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Sunday Football Notes

Now more than ever, we realize NFL owners won

Do you think Robert Kraft or any owner cares if his players have two-a-days?

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Do you think Robert Kraft or any owner cares if his players have two-a-days?

Patriots owner Robert Kraft and then-Colts center Jeff Saturday created the defining moment of the 2011 offseason when they embraced in a bear hug at a news conference announcing the end of the NFL lockout and the agreement of a 10-year collective bargaining agreement.

Almost exactly two years have passed, and now that the realities of the CBA have set in, Saturday might want to take that hug back.

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No matter how you slice it, the owners obliterated the NFL Players Association and new executive director DeMaurice Smith in the 2011 negotiations.

The biggest proof came last week when the publicly controlled Green Bay Packers released their annual financial statements. The Packers reported a team-record operating profit of $54.3 million for the 12-month period ending March 31, 2013, a 26 percent increase from the year before, according to the Sports Business Journal.

Even more eye-popping, the Packers’ net income in the two years before the CBA: $22.3 million. In the two seasons since: $85.8 million.

If the Packers are making money hand over fist, so are the 31 other teams.

The players? The rookie pool has been slashed, young players are locked into unfavorable contracts, and the money isn’t trickling to the veterans, who are getting priced out of the NFL, even at minimum salaries. The NFLPA declined to respond to a request for comment.

“The NFLPA absolutely failed the NFL players,” said one prominent agent with two decades in the league, who spoke under the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution by the NFLPA. “It’s the worst CBA in professional sports history. It’s pushing the veterans out of the game and cuts the rookie pay in half. How is that a good deal?”

To be fair, the players have better post-retirement benefits — medical care, pensions, transition programs, and more — under the new CBA. The creation of the $620 million Legacy Fund for pre-1993 players helped correct some mistakes of the past. Players also have a better quality of life, with a shorter offseason program, stricter guidelines on contact in practice, and the elimination of two-a-days in training camp.

Then again, the owners probably were happy to cave on those demands. It helps them promote player safety and ward off lawsuits. And do you think Kraft or any owner cares if his players have two-a-days?

But when it comes to the serious stuff — splitting up the NFL’s $9 billion in revenue — the NFLPA “got taken to the woodshed,” said another agent with 18 years of experience.

“Yeah, players got better post-retirement stuff, but I’d rather have an extra million in my bank account today than a few extra grand in my pension in 40 years,” he said. “The owners used the bad economy to cry poor, and then they took everything.”

How badly did the owners beat down the NFLPA? Let us count the ways:

1. The rookies got a raw deal.

The owners said the system needed to be fixed when a bust such as JaMarcus Russell could make $37 million guaranteed and Sam Bradford, the last No. 1 overall pick under the old CBA, could get $50 million guaranteed before playing a snap.

Rookie contracts got slashed in the new CBA, with Cam Newton, the No. 1 overall pick in 2011, getting just $22 million guaranteed. What’s more, rookie signing bonuses have remained flat for the last three seasons. Kansas City’s Eric Fisher, the 2013 No. 1 overall pick, will get the same $14.518 million signing bonus that Newton and Andrew Luck (2012) did.

And only the top picks are receiving top dollar. Jacksonville cornerback Johnathan Cyprien, the first pick of the second round, will have a modest salary cap number of $994,382 this year. Players taken in rounds 3-7 are all in the $400,000-$500,000 range, with the league minimum at $405,000.

But perhaps the worst deal for the rookies: All drafted players are locked into their contracts for at least three years. The CBA prevents any drafted player from renegotiating his contract until after his third season. Most rookies do get increases in base salary over each of their four seasons, however, and they’re also subject to player performance bonuses if they reach playing time markers.

Russell Wilson, who had a phenomenal rookie season after being drafted in the third round by the Seahawks, has no choice but to play the 2013 season at his base salary of $526,217. Even if they wanted to, the Seahawks can’t extend his contract until after the 2014 season.

This rule is brutal on running backs, who are by far the biggest injury risk and often don’t even make it to Year 4. Even if they do, a team has much more incentive to draft another pair of young, cheap legs instead of committing major dollars to a veteran back. A running back is almost better off sitting on the bench for two years instead of wasting his hits at minimum salary.

2. Veterans get squeezed.

The money saved on the rookies was supposed to trickle down to the veterans, but instead it appears it’s simply going straight into the owners’ pockets.

While quarterback pay continues to skyrocket, and a couple of veterans were able to cash in during free agency — Miami’s Mike Wallace, Kansas City’s Dwayne Bowe, Cleveland’s Paul Kruger — the incredible value of rookie contracts is now squeezing out many veterans.

Why would a team pay big money to a free agent when it can simply draft a cheaper, healthier alternative and have him locked in to a near-minimum salary for at least three seasons?

Some free agents, such as Miami’s Dustin Keller, Seattle’s Michael Bennett, Denver’s Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, and New England’s Aqib Talib, took modest one-year deals after receiving low-ball offers on multiyear deals. Cliff Avril, who played for $10.6 million last year as the Lions’ franchise player and is just 27, was only able to score a two-year deal with $6 million guaranteed from the Seahawks.

And while the CBA promises minimum salaries for veterans — $715,000 this year for players with 4-6 years of experience, $840,000 for 7-9, and $940,000 for 10-plus — many times it works against them.

“I’ve had teams tell me all the time, ‘Your guy is a minimum-salary guy, he’s too expensive,’ ” the first agent said. “I have veteran players that would play for $50,000 if they could.”

3. Owners hold all the cards.

The salary cap in 2009 was $123 million, decreased to $120 million for 2011, and will remain relatively flat for the foreseeable future. The cap rose to $123 million this year, but only after the NFLPA allowed the owners to defer payments on performance-based pay for 2013, which totaled $110.7 million in 2012 and was split among dozens of players.

Player-performance money that is earned in 2013 and should be paid out in March 2014 will instead be held in an account and paid out in March 2016, with the owners keeping two years’ worth of interest.

The salary cap isn’t even supposed to increase in 2014 when the NFL will receive an influx of new television money — $3.1 billion annually from broadcast revenue, up from $1.9 billion.

The CBA only requires teams to spend in cash 89 percent of the salary cap number, and teams can roll over any unused cap space from year to year. Often, teams would rather keep the cap money for rollover purposes than use it on a veteran who may or may not pan out.

And worst of all, players are stuck with this deal through the 2021 draft.

Many agents, naturally, are incensed about the deal and are pining for the days of Gene Upshaw.

“There was never any transparency from the union to the players,” another agent said. “It was basically, ‘We’ve agreed to terms on the deal, we expect everyone to ratify it, and let’s pop champagne bottles.’

“De Smith was a slick trial lawyer who came in and sold the players on a fancy PowerPoint presentation. Ninety-eight percent of the players have no understanding how bad this deal is.”

WEARING DOWN

Lower-body pads are now a must

If NFL players look a bit bulkier this fall, there’s a reason — for the first time since 1994, the NFL is mandating all players except kickers and punters to wear thigh and knee pads.

The NFL estimated that only 30 percent of players wore lower-body pads last season, and in recent years wide receivers and defensive backs in particular have opted not to wear them because they can limit their speed. College players are required to wear the pads, however.

But the NFL is emphasizing safety now, and players will not be allowed to take the field unless they are wearing thigh and knee pads.

“If he finds his way to the field, he will actually be removed from the game until he makes the adjustment and puts on the proper padding,” said former 49ers safety Merton Hanks, now an assistant director of operations for the NFL. “In today’s NFL, wearing thigh and knee pads is no different than wearing your helmet or shoulder pads.”

Hanks said players will be inspected in the locker room by an equipment official, and will face a fine of $75,000 if they manage to play without the pads.

The NFL has approved 37 different pads for use, and players can choose the pads that suit them best. Hanks said he has talked to several veterans about the new rule, and “while they’re not enamored with the change, they understand it’s the nature of the game and they’ll make every effort to comply by getting the lightest, strongest pad for their purposes.”

Former Patriots coach Bill Parcells said getting players to wear knee and thigh pads “was a constant battle for me . . . I’m glad that we are enforcing that. I think the players sometimes don’t know what’s in their own best interest.”

OUT OF WATER

Dee was never a good fit with the Dolphins

Mike Dee helped oversee an era of unprecedented success and growth for the Red Sox and Fenway Park when he held multiple roles, including chief operating officer, from 2002-09.

He parlayed that success into a gig as the CEO of the Miami Dolphins after Stephen Ross bought the team in 2009, but Dee simply couldn’t replicate his business magic in South Florida.

Dee left the Dolphins on Wednesday to become president and CEO of the San Diego Padres, the team he worked for from 1995-2002. It’s a nice landing spot, for sure, but Dee was often like a fish out of water in his role with the Dolphins, as he didn’t quite grasp the market or the sport, and will be mostly remembered for the team’s bizarre promotions — remember “Gator Day” with Tim Tebow?

Dee came to Miami with two goals — improve attendance and help secure funding for stadium renovations — and went 0 for 2. The Dolphins filled only 76.3 percent of their seats in 2012 — the only team under 83 percent — and their bid to secure funding for Sun Life Stadium died in the Florida House of Representatives in May.

The Dolphins announced that they will use the search firm Turnkey Sports and Entertainment to help find a new CEO, but they might already have a promising candidate close by — Matt Higgins, formerly the Jets’ executive vice president of business operations and Woody Johnson’s right-hand man. Higgins left the Jets in 2012 to take a job as CEO of one of Ross’s side companies, RSE Ventures.

ETC.

Barth is kicked out before season starts

Nothing Good Happens in the Offseason, Part 47: The Buccaneers announced that kicker Connor Barth will miss the season after tearing his Achilles’ in a charity basketball game last weekend, and undergoing surgery. The team signed former Giant Lawrence Tynes to replace him.

Barth tied Detroit’s Jason Hanson for most field goals of 40-plus yards last season (18), although he did not handle kickoff duties.

Not only will Barth not play this year, but because he hurt himself away from football, the Buccaneers put him on the non-football injury list and can avoid paying some of his $2.3 million base salary if they so choose.

Birds chirping

Talk about some backhanded swipes at Kevin Kolb coming out of the Cardinals’ locker room.

Arizona swapped out Kolb for Carson Palmer this offseason, and the players haven’t been shy about their approval.

“I don’t want to disrespect anyone, but now we have a real quarterback to go with a good defense,” Calais Campbell told CBSSports.com.

Added Larry Fitzgerald on SiriusXM: “We have a guy now who can make all the throws and get our offense rolling.”

It should be noted that Kolb, now with the Bills, went 4-2 with eight touchdowns and three interceptions last season before getting hurt. The Cardinals went 1-9 after Kolb went down, including seven straight losses.

Firing first shot

Dear Houston Texans: Why, oh why, would you poke the sleeping bear?

The Texans announced “themes” for each of their home games this year: “Battle Red Day,” “Pink Ribbon Day,” “Hispanic Heritage Day,” and so on.

The theme for the Dec. 1 showdown against the Patriots: homecoming. The players will wear leather varsity jackets and everyone will have a good laugh.

But it’s also a slap in the face to the Patriots. In college and high school, the homecoming game is scheduled against a patsy opponent likely to produce an easy victory for the home team.

Think Bill Belichick won’t remind his players that the Texans think of them as a lowly homecoming opponent?

Close to home

In other Patriots news: The Pro Football Hall of Fame has removed a 2010 photo of Aaron Hernandez dancing into the end zone after beating Packers cornerback Sam Shields “in the spirit of good taste.” The photo, taken by Mary Schwalm, had been displayed since winning an annual photo contest held by the Hall.

Back in the running

Finally, the always enigmatic and entertaining Ricky Williams is back in football. The former running back, who last played for Baltimore in 2011, will reportedly coach running backs at the University of the Incarnate Word, a Championship Subdivision school in San Antonio.

Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.
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