As Drew Brees engaged in a media blitz Tuesday, bringing awareness to concussion-related issues and being asked obligatory questions about his contract status and the ongoing Saints "bounty" investigation, the NFLPA was continuing a more private inquiry of its own into such matters.
According to sources with knowledge of the situation, the NFLPA recently submitted a letter to commissioner Roger Goodell regarding Brees' contract impasse with New Orleans, asking the league to launch a probe into whether the Saints were acting in good faith in negotiations with the star quarterback. Some within the NFLPA believe that Brees' work on behalf of the union last year, as one of the name plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the league during the lockout, might be held against him as the sides remain unable to work out a long-term deal. (The NFLPA is also closely monitoring the lack of negotiations with the Saints' draft picks -- they are the only team yet to sign a single selection -- in regards to possible action, as well).
Brees has yet to sign his one-year franchise tender, worth roughly $16.4 million, and has shown no indication of doing so, though he did confirm publicly Tuesday he would not sit out the season. The team and the player have made some incremental progress, though many in league circles are surprised the issue has lingered as long as it has, with Brees skipping all of the offseason work, as is the case in virtually all of these situations regarding players yet to sign their franchise tender. The sides have until July 16 to work out a long-term deal, and, should the NFL not launch an investigation into the union's claims regarding Brees' negotiations, then the NFLPA is prepared to file an unfair-labor practices claim with the National Labor Relations Board, the sources said.
The NFL declined to comment for this story. The Saints declined public comment as well, though a team source discounted the veracity of the contents of the letter.
The NFLPA opted to pursue this matter with Goodell on its own, and was not probed by Brees. The quarterback did not play a role in the decision, sources said, with the union moving forward of its own accord. NFLPA head DeMaurice Smith would not discuss the specifics of the matter but said the union was acting as it would to protect any member and that Brees did not have a say in any of the actions the union might take.
According to sources, the NFLPA is asking the league to investigate possible negative comments members of the Saints management or ownership might have made regarding Brees' involvement in union matters during the lockout. In the letter to the NFL, sources said the NFLPA cites CBA provision, Article 49, Section 1: "No Discrimination: There shall be no discrimination in any form against any player by the NFL, the Management Council, any Club or by the NFLPA because of race, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, or activity or lack of activity on behalf of the NFLPA."
In the letter, the NFLPA asks the NFL to respond in a timely manner. If the union does not believe the matter is being taken seriously, then making a claim to the NLRB would be the next step.
Brees was very vocal during the lockout, and he was one of a contingent of players involved in negotiations who were fighting against the franchise tag. The union wanted the tags eliminated at one point, or at least players being limited to being tagged only once in his career. However, the new CBA not only does not include those restrictions, but the adjustments in the calculations of the franchise figures resulted in the tags falling dramatically in 2012, making it easier for the Saints to afford Brees (while his bloated cap figure counts against them, the team has not had to give him any upfront money, and if Brees played under the franchise tag, that salary would be paid out over the 17 regular-season game checks).
It is indeed strange that the situation has come to this, as Brees became the savior of Bayou football post-Katrina, and the love affair between player and city and team was robust, culminating in a Lombardi Trophy only a few years ago. But the business side of the football has a way of intervening, particularly when you are talking about what has the potential to be the biggest deal in NFL history.
While contract-demand figures reported in the past -- with Brees then said to be seeking $23 million per season -- struck me as inflated, the magic number has always been about $20 million per season, and I suspect he ends up right around that mark (maybe 19.5/year). Figuring out how much money is paid out in the first three years, how much is fully guaranteed, and what that fully guaranteed figure is (somewhere around $55 million to $60 million, I suspect) is where the real work remains to be done on the contract.
Brees, making the rounds on morning shows Tuesday, expressed surprised that the talks have dragged on this long, and he made it clear having to play out one year on the franchise tag is not his cup of tea. "I've played under the franchise tag before," he told ESPN's Mike and Mike. "That did not end well for me." (The NFL and NFLPA have a hearing Wednesday to clarify what Brees' hypothetical 2013 franchise tag would be, with the NFLPA contending it should be a 140 percent raise as a third-time franchise designee, and the NFL maintaining it should be 120 percent).
Brees also continued to take issue with the NFL's investigation into the bounties during his media tour, and few players have been as outspoken on this issue on Twitter and otherwise. He has challenged Goodell directly on the matter with his remarks, asking for "proof" of money changing hands and attributing a lot of what has been reported or heard on audio tapes as "tough talk" that was not meant to be taken literally and was not done so by his teammates.
The standoff between the Saints and Brees is not the only New Orleans situation being monitored by the union.
New Orleans is the only team yet to sign a pick and, according to several sources with knowledge of the situation, Saints officials have yet to even enter into negotiations with their five selections, informing their agents that talks would likely begin in July. Obviously, that's not what any rookie, looking for his first NFL cash, wants to hear, and though it does not explicitly violate the CBA language, the union believes such a delay violates the spirit of the agreement and does not meet the threshold of "good-faith negotiations" as espoused by the CBA.
The new system was put in place to avoid protracted negotiations or holdouts and to get players signed quickly and with less drama. Indeed, there are only 37 unsigned draftees in the entire NFL as of Tuesday, and the Saints, despite not having a first- or second-round pick, accounted for five of them.
A Saints source pointed out that neither the NFL nor NFLPA has broached the matter with the team and that there are no rules on when talks must begin. Furthermore, the Saints, for years (except last year, which was unusual due to the lockout), have not begun negotiations until July and this is their common practice. The less money a player has in his pocket, the less he is prey for hangers-on and friends and family members looking for loans, cars, etc. And the less money in his pocket, the less likely he is to act recklessly during this dangerous, unsupervised period in the NFL calendar before camp, so the thinking goes. As an organization, the Saints have long thought that signing players early might not be of much benefit, and they also figure that they can get the entire class signed in the matter of a few days next month.
The Saints are the only team in the NFL yet to sign their seventh-round pick and are the only team without its sixth-round selections under contract, as well. The Saints and Raiders are the only teams yet to sign their fifth-round picks, and New Orleans is the only team with an unsigned fourth-round pick. Of the 37 unsigned picks, 32 of them came in the first three rounds; New Orleans made only one selection in those rounds.
Some have speculated perhaps the Saints are doing so to save money -- it's a theory some agents have put forth. However, New Orleans' rookie pool for 2012 is only $2.27 million (no picks in the top two rounds, remember), so while the team would be hypothetically earning interest on that money, it will eventually have to pay its draft class between May and before camp opens in late July, the lump sum by NFL standards is negligible.
It certainly makes the Saints "outliers" in their approach to negotiating with draft picks, as one agent put it -- most teams jumped in right away and got them signed ASAP -- but then again, in this of all offseasons, I suppose we would come to expect nothing less.