The unexpected return of the NFL's transition tag merits a reminder that "poison pills," used occasionally to pry players from their existing teams, were eliminated in the 2011 collective bargaining agreement.
Two players, Cleveland Browns center Alex Mack and Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Jason Worilds, were tagged as transition players Monday and are eligible to sign an offer sheet with a new team. The Browns and Steelers have the right to match those offers and retain Mack and Worilds, respectively. Importantly, they won't have to worry about the impact of a poison pill that would create two sets of terms in the offer sheet.
In 2006, for example, the Seattle Seahawks were unable to match the Minnesota Vikings' offer sheet to guard Steve Hutchinson because of a poison pill that would have forced them to guarantee him $49 million while the Vikings would have guaranteed only $18.5 million. (The poison pill clause called for a higher guarantee if Hutchinson wasn't the highest-paid offensive lineman on the team, a distinction held in Seattle by left tackle Walter Jones.)
That move was legal under the previous CBA, even though then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue and other owners claimed it violated the "spirit" of free agency. The league did not address the issue formally, however, until it inserted this wording into the current CBA:
"No Offer Sheet may contain a Principal Term that would create rights or obligations for the Old Club that differ in any way (including but not limited to the amount of compensation that would be paid, the circumstances in which compensation would be guaranteed, or the circumstances in which other contractual rights would or would not vest) from the rights or obligations that such Principal Term would create for the Club extending the Offer Sheet (i.e., no 'poison pills')."
That paragraph does not prevent a team from crafting an advantageous but equal offer sheet that, for instance, front-loads a salary-cap hit in order to capitalize on another team's tight fit. In fact, that might be an advisable strategy for a team seeking to sign Worilds; at the moment the Steelers are one of two teams who are over the NFL's $133 million cap limit.
In that case, the cap hit would be the same for both teams and thus would be legal. Coming tomorrow: How a bill becomes a law.