you hear is that a CBA is going to get done. It's hard seeing it go into an uncapped year with the problems some of the teams have," Zuckerman said. "We think Levi is in a good place. With an extension of the CBA (for 2007), we're looking at a franchise number of about $7 million. Obviously, we'll always listen if the team has something to talk about before then."
The Bengals would probably like to do something, but it's a hard climate in which to make a sudden move. The internal debate among the owners on what revenues to share how has been the biggest stumbling block to a CBA. Until the rules get set, it's hard to plan how to play the game.
Last season, head coach Marvin Lewis suggested that the county's lawsuit was holding the team back from following through on some plans. It had been speculated he was referring to the building of an indoor practice facility.
Until the 2008 season is assured of being played, it's unclear what economic issues are going to get the go-ahead. At the moment, the idea is just to see what unfolds for March 3.
But for now, anyway, the Bengals on Thursday were able to savor a victory for the future. The estimated $4 million spent on legal fees in the lawsuit is not only what they have to spend in free agency, but also roughly what an indoor facility would cost.
"We are pleased that Judge Spiegel took the time to thoroughly analyze the case and conclude that the facts were on our side," said Bengals president Mike Brown in a statement responding to the judge's decision.