It takes a special gift for one team to get punched in the face by portions of the same collective bargaining agreement that favor both the league and the players, but that's exactly what the New Orleans Saints managed on Tuesday morning. After the franchise was just about scuttled by Commissioner Roger Goodell's purported ability to take discipline out of the NFLPA's hands with the "conduct detrimental" clause in the bounty scandal, the Saints are now up against another wall as the result of arbitrator Stephen Burbank's ruling in quarterback Drew Brees' favor in Brees' franchise tag appeal.
Brees, who was given the exclusive rights tag this offseason (meaning that no other team could bid for his services under any circumstances), was appealing language in the new CBA that made it unclear as to whether this was the quarterback's first or second franchise tag in the eyes of the league. He was also franchised by the San Diego Chargers in 2005 after his rookie contract ran out. If the NFL had won the ruling, the San Diego tag would have had no meaning, and the Saints could have franchised Brees twice more after this year -- basically putting him on the hook for two straight lucrative but manageable one-year contracts through 2013. However, Burbank's ruling stated that Brees' New Orleans tag was the second of his career, and that both should count.
Brees was already set to earn $16.371 million in 2012 with the tag, but the real issue for the Saints comes in 2013. Not only would it be the last time they could tag Brees, but if they did so, they'd be dealing with an automatic 144 percent increase in the number per the CBA. So, if the Saints don't sign Brees to a long-term deal this year -- or before the 2013 tag deadline -- they'd be on the hook for $23,574,240. According to the Associated Press, the Saints have offered him more than $19 million per year, while Brees wants a five-year deal with an average annual number near $21 million.
This year's tag deadline is July 16, giving the Saints and Brees less than two weeks to hammer out the details of a long-term contract. Brees has said in the recent past that he does expect a deal to get done, but he's specified no movement on negotiations. The Saints' side, led as it is by a group of coaches and executives on the wrong end of Goodell's rifle, have been fairly closed-mouthed about the whole thing.
There are all sorts of questions about the evidence the NFL has in the bounty scandal, and even more questions about whether Goodell has the right to issue so many suspensions with what seems to be flimsier evidence than he's actually letting on. But in this case, the Saints have nobody to blame but themselves. They played a game of chicken with the best player in the history of the franchise, and they lost in a landslide. Not only is Brees coming off a marvelous season in which he broke Dan Marino's single-season passing-yardage record, but in the wake of so much other team trouble, he may wind up being the only prominent member of the 2006 team that helped the city rise from its knees ... and didn't have any skeletons in his closet. The Saints were extremely foolish to let things go this far, and now, they're going to pay severely in one of two ways.
Either they go to Brees, hat in hand, and ask for a reasonable deal that won't run over $20 million per year in the first two seasons (which Brees is now well within his rights to ask for -- after all, the franchise tag set the bar), or they fathom the unfathomable. It is now entirely possible that, failing to get a long-term deal done with Brees in 2012 or 2013, the Saints could see the 2013 franchise cost as unreasonably prohibitive and actually let him test the open market.
When the bounty suspensions first hit, I said on one radio station that if the NFL really wanted to kill the Saints, it didn't have to bother suspending anybody. Just rescind Brees' franchise tag and let them imagine a life without their most important asset. That this has an off chance of actually happening, on top of everything else that's happened to the franchise, is absolutely mind-boggling.
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