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Seahawks mailbag: Coronavirus, cap and cancellation questions

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Seattle Seahawks v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images

With just a couple of days left in June, the scheduled start of training camp for NFL teams is less than a month away, with most clubs set to get things started on July 28. With uncertainty regarding the season high as the coronavirus pandemic rages in places like Texas, California and Florida, it’s a chance to turn to the mailbag and address some of the fans questions about the Seattle Seahawks and the 2020 season.

This is a question for which the answer will largely be determined by whether or not there is an actual season this fall, and if there is, how much of a season takes place. Back at the end of March I touched on what would happen to contracts if there was no season, and that remains the same. Basically, if there is never a Week 1, whether that be in September or a delayed start in November/December or even in the spring of 2021, then team obligations to players to pay salaries never kick in. If those obligations never kick in, then the contracts never burn, and theoretically we could see the current rosters around the league stick together for the next year and a half as players could play in 2021 under what would have been their obligations for 2020. It’s entirely possible that the NFLPA and the NFL could agree to change this, but as the collective bargaining agreement is written, if there is no 2020 season, players would remain under contract to their team until a season has been played.

Where things get more tricky is if the seasons starts, whether on time or delayed, but never finishes. If teams are somehow able to play the majority of a season, say 12 or 14 games, but the final few weeks are never able to be completed, then players will likely have completed their obligations for 2020 under their contracts. However, if there are only a handful of games played, say just two or three, before the season were to be cancelled, it would be a much tougher task to argue that players had fulfilled their obligations. Any number of games in the middle, and there’s a very real possibility it becomes a legal matter that the union and the league would deal with in court if they can’t come to an agreement.

Now, to directly address the part of Fraley’s question regarding teams with older players on one year contracts. Yes, if the season never happens, it’s likely those players would be back with the team in 2021 on the same contracts and would play the season at a year older than they would have been in 2020. For some players, such as Greg Olsen (turned 35 in March) and Bruce Irvin (will be 33 in November) and Duane Brown (turns 35 in August), that could be interesting. However, the Hawks were comfortable with them playing at their current age, so it would seem reasonable the team would be fine with them playing at a year older.

The exact salary cap is determined by a formula laid out in the CBA, and while the owners could certainly take a mulligan and eat any revenue shortfall, they’re extremely unlikely to do so. They didn’t become billionaires by giving free money to millionaires, and it would seem a poor bet to expect them to start doing just that.

What would seem more likely to happen should a revenue shortfall in 2020 create the potential for a cap dip in 2021 is that they would borrow from the cap of future years in order to keep things level, or as close to level as feasible. There is precedent for this, as in 2009 the salary cap was $123M and then 2010 had no cap as the final year of that CBA. The lockout took place in 2011 and the players share of revenues took a significant hit, resulting in a formula that should have reduced the salary cap significantly for the 2011 season. However, rather than let teams struggled with a hugely reduced cap, the owners chose to allow players to borrow from their future share of revenues from the 2012 and 2013 seasons.

That borrowing allowed the cap to stay relatively flat in the first three years of the CBA, with caps of $120M in 2011, $120.6M in 2012 and $123M in 2013, even as league revenues grew rapidly. If there is to be some sort of agreement between the owners and the players regarding keeping the cap as flat as possible, expect something that would resemble what they did in 2011 through 2013.

That said, it’s not necessarily obligatory to keep the cap the same. Estimates have a potential revenue drop putting the 2021 salary cap anywhere in the $130M to $175M range, and the lower the revenues for the league in 2020, the lower the cap for 2021. So, if the cap drops to $175M and the owners are comfortable letting the players borrow $10M or $15M of cap space from future seasons, a cap drop from $198.2M to $190M from 2020 to 2021 does not seem unreasonable. If, however, league revenues are hit so hard that the formula puts the cap in the $135M or $140M range, the owners are less likely to allow players to borrow to keep things flat. However, working to keep the cap in the $150M to $160M range likely wouldn’t be unreasonable.

All that said, the pandemic is only a handful of months old, and the 2021 cap won’t be set until the spring of 2021. It was just four months ago that the first COVID-19 death in the United States was reported on February 29, and four months from now the NFL will have only played the first seven weeks of the season, without even having reached the trade deadline. In short, there is a ton of time between now and 2021 and with so much uncertainty surrounding both the economy and what will happen with the pandemic, it’s anyone’s guess as to how things will play out.