Policy would give owners more leverage

The proposal by owners to essentially "franchise" some executives is ill-timed and ultimately a bad idea, John Clayton writes.

Updated: October 16, 2005, 11:24 AM ET
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Plenty is going on behind the scenes in the NFL.

Negotiations are hot and heavy for a new collective bargaining agreement. Committees of owners have been exchanging proposals for a revenue-sharing solution to keep the salary-cap system in place. The creativity and hardball negotiations are understandable given the high stakes.

However, an item that has nothing to do with collective bargaining is being slipped into the mix for the owners' meeting in Kansas City at month's end. Once again, the NFL is revisiting the tampering rules involving general managers and other team employees.

At a time of high anxiety, ideas that sound good sometimes can be disasters. The one being proposed by the league for owners' approval sounds scary and should be put off for another time. At a meeting that most general managers don't attend because they are tending to their teams, owners are trying to take away the negotiating powers of the top football executives.

It would affect the Scott Piolis and Tom Heckerts of the NFL. Pioli is the brilliant player-personnel guy for Bill Belichick in New England. Heckert works the roster for Andy Reid in Philadelphia. How valuable are they? According to reports, Paul Allen of the Seahawks tried to convince Pioli to come to Seattle for $3 million per year, roughly three times his salary.

The NFL proposal, which is subject to a vote in two weeks, gives owners all the leverage with their top football people, excluding coaches. The proposal would make an executive hands-off to other clubs as long as he is the highest paid non-coach on the football side and has at least a year remaining on his contract. Under the proposal, once a team designates that executive as the top non-coach, he can't move until his deal expires. Essentially, he would be "franchised" like selective veteran players are prior to free agency.

It's a bad concept for two reasons. First, while the current rules involving tampering always need to be tweaked, there is no reason to take away the leverage of 32 of the best and brightest in the league. Second, it could kill any chances of developing general managers who are minorities.

Diversity is a big thing in sports, and it should be. The NFL is very sensitive to providing opportunities for ex-players and others to go into top executive and coaching positions. The problem with this proposal is it creates a roadblock at the top of the organizational chart that destroys the growth of diversity.

Let's say, under the current league organizational chart, that 27 of the 32 general managers or vice presidents of player personnel are given this designation. Those 27 jobs are frozen unless someone is fired. From the diversity aspect, all those seminars to develop general-manager prospects center around jobs that will rarely open.

The designated executives have no negotiating leverage in contract talks in relation to decision-making or salary. As long as they are paid $5 more than the next highest non-coach in football operations, they have to sit in their office and shut up.

Explain to me, how can jobs be created for top prospects under this system? Unless the GMs want to operate under one-year contracts, they have to take their contract offers and sign them. A top GM job goes for around $1.5 million. But some potential designees might be making $350,000 or $400,000 for similar work, and if they get "tagged," they can't argue with the owner about salary as long as they make more than the next highest staffer.

The competition committee has been fighting proposals similar to these for the past three years. The committee sees the problems on the diversity side. Currently, the league has only three top football execs who are minorities, and that clearly isn't enough.

A proposal such as this would freeze those jobs in time. If this proposal goes through, 10 years from now there might only be three. Where's the growth? Plus, it creates the potential for unhappy employees.

Front-office jobs in the NFL are emotional and are always changing. Coaches have leverage when their contracts expire, and many use the leverage of those talks to get big pay raises or get more control of roster decisions. Just when you thought the trend to load the league with coaches who double as general managers was fading away, this proposal will create a renewed environment for the coach-GM.

Organizational success is often taken for granted. Egos tend to become inflated when a team succeeds. It's human nature. In most instances, the owners hire the coach and he hires the general manager. There aren't enough strong general managers who have the clear power to hire the coach.

Under the proposed system, the coach who is hired by the general manager can go behind the scenes if he has success and use that leverage to get more power. The GM would be helpless in those circumstances because he can't walk, since he's under contract.

At a time of high anxiety, ideas that sound good sometimes can be disasters. The one being proposed by the league for owners' approval sounds scary and should be put off for another time.

Roster decisions are debated all the time. A coach wants a particular player immediately. The GM cites the salary-cap complications and the long-term impact of getting rid of a raw prospect who has yet to shine. The owner has to jump into the mix as arbiter. But if the main football non-coach is locked into a contract that is at the mercy of the owner, who do you think will win more of the debates? That's right, the winner will be the powerful coach who can walk, not the GM who can be told to shut up and go to his office.

Now that the NFL is in its second decade under the salary cap, it's become clear the right way to build a championship team is through the draft. Free agency is watered down every year because teams are doing a better job of developing players.

Coaches win on the field, but the personnel guys are the ones who build the talent base. Figuring out the right players can be tricky and can lead to interoffice tensions. That's why there needs to be a balancing act between the coach and the general manager. In some instances, those guys can't work together for more than three or four years.

It doesn't make sense to take that much leverage away from the top football execs. The issue needs more study, and improving diversity within organizations must be factored into the final decision. That won't happen if owners lock up their designated "franchise" execs.

To slide this concept in when most general managers aren't at the meeting also isn't a good idea. Save it for the March meeting when everybody is there and everybody is fresh. This is all about leverage anyway. By passing the proposal, owners will barely have to talk contract with their general managers.

Listen, the most important thing for the future of this league is getting a collective-bargaining extension. The system works. Players get their money. Owners get fixed financial costs. Concentrate on the big picture and deal with the 32 potential general-manager positions later.

John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer

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