Tim Benz: Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell cases prove NFL needs CBA changes | TribLIVE.com
Tim Benz, Columnist

Tim Benz: Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell cases prove NFL needs CBA changes

Tim Benz
Steelers receiver Antonio Brown celebrates his touchdown catch with Le’Veon Bell during the first quarter against the Colts Thursday, Nov. 24, 2016, at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

If the Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell situations have illuminated one thing, it’s this:

It’s time for the NFL to change its salary cap system.

Because right now, in a collective bargaining agreement set up to give the players no power, the players are starting to realize they do have a significant power: holding cap room hostage.

It just so happens that the two most prominent examples of this problem occurred in Pittsburgh.

Sure, billionaire owners can afford multimillion-dollar contracts for players. But a player’s “worth” is not the signing bonus or salary he is paid. Owners fork over that money with glee.

The true value of a player is how he performs based on how much he makes against the salary cap. If a player withholds his services after his salary already has been allocated against the cap — as Bell did when he failed to report in July 2018 after a promise to do so in March — then teams are left with money they could have spent elsewhere.

The same would have been the case for Brown if he didn’t show up for work this spring since he had an existing contract on the books.

It could be argued the Steelers are partially responsible. Their desired method of avoiding lots of guaranteed payouts and to “kick the can down the road” with contract restructures and bonuses might be antiquated. They have tended to expose themselves on the back end of deals, as is the case with Brown.

Maybe. But do you genuinely think players on other teams won’t try to follow a similar path with their current organizations?

Brown can complain about his “unguarantees” all he wants. But the dawn wasn’t going to come up on a day when the Steelers were going to cut him this upcoming season.

At least prior to his Week 17 meltdown, anyway. The Steelers were going to pay him $14 million in 2019, and, barring something unforeseen, another $18 million in ’20.

Unless they once again decided to do what they did with him twice already: break standard team policy and give him a lot of money up front.

But Brown got mad at Ben Roethlisberger and Mike Tomlin, so he forced his way out of town. From an employee insubordination standpoint, he made it impossible for the Steelers to keep him, so he could get an even better deal elsewhere.

For whatever reason, if the Steelers didn’t trade him to Oakland — for piddly third-round and fifth-round draft choices — and forced him to stay with the team, it’s entirely possible the Steelers would have been stuck with a $22 million cap hit for a guy who might not ever have reported. After all, it was Brown who recently said he doesn’t even need football anymore.

Now it’s $21 million against the cap anyway, even with the trade. But, at least, they got a little compensation and got rid of his attitude.

Had the Steelers kept Brown, and he didn’t want to show up, they could have tried to recover some of his signing bonus. But he’s earned an estimated $69.9 million in football earnings. That’s not counting whatever else he has made in endorsements.

For as many jokes as we want to make about him spending $20,000 on G.O.A.T rings, maybe Brown has enough in the bank and knows he can make enough in 2020 that he could afford the hit.

Why not? Remember when most of the NFL talking heads said, “Le’Veon Bell won’t stay away the whole year! He can’t possibly turn his nose up at $14.6 million.”

Well, he did. I guess the previous year’s franchise tag of $12.1 million stretched far enough for Bell and his jet skiing habit — among others — after all.

But who is to say that — maybe in 2021 — Bell won’t do to his future team what Brown just did to the Steelers? Who is to say Brown won’t do that in Oakland if Derek Carr doesn’t get him the ball enough or if John Gruden makes a Chucky face at him in practice one day?

Who cares if the dollars will be guaranteed differently? So what! Bell just said “no” to the promise of $14.6 million for the prospect of more down the road. Brown played a similar game of chicken and won.

Unless the league does something about it when the next collective bargaining agreement is written — hopefully — before the end of the 2020 season, other star players will follow this act, and they’ll win, too.

What should be done about the problem? It’s time for the league to implement a more rigid, less easily manipulated cap akin to what exists in the NHL.

The NFL CBA is 301 pages long. Far too complicated to rewrite in one column. So we’ll paint with a Tomlin-esque “broad brush.”

• Give the players guaranteed contracts like the NHL. Make the maximum four or five years, shorter than hockey’s seven years (eight to resign with a current team). But guarantee the money. No restructures or complicated bonuses or pro-rated cap manipulation. Allow average annual value to determine the cap hits. Also, allow teams more cash buyouts of bad contracts than in hockey because of the larger roster size and more revenue per team.

• Ditch the franchise and transition tags. This concept is out of date. It hurts both sides. As indicated above, reward players in some other way by staying with their current team.

• Make terms more punitive against players who sit out or try to force themselves out of valid contracts. I mean punitive toward the player and toward any team that acquires said player.

• Oh, and pot. Sure. Let the players smoke weed. They seem to like pot. Who cares, honestly?

Right now, the current system isn’t working for management or labor.

Well, aside from the fact that both ends are making gobs of money.

But since that doesn’t seem to be good enough for either side, make things better.

Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at [email protected] or via Twitter. All tweets could be reposted. All emails are subject to publication unless specified otherwise.

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