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Bob Ford: Labor deals, salary caps and the Eagles

The motion was on the table, and it was time for the owners of the 32 affiliated companies - a collection of rich, powerful, headstrong and independent individuals - to cast their votes.

The motion was on the table, and it was time for the owners of the 32 affiliated companies - a collection of rich, powerful, headstrong and independent individuals - to cast their votes.

Not just millions, but billions of dollars were at stake, depending on the success or failure of the course of action being recommended by the central administration. On the face of it, some of the companies stood to benefit more than others. There were risks. No one could deny that.

Business was great, and getting better every year, but the proposal called for shortening the companies' contract with their workers, creating the possibility of a long, divisive struggle to reach a new agreement. Passing the motion also opened the possibility of a potentially disastrous work stoppage or - you never know - a contract that wouldn't work out as favorably as the one they already had.

All of that was on the table when NFL commissioner Roger Goodell asked the ownership groups of all the teams to cast their votes last week, asking them to approve a plan to opt out of the final two years of their collective bargaining agreement with the players.

And vote they did: 32-0.

Goodell and the league's financial gurus, lawyers and cap savants pitched a shutout, putting all the owners in a straight line and marching them off to what they promise is a future even brighter than the sunglasses-required present.

From the outside, where the spiraling success of the league seems like a machine that doesn't require tinkering, it doesn't make much sense to lop off the 2011 and 2012 years of the existing agreement. One assumption would be that the owners now believe former commissioner Paul Tagliabue was fleeced by Gene Upshaw and the NFL Players Association when the contract was extended in 2006. Another would be that the owners are simply greedy for a bigger slice of the financial pie chart.

And a third would be that this was part of the plan all along, that the final two years of that contract were never going to happen. By opting out, the owners have triggered a number of interesting clauses in the contract, and, what a surprise, all of them appear to benefit management.

You know what that means? It means 32-0. That's what it means.

For the next two seasons, you won't even be aware the league is drifting toward the brink. Every now and then, someone will ask Goodell or Upshaw about the progress of negotiations - there won't be any, by the way - and Goodell will say something smooth and meaningless, and Upshaw will say something defiant and meaningless, and the brink will get closer and closer.

If they haven't reached an agreement by the 2010 draft, things begin to change rapidly. There won't be a salary cap starting in 2010. Good for the players, right? Yes, except that all the four-year and five-year veterans who would have been eligible for free agency that season suddenly won't be. A player will need six years of service starting in 2010 if a new collective-bargaining agreement isn't in place. Second, instead of having either a "franchise" tag or a "transition" tag with which to tie down an unrestricted free agent, teams will have one franchise and two transitions to use as they please each season. So there will be approximately 200 fewer free agents, and the very good ones among those that remain will be tagged, bagged, and kept by their teams.

For the dross that remains on the market, owners of teams that made the playoffs will be restricted in how much they can spend and how many free agents they can sign. The deeper a team went in the playoffs, the less it can improve itself.

The threat of that uncapped 2010 season could also provide an enormous benefit to the owners in the next two seasons, a brilliant and somewhat overlooked bit of strategy. Let's say you represent a player who is supposed to become a free agent in 2010, but won't be if a new bargaining agreement isn't reached. On the Eagles, that list includes Omar Gaither, Chris Gocong and Max Jean-Gilles among others. Would you advise your client to sign an extension in the interim and not bet on free agency? Think the teams might be able to sign players in that situation to less attractive deals than they would have gotten otherwise? Me, too.

Aside from all that, the league simply wants more of the $7 billion it generates in revenue each season. The players currently get 59.5 percent of it, divided up into the salary cap. The owners want the percentage that goes to salaries to be smaller, arguing that they have to build stadiums and things like that and would prefer someone else pay for them.

There are other issues. The teams want more freedom to recover bonuses that were paid to guys who, say, end up in jail. They want to put a rookie salary structure in place similar to the one employed by the NBA. Oh, and they want more games.

Goodell said the exhibition season isn't as necessary as it once was, and would like to see it shortened. He talked about going to a 17-game regular season, adding one game to the current schedule, but didn't stop there.

"Maybe we'll look at two," Goodell told reporters.

The television networks would have to pay for the extra regular-season games, naturally, but there's no indication the league would share that bonus with the players. The argument, whenever it is finally made, is that there are a total of 20 games now, and there will still be a total of 20 games.

Faced with the odds against them, it seems likely the players will have to come to the table before 2010. It would be the prudent thing to do, but emotions are unpredictable in labor disputes. Things often take longer to settle than is wise.

This much we know. The owners aren't worried. They smell a win. They smell a 32-0 win. As for what the players might smell, the owners don't really care.