No cap means less offseason sizzle
Uncapped year, which seems likely, would severely alter free-agent landscape
The NFL is in a weird place in 2010.
Although there is a Hail Mary's chance of getting a collective bargaining extension, the 32 teams are preparing for an uncapped season. An uncapped year means capped enthusiasm as far as improving teams is concerned.
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The uncapped year is the NFL's version of the Texas Hold 'em. Teams with good cards win. Teams with bad cards have limited chances of getting much better. In the weeks ahead, we'll explain exactly what an uncapped year would mean, but here's a basic rundown:
Free agency won't offer much hope for teams trying to improve.
The uncapped year raises the threshold for unrestricted free agency from four to six years. Approximately 212 players -- including Braylon Edwards and Brandon Marshall -- will become restricted free agents instead of unrestricted free agents, severely shrinking the pool of potential starters for teams in need of help. Not only do teams have a franchise tag to prevent top players from leaving, but they will also have an extra transition tag, further watering down the free-agent market.
The playoff teams that make the final four can jump into free agency only if they lose a player. Figuring those teams will protect top players by tagging them, consider those teams out of the main free-agent market. In most years, the top free agents are gone in 10 days. Under these rules, the top free agents could be gone in 10 hours when free agency starts in March.
We'll spend considerable time keeping you updated on the rules and any progress in labor talks. Let's hope that a deal gets done and the normal offseason of moves returns. What people don't want is a football hot stove league that is only on simmer.
From the inbox
Q: Will Rod Marinelli get another chance to be a head coach in the NFL? I mean, the Lions' 0-16 season wasn't entirely his fault; he was given essentially nothing to work with.
Gary in Middlebury, Ind.
A: Doubtful. At this stage of his career, I'm not sure Marinelli would even care. Marinelli is a very humble person, so ego doesn't come into play here. He had his chance as a head coach. Unfortunately for him and the Lions, it didn't work out. To show how humble Marinelli is, he has resisted chances to be a defensive coordinator. He turned down job interviews to be coordinators on other teams, opting to help a close friend, Bears coach Lovie Smith, as a defensive line coach. The 0-16 record will keep doors closed as far as head-coaching opportunities are concerned, but it won't diminish his reputation as a good coach who knows how to teach players.
Nicholas in San Marcos, Texas, wants to know whether the Panthers are going to make a move on a big-name wide receiver. He thought they made a mistake when they didn't try to acquire TE Tony Gonzalez or WR Anquan Boldin. That might be tough, but they have to do something. The draft hasn't been kind to the Panthers as they've been trying to get a receiver opposite Steve Smith. If they don't have confidence in the draft, they have to make a trade for someone. Andy in St. Paul Park, Minn., suggests a coaching free-agency period in the NFL because he's frustrated that playoff teams lose top coordinators and then have trouble finding good replacements because the non-playoff teams grab all the good, available coordinators. The reason a free-agency period won't occur is because the playoff teams want to drag out the process to keep their top coordinators. The only way they lose them is if they get eliminated early. The longer a good team goes in the playoffs, the better chance the playoff team has for keeping its top assistants. Nitin in Upper Saddle River, N.J., is a longtime 49ers fan who is baffled that Jeff Garcia was out of work for most of this season. That's one of the problems with being 38 years old. Teams are looking for young quarterbacks. Garcia will have to try to make a team as a backup next season, just as he tried to do in Oakland this season. To Rich in Baltimore: Even though the Ravens are pooh-poohing it, I believe Joe Flacco's struggles at the end of the season were related to his injuries. He struggled to loosen up with that bad hip bruise. Mechanically, at times, his passes sailed high. I blame the injuries, not the quarterback. Eric in San Diego asked, "Why is a player on the injured reserve list lost for the season?" The league changed to the season-ending injury policy because teams basically faked injuries to squeeze more players on the roster knowing they could get the players back after a certain period. For competitive balance, the NFL likes it when a good team is forced to release a good player, giving the worst teams in the league a chance to grab him. If the league goes to an 18-game schedule, the NFL is going to have to go back to a system in which certain players can be designated as out for a prescribed period of time and then available to come back later in the season. Rob in Iowa City, Iowa, thinks a fair solution to the Rooney Rule is to allow a franchise to pinpoint a main candidate such as Mike Shanahan or Pete Carroll, and if the candidate accepts, there is no penalty. If that candidate refuses, then all the rules to the Rooney Rule apply in a traditional search. Not a bad thought. Matthew in Augustin, N.Y., came up from a heated argument on the sales floor and asks who is the better player -- DeMarcus Ware or Michael Strahan? Go for Strahan now because he has the years and the numbers. Ware still needs more years to catch Strahan.
Q: You mentioned that there will not be much of a market for Rex Grossman this offseason. How about Grossman following Kyle Shanahan to Washington to hold down the QB spot until whichever rookie the Redskins choose is ready? It seems like a logical fit.
Josh in Frederick, Md.
A: I guess if Grossman wants to go to the Redskins for the minimum salary, there might be some interest. It would probably serve Grossman better to stay in Houston and not try to move around too much. Grossman is like Joey Harrington, David Carr and other former first-rounders who are just waiting for the right opportunity to get a chance to play again. But it's great to see that Grossman does have some fans. A lot of people have forgotten about him in the past two years.
Jamin in Winnipeg, Manitoba
A: Asomugha got recognition by getting back to the Pro Bowl, which was deserved. I'm glad you brought this up. So many people have jumped on the Revis bandwagon, and rightfully so. Revis had a great season, but Asomugha has established himself as the best man-to-man corner in football. It was a great year for cornerbacks, and it appears to be a great era for the position. Charles Woodson was the defensive player of the year. Revis got votes for the same honor. Champ Bailey had a great season in Denver, but he was about the fourth-best corner this year. Until somebody throws at Asomugha and beats him, you must keep him in the No. 1 hole.
Q: Are Donovan McNabb's days in Philly done? He did ask for playmakers on offense, got them, and still failed to produce a ring. What about Andy Reid? Does Kevin Kolb deserve a legitimate shot at being the starter next year? What becomes of Michael Vick?
Ted in Philadelphia
A: He's not done yet. There are lot of people who want to run McNabb out of town. That would be a mistake. If Brett Favre retires, there will be a trade market for McNabb if the Vikings make the right offer. Favre is an interesting comparison. I don't think Kolb is as talented as Aaron Rodgers, but you saw what happened to the Packers once Favre left. They fell to 6-10, even though Rodgers threw for more than 4,000 yards. First-year starting quarterbacks don't win the close games, and the Eagles could drop to 6-10 or 7-9 with Kolb learning on the job. Reid just signed a contract extension. He stays. Vick will be back only if he can't find a team interested in him. I still contend that kicking McNabb out of town would be a mistake.
Q: Do you think people are underrating the Saints in the playoffs? Before the Cardinals game, I kept hearing how an upset was going to happen. The Saints needed to get healthy again, and they did. They treated the final regular-season game like a preseason game, possibly to get them to feel like they are starting over again. I just feel like people are forgetting how prolific this team was and very well can be again. What is your take on that?
Adrien in Bogue Chitto, Miss.
A: They are the No. 1 seed and showed it in the 45-14 victory. Given their home-field advantage this week, I think a slight majority of the so-called experts around the country are going to pick the Saints. They have had a great season. Sure, they played the league's easiest schedule, but they have a great offense and their defense is better than it was last year. Naturally, the way they played down the stretch caused some concern. But the concern disappeared after the Cardinals game.
Q: Instead of the NFL trying to figure out how to get teams to play starters after they have clinched, why not work toward preventing teams from clinching early? The Colts' last two games were meaningless because they came against the Jets and Browns. How about making the schedule so a team's last two games are in the division and at least four of its last seven are in the division? You can't clinch if your division is still up for grabs.
Ryan in Indiana
A: That formula doesn't work. Each team has only six division games. I watched this happen in the NFC when the NFL loaded up the back end of the schedule with divisional games. A few years ago, the AFC dominated the NFC, beating the NFC in two of every three games. That created a lot of lopsided division races in the AFC and a lot of NFC races between teams that were .500 or below. Plus, you have to balance the schedule for interest. The TV networks would have decreased ratings if you hold more of the division races until the end of the season. Teams' clinching early is a problem without a solution, and it could be made worse if the league adopts an 18-game schedule.
Q: I've never liked the replay system the NFL currently has in place. It always seems to me that there is a real lack of consistency in referees' understanding of the word "indisputable," as indisputable visual evidence is the standard in determining the call. So my suggestion is this: Take the decision out of the hands of the head referee on the field. The NFL, I'm sure, can afford to put three officials in the replay booth. How about basing the results of the replay challenge on a two-thirds majority (or better) decision. What are your thoughts?
Colin in Milwaukee, Wis.
A: I hate that idea. I like the fact that officials are being more cautious in overturning calls unless the evidence is overwhelming. There were a lot of compromises to get replay back into the NFL after it was removed. The compromise was "indisputable evidence.'' From my vantage point, I think the system gets smoother each season.
Q: Do you think we will see more Wildcat-type plays going forward?
Randy in San Antonio
A: I think the Wildcat is starting to run its course. The Jets really are the only team left in the playoffs that uses it. I saw one play last Sunday in San Diego in which Mark Sanchez had to line up as a wide receiver and ended up getting a false start. You can figure you're going to average only about five yards a play in a Wildcat formation, and penalties loom large. The Wildcat won't go away, but this league is geared toward big plays and quick hits. Watch how the use of the Wildcat is minimized over the next couple of years. Remember, the Wildcat is more of the single-wing formation, which is geared to old-style running. This league is heading toward more quick-strike passing.
Q: For years, the recipe for success is solid D and a ground game. Do you think the tide is changing to highly sophisticated offenses like the Bolts' and Colts'? Are coaches and coordinators retooling?
Todd in San Diego
A: Despite the success of the New York Jets, the league is moving toward highly skilled offenses. The most telling number is the increased percentage of passes out of the shotgun formation. Five years ago, 26 percent of the passes were thrown out of shotgun. In 2009, 56 percent were thrown out of shotgun, which cuts the running playbook down significantly. Maybe the Jets can pull a miracle and beat the Colts as they did the Chargers, but the "ground and pound" teams have to hope that an elite quarterback doesn't get the ball in the final two minutes to pull out the win. The NFL is more and more a passing league.
Q: Broncos coach Josh McDaniels wants to trade Brandon Marshall because of his attitude. I don't have a problem with that, but will the Broncos have to give another team a steal to unload him, or can they get a first-rounder? If so, who makes the trade? I think the Bears, hooking Jay Cutler and Marshall back up, would instantly solve a lot of their offensive woes.
Hank in Daytona Beach, Fla.
A: I don't know whether the Broncos can get a first-rounder. Braylon Edwards went for a third-round pick and a fifth-round pick. If you are the Broncos, you can't take anything less than a second-round pick. If there is no salary cap, I have to think the Broncos could get at least a second-rounder and maybe a first-rounder. The Ravens say they aren't going to do a Marshall trade, but they would be a perfect team for him. They like big receivers, and Marshall would do well with Joe Flacco. The Bears don't have a shot because they don't have a first- or second-round pick. Scratch them. You'd also have to watch the Dolphins. He would fit perfectly in their offense.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.