EAGAN, Minn. — NFL players voted over the weekend by a margin of just 60 votes (1,019 in favor; 959 opposed) to a new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) through 2030.
I'm not a lawyer or financial guru, so the focus here will be laying out more of the fan-facing elements that are scheduled to go into effect in 2020 or beyond.
Some elements are steadfast and locked in; other elements are subject to change or develop over time.
What is the CBA?
The CBA is a legally binding document that is negotiated between NFL Owners and the NFL Players Association in which both parties agree on policies regarding schedules, salaries and disciplinary procedures.
The deal that was approved will go through 2030. Its approval before the current CBA expired should help avoid a lockout like the one that preceded the deal that was eventually signed to last through 2020.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell released the following statement in response:
"We are pleased that the players have voted to ratify the proposed new CBA, which will provide substantial benefits to all current and retired players, increase jobs, ensure continued progress on player safety, and give our fans more and better football. We appreciate the tireless efforts of the members of the Management Council Executive Committee and the NFLPA leadership, both of whom devoted nearly a year to detailed, good faith negotiations to reach this comprehensive, transformative agreement."
Here are five storylines regarding playoffs, scheduling, player development, roster management and discipline.
1. Did you say playoffs? More playoffs?
Yes, one of the changes that will go into effect for 2020 is an expansion of the playoffs by adding another team from the AFC and NFC, increasing the total field from 12 teams to 14.
This will be the NFL's first increase in playoff participants since 1990 when the field grew from 10 to 12.
It obviously will give more teams an opportunity to make the playoffs, but that will come at a potentially steep cost to the team in each conference that finishes with the second-best record.
The No. 1 seed in the AFC and NFC will get a bye on Wild Card weekend, and their players will be paid, which is a new change.
The No. 2 seeds, however, will no longer get byes. They will instead host the No. 7 seeds in two of the six games that will occur on Wild Card Weekend.
For example, the 2018 Vikings that finished 8-7-1 and seventh overall in the NFC would have been hosted by the 13-3 Rams in the opening round. This past season, the 9-7 Rams would have been the No. 7 and visited No. 2 Green Bay, which went 13-3. The Packers held a tiebreaker over the Saints but not against the 49ers.
What remains to be seen?
The week that I'm curious about will be Week 17 of the regular season. Will an extra playoff spot create more variables that keep playoff destinations undetermined during the final week?
The Vikings were already locked in as the No. 6 seed and opted to rest most starters in the final game of 2019. The freshness may have helped the following week against the Saints.
2. Is the regular season expanding to 17 games? Is the preseason shrinking from four to three contests?
Not for 2020, but the opportunity to do both of these things was a big part of the deal.
ESPN's Dan Graziano has a thorough recap of the CBA here in which he notes that NFL Owners have a window from 2021 to 2023 to expand the regular season from 16 to 17 games. Graziano wrote that the two sides "haven't had substantive discussions" yet about how such a change would be implemented.
What remains to be seen?
A. How would the 17th opponent be determined? Would an extra AFC-NFC game be added?
The NFL currently uses a scheduling formula that involves home-and-away games against division opponents, four games against another division within the conference and four games against a division from the opposite conference. That creates a total of 14 games. The other two opponents are from within the conference and based on teams' respective order of finish.
NFC North teams are playing the NFC South and AFC South in 2020. NFC North teams will visit NFC West teams for a second consecutive season (Minnesota is again at Seattle) and host NFC East teams (the Cowboys will visit the Vikings).
B. How would the league determine who gets nine home games in a season vs. eight? Would it rotate by conference from year to year?
Assigning a ninth home game via conference and rotating might provide the most equity, given that teams will be vying within their conference for playoff spots.
NFL.com's Judy Battista noted that the 17th game could be held at a neutral site or internationally.
C. If teams do host nine regular-season games, would they then only host one preseason game and go on the road for two?
Although the preseason and regular season are different, a format like this would continue the 10 home games and 10 road games in which a team currently participates.
D. When will we know?
The uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic is dramatically affecting multiple walks of life and causing adjustments to the NFL schedule, even in the offseason. The Annual League Meeting was scheduled for the end of this month/early April but has been canceled.
3. If the preseason is shortened, will it impact players on the bubble? How will younger players be developed?
Teams likely will just move up/expedite their evaluations of players through the offseason program and training camp.
As for developing younger players, there are a few provisions in the new CBA to increase opportunities on a team's practice squad:
A. Practice squads will increase from 10 players in 2019 to 12 for 2020 and 2021, including two players with unlimited accrued seasons. The size will increase to 14 in 2022, and that will include four players that will not max out their eligibility. Currently a player is limited to three years on a practice squad.
B. Under the new deal, teams will have the ability to elevate two players to the 53-man roster each week without a corresponding roster move, effectively providing the opportunity to increase the Active/Inactive roster to 54 or 55.
C. Teams also will be able to return a practice squad player who has been elevated back to the practice squad up to two times without that player having to clear waivers. This can help a team protect a player from getting poached by another team while accounting for short-term injuries.
D. P-squaders also will be eligible for 401(k) and tuition assistance benefits.
4. Are there other changes to roster management?
Yes, and they should also help with depth on game days.
A. Teams have been capped at 46 "active" participants out of the 53-man roster on game days, but that will be expanded to 48 under the new deal. The stipulation is that eight of the 48 players must be offensive linemen.
B. Teams have been able to designate-to-return from Injured Reserve a maximum of two players in a season, but that will increase to three under the new CBA.
5. How will league disciplinary procedures change?
There are numerous changes to the disciplinary policy, including reducing the window during which players will be tested for marijuana and a establishing a higher threshold for a positive test.
The new CBA does raise the suspension penalty for a DUI from a two-game suspension to three.
As for performance-enhancing substances, a positive test for stimulants or diuretics will remain at two games, a positive test for anabolics will be increased from four games to eight, and a positive test for manipulation and/or substitution and use of a prohibited substance will increase from six games to eight for the first violation.
A second violation while result in five games for stimulants and diuretics. A second violation of anabolics will yield a 17-game suspension.