Updated: 3-12-11, 1:10 a.m.
The Iron Curtain has fallen.
More than two decades of labor peace was shattered Friday when the NFL Players Association hit the button after 11th-hour negotiations for a collective bargaining agreement failed and opted to apply for decertification.
In the hour after the CBA expired at midnight, the NFL Network announced the league had locked out the players as the NFL's first work stoppage since 1987 careened into the courts.
The clock also seemed to be ticking for the Bengals and they're hoping it's not a time bomb. Faced with a quarterback crisis, a new offense, and no date when they can start working with players, left tackle Andrew Whitworth, the club's rep to the NFLPA, knows what's at stake.
"We want to work; we want to play," Whitworth said after decertification. "But we have to do what's best for the guys coming after us."
Friday began peacefully with the hope for a CBA extension as players waited for NFL Players Association chief DeMaurice Smith to give them the word. Friday afternoon on Deadline Day, Bengals backup quarterback Jordan Palmer went to the beach in San Diego to see if he could see any waves from a tsunami.
"My wife didn't want me to go in the water, so we walked the dog and not much happened," Palmer reported.
Nothing happened as the players and owners bid for a new collective bargaining agreement officially blew up when Smith emerged from daylong negotiations minutes before the 5 p.m. deadline that the NFLPA faced for decertification and said the union would only agree to an extension of the talks if the owners agreed to give the players audited financial reports for 10 years.
That proved to be the trigger for what observers have called the NFLPA's nuclear weapon as the league waded into the mushroom cloud of a lockout in which there is no free agency, no team activities, and no contact with players and clubs. The Bengals offseason workouts that were to begin in 10 days are no more. The only roster moves that can be made are in the April 28-30 draft and there will be no college free agency if the lockout continues after the draft.
The mistrust and gulf between the two parties were exposed in dueling news conferences after the negotiations broke down when NFLPA lawyer Jim Quinn accused NFL vice president Jeff Pash of lying to fans and media after Pash told the press the union left a good deal on the table and said they were taken by surprise at the last minute when the union decided to decertify. Smith then accused the NFL of colluding in an effort to break the union and spoke of the lack of trust.
"I think it's pretty normal for both sides; you don't have a lot of trust for somebody on the other side that has a lot of money," Whitworth said. "It's too bad it's come to this with the sides pointing fingers, but I also think that happens in negotiations and we'll get past that."
George Cohen, the federal mediator for these past 17 days of talks, said there was no constructive reason to continue talks because "of strongly held views that separates them on core issues."
This is what Pash said the players left on the table:
- Narrow the player compensation gap that existed in the negotiations by splitting the difference.
- Guarantee reallocation of savings from first-round rookies to veterans and retirees without negatively affecting compensation for rounds 2-7.
- Ensure no compensation reduction for veterans.
- Implement new year-round health and safety rules.
- Retain the current 16-game regular season with four preseason games for at least two years with any subsequent changes subject to the approval of the league and union.
- Establish a new legacy fund for retired players ($82 million contributed by the owners over the next two years).
But it has come down to money. ESPN.com calculated the sides were $185 million per year apart on how much money owners would get up front during the new CBA.
Whitworth said Friday it was the economics in play. The players have objected to owners saying they want to take $1 billion off the top of revenues and reverse the cut of the pie.
"I've heard people say that it is ridiculous to ask for 10 years of financial records, but is that any more ridiculous to ask to give back $1 billion not knowing why?" Whitworth asked. "The ball is in the owners' court. They have to decide what they want their next move to be. I think the one advantage is that when it goes to litigation it's going to be resolved faster.
"What's tough for the fans is that the owners are thinking about the future finances and not about their teams right now."
Eyebrows were raised when Pash didn't immediately say the league would lock out the players. Agent Angelo Wright, who represents Bengals defensive linemen Jon Fanene as one of the nearly 500 free agents waiting for the flag to drop, thought that was a sign the league would not lock out the players.
The risk for the owners implementing a system is they might be exposed to treble damages and in the face of the players' antitrust lawsuit, the safest thing is to lock out. But with an owners meeting in New Orleans next weekend, Wright thinks a new system can be put in place quickly.
"I still think the league is going to go about business as usual, not lock out the players, and appeal to the judge they'll implement rules that are close to what the league played under last year," Wright said. "That puts it back in the union's court. They would have to come back to the table because there are going to be a lot of angry fourth-and fifth-year guys who wouldn't be free agents. I've always thought they'd have something in place by March 15 and start free agency by March 20. I still do, and they can keep negotiating."
If the NFL eventually spurned the lockout and instituted rules, it would probably be close to last year when there was no salary cap and free agency was gained by six accrued seasons. That would make cornerback Johnathan Joseph, the most prized Bengals free agent, a restricted free agent.
ProFootballTalk.com, chaired by lawyer Mike Florio, broke down such a scenario:
"The league will have to decide on the rules to be applied in 2011. Any rules used will expose the league to antitrust liability based on the argument that 32 separate businesses can't come together and agree to rules for 'drafting' employees and holding them in place after their individual contracts expire, via (restricted free agent) tenders or the franchise tag. Also, a salary cap would potential violate antitrust laws.
"The lawsuit could linger for years, but football would also continue. That's precisely what happened the last time the union decertified, after the 1987 strike. The league continued, the players sued, the players eventually won a preliminary judgment, and the two sides struck a deal that became the first Collective Bargaining Agreement to include real free agency rights and a salary cap."
But no one knows and the lockout now looks like it will rule the day. A veil of confusion now seems to blanket the process because it will be thrown into the courts and bureaucracy. Yet, there are some things that seem ready to happen and the first thing is the collective bargaining phase is over and the litigation phase is here.
Once the NFLPA decertifies, reports have predicted the union will file a motion to prevent the league from locking out a non-union workforce. But the NFL plans to file a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board if the NFLPA decertifies, calling it a sham because they would still be acting as a union.
Since the NFL doesn't consist of one business but 32 separate ones, as ProFootballTalk.com has taught us during the standoff, the league would be committing a clear violation of antitrust law by deciding collectively to shut down.
If the NFLPA is allowed to decertify, they are expected to file an anti-trust lawsuit as well as ask Federal Court Judge David Doty for an injunction that prevents the lockout. With Doty expected to rule in favor of the players, the league would be expected to appeal.
With an injunction and a myriad of appeals, the season could continue if the owners come up with a set of rules, as Wright indicated could happen. But any kind of timetable is difficult to discern.
All of this comes against the backdrop of Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer asking for a trade and offensive coordinator Jay Gruden installing his new scheme.
"With the quarterback situation, we're in a tough spot, no question," Whitworth said. "It's tough because no one can sit down and talk to the new coordinator and, really, you don't know who some of the players are going to be. It's going to be something we have to work through."
No matter what was going down, Jordan Palmer was headed to work out at his old high school with former NFL quarterbacks Ken O'Brien and Rob Johnson and his long-time coach, Bob Johnson.
"All you can do is wait," Palmer said. "I just want to get back to work in Cincinnati. It's not because of the money. We've got a new offense and I need to learn it and we all need to learn it. Talking about it on the phone can only do so much. I just need to practice. I need to be on the field."
Palmer can no longer talk to the coaches, or anyone else with the club during a lockout, but he reiterated he's setting up a passing camp with Bengals receivers and some running backs for late April either in Scottsdale. Ariz., or San Diego.
"I'm keeping pretty much the same schedule I would if there was a lockout or not," he said Friday. "We don't begin throwing in Cincinnati until late April anyway."
Meanwhile, Palmer said before the deadline dropped that he'd check PFT "every 15 minutes" while working on his game. The two Johnsons and O'Brien are working with him on his mechanics. He's been looking at tape this offseason of the Patriots' Tom Brady, the Texans' Matt Schaub, the Saints' Drew Brees, and the Packers' Aaron Rodgers.
"Brady's not the most athletic guy in the league and when he came in he didn't have best mechanics and they said he didn't have great arm strength," Palmer said. "But you look at him and he's worked really hard on his throwing motion. His mechanics are tight. I'm watching Schaub because we've got the same body type and Rodgers is just fun to watch. When you watch Brees, you're just amazed at watching his decision-making. I've broken down what I've got to work on here so by the time I get to Cincinnati I just have to worry about learning the offense."
Also, Palmer had no comment on his brother's situation, but now he'll have to keep checking for updates. It will be legal ones now.
Running back Cedric Benson had no comment on the labor situation and said he's "not even thinking about football."
Benson, who along with Joseph are the club's top two priorities to retain in free agency, reiterated what he said last month when he spoke with Gruden.
"Yeah, I want to come back," he said, but he didn't know if the Bengals have spoken to his agent.
Benson also said he may join the Bengals receivers in San Diego after talking with Jordan Palmer at the Super Bowl.