Brees nearing possible point of no return


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Jan 22, 2006
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Brees nearing possible point of no return

If no long-term deal, free agency looming

By Kevin Acee

February 18, 2006

Should the impasse between the Chargers and quarterback Drew Brees continue through next week, it appears Brees will be allowed to test the free-agent market and perhaps walk away without the team having any say or receiving any compensation.

Asked what will happen if the Chargers and Brees do not reach an agreement on a long-term contract by Thursday, General Manager A.J. Smith said yesterday, “I think, looking at it, (the team would say) 'Well, it didn't work out.' ”

The impetus behind the Chargers' leaning is their concern about a little-known proviso in the NFL's Collective Bargaining Agreement that would guarantee Brees' 2006 salary if he were named a transition player.

Smith yesterday ruled out designating Brees as the team's franchise player.

And fearful the Chargers would lose a hearing on the CBA clause in question and that Brees would be guaranteed almost $10 million, Smith also indicated the team will not make Brees its transition player.

“It's a gray area,” Smith said of the clause. “Do you test it? Do you want to go to a hearing? Or do you, because it's so cloudy, pass on it?”

As if to answer, Smith pointed to his reputation for not conducting business without an accepted level of certainty.

“I don't like anything that's cloudy,” he said. “Black and white, that's how I like to operate.”

A hearing before NFL Special Master Stephen Burbank would not take place until after the Thursday deadline for teams to designate franchise or transition players.

Brees, who just finished his fifth NFL season, is to become a free agent March 3. The Chargers and his agent have been talking about a long-term deal for almost two weeks.

Given the Chargers' reluctance to guarantee Brees' contract for 2006, negotiations are evidently dragging because of the team's proposal of an incentive-laden deal.

The franchise and transition tags are ways for teams to stave off a player's pending free agency by offering him a one-year contract. The player is allowed to negotiate with other suitors on a long-term deal, but the original team has the right to match any contract offer. In the case of franchise players, the original team would receive two first-round draft picks if it decided not to match another team's offer.

The one-year contract the original team offers the player must be for the average of the top five (franchise) or top 10 (transition) salaries at the player's position the previous year or 120 percent of his previous year's salary, whichever is higher.

The average salary of the 10 highest-paid quarterbacks in 2005 was $8.3 million.

But because Brees' 2005 salary ($8.08 million) as a franchise player was so high, he would be paid 120 percent of that as a transition player in 2006. That's $9.696 million, a price the Chargers deem too steep to guarantee a quarterback with a shoulder of unknown strength.

Unlike the one-year salary of a franchise player, the one-year salary for a transition player is not usually guaranteed. But a few sentences in the 263-page CBA indicate that Brees' 2006 salary would be guaranteed even as a transition player.

Article XX, Section 14 of the CBA reads in part, “ . . . the Required Tenders of a one year Player Contract for at least 120% of the Franchise Player's or Transition Player's Prior Year Salaries shall in addition to the 120% Salary also include all other terms of the player's Prior Year contract, including any guarantees . . . ”

The Chargers contend the meaning of the section is debatable, but Smith conceded it indicates that in Brees' case the transition and franchise tags are essentially the same.

While the Chargers seemed willing and fiscally able to franchise or transition Brees before his being injured in the season finale, the team now has concerns about Brees' health after he needed surgery last month to repair a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder. Brees is expected to be ready to participate in training camp, but it is not certain when his arm will return to full strength.

Brees made the Pro Bowl after the 2004 season and would have played in the all-star game this year if not for his injury. While replacing him would be difficult, if not immediately impossible, the Chargers are in the enviable position of having a former top-five draft pick as their backup quarterback and a former starter as their No. 3 QB.

Philip Rivers, acquired via trade with the New York Giants in 2004 after being drafted fourth overall, is waiting. And the team just this week signed A.J. Feeley, who has started 10 career games, to a two-year contract.

After checking with a member of the NFL Management Council, a league spokesman confirmed yesterday that Brees' salary as a transition player this year would be guaranteed.

Mark Levin, the NFL Players Association's director of salary cap and agent administration, said the union's position would likely be that Brees' salary would be guaranteed as a transition player.

The franchise/transition question would be moot if the two sides agree on a long-term deal. The Chargers sent Brees' agent, Tom Condon, an initial proposal Feb. 6 and the sides spoke as recently as yesterday.

“I won't comment on that except to say there have been conversations,” Smith said.

Even though Smith referred to Thursday as a deadline, the Chargers and Brees technically would have until the March 3 opening of the free-agency period to come to terms on a long-term deal. (Even that deadline could change, however, if the start of the free-agency period is pushed back to allow the union and management more time to agree on a new CBA.)

If no deal is reached, whenever free agency starts, Brees would hit the market and would almost certainly be lost forever.
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