Something has bothered me about the stalled NFL labor talks for months.
The problem became crystal clear when full details of the NFL owners' last offer were revealed last Friday. Before the NFL Players Association decertified last Friday afternoon, owners increased their offer from $131 million in player costs in 2011 to $141 million, with hopes of getting a negotiating extension.
Although that was a move in the right direction and was a solid counter to the trade association's $151 million position, the number doesn't work. Because benefits count for $27 million of the $141 million offer, the salary cap number came to $114 million.
In that case, the salary cap would be a salary choke.
A pre-2008 salary cap simply doesn't work with 2011 salaries.
Low-revenue teams have complained about the $7 million yearly growth of the cap since 2006, which is one of the reasons low-revenue owners joined others in opting out of the collective bargaining agreement in 2008. The cap went from $109 million in 2007 to $116 million in 2008 to $123 million in 2009. The 2009 number was so high that NFL teams as a whole were $163 million below it -- roughly $5 million of cap room per team.
Owners can try to roll back the cap, but rolling back the increasing price of signing starters is impossible. It's especially impossible this year, as there are 450 unsigned free agents. At the same time owners were pushing for a lower cap, they were trying to re-sign starters at the higher numbers. Richard Seymour of the Raiders got $15 million a year. Champ Bailey of the Broncos got $10.75 million. A.J. Hawk of the Packers received $6.75 million.
What used to be $5 million deals are going for $10 million. To make it work in 2011 dollars, teams can't take the cap too far backward.
Just to keep franchise players, a dozen teams tendered players at more than $10 million salaries for 2011. In 2007, when the cap was $109 million, there were only 10 $10 million-plus players league-wide. There were 16 in 2008.
That number has already doubled heading into the 2011 season. I know the average value of the contract doesn't reflect the yearly cap number because the first-year cap numbers are usually the lowest, but you simply can't squeeze too many $10 million-a-year contracts into lower caps.
The cap reality of these talks does offer hope of a settlement soon. No owner wants to get into a long-term bargaining agreement that is troubled from the start. Redskins owner Dan Snyder wrote $36 million worth of checks to Albert Haynesworth and DeAngelo Hall last season to "free up'' cap room for the future. He didn't take $36 million out of potential profit to agree to a salary cap that would prohibit him from signing top free agents.
Salary caps need space to breathe. Starting the cap too low would force established veteran teams to release players and only be able to sign replacements for close to the minimum salary. It would force teams to guarantee high-priced contracts, turning base salaries into pro-rated signing bonuses to lower the cap numbers. Teams haven't had to do that for years because the cap has been so high that teams have had plenty of room to operate.
One of the reasons I was optimistic about a deal between the owners and the association has been the focus on the cap number itself. In "All The President's Men," the theme was "follow the money.'' Follow the cap and follow the payrolls of teams in these talks and you'll learn a lot.
Owners didn't have a cap last year, but payrolls still rose about 6 percent to around $125.5 million per team. The plan was to save money by not having a minimum requirement for team payrolls. Plenty of teams saved, but the price of starters keeps rising because of the competitive nature of this sport.
Starting quarterbacks now go for $14 million-plus. Top defensive ends go for $10 million to $14 million. Top guards are $8 million a year and tackles go for $10 million or more. The franchise numbers alone tell you where salaries are headed.
The numbers haven't been totally crunched for 2010, but starters in general are making more than $3.4 million a year. Because of injuries, teams have to plan for not just a 53-man roster but have to figure to have 65 players or more on their cap by the end of the season as attrition alters their rosters.
I look at winning teams, such as the Indianapolis Colts, New York Giants, New York Jets and others that have 10 to 12 starters making $5 million a year or more, and realize they can't start deals with a salary cap too low.
Under those realities, the owners' last offer of a $114 million salary cap can only be viewed as a counter offer, not a final offer. For further proof, go back to the league's comments for the past week that owners agreed to the players' request for a $161 million player cost number in 2014. With the $27 million of benefits included in that concept, the 2014 cap would be around $134 million, only $4 million more than what was supposed to be the cap number in 2010.
The 2011 cap can't be too much lower than $120 million for teams to be able to function competitively. Teams that budget their money well would be required to spend only 90 percent of that cap.
That's why I think both sides will reach out to each other before the April 6 hearing date on the Tom Brady case to try to work out the final numbers. Players are asking for a cap in the $124 range. That's not unfair, but if the owners come to the middle and go for $119 million, it might promote a deal.
What won't work is going back to $114 million, but that is easy enough for everyone to see.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.