General Manager Bruce Allen believes the NFL will continue to operate smoothly no matter how the salary cap is configured over the next few years
Given the complexity of the collective bargaining agreement, the pressures of escalating salaries and the firm limitations of the salary cap, NFL teams in the modern era have to head into each offseason with a very detailed plan.
And this year, the smart team will be armed with two plans.
At the beginning of March – the beginning of the 2006 league year - the NFL will embark on one of two divergent paths. The deciding factor is whether or not negotiations to extend the current CBA are completed before the new league year begins. If there is no new agreement, then 2007 looms as the first uncapped year in the NFL since 1993. If an extension is reached, then '07 will operate much like the season before it.
It is the prospect of a season without a salary cap that changes the equation. Even though 2006 will be another capped year like the last dozen, teams must take into account that possible uncapped year when they develop new contracts for players.
There has been a general optimism that the NFL, long the most stable and popular of the major sports leagues, would resolve the CBA issue well before it became a problem. Now, however, a deadline of sorts is looming, at least in terms of planning for the future, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are reacting accordingly as they eye the new season.
"There are several issues that are holding it back," said General Manager Bruce Allen of the efforts to reach a new deal. "I'm still confident that they can get it done, but they are running out of time. The deadline is the start of the  league year, because once you get into that capped year, the last capped year, I don't know if you can change the rules. You are affecting a lot of players' lives. There are going to be some very difficult decisions made, league-wide, toward the end of February if it's not extended, because of the special rules that take place in the last capped year."
At the moment, however, a general lack of movement in the negotiations is forcing the Bucs to be ready to move in two different ways.
"I think it is status quo," said Allen of the CBA negotiations. "So we have continued to develop a plan based on whether it is extended or not, so we can go in two different directions."
Even though the current CBA has "only" been in place since 1993, the thought of an uncapped season seems radical. Without that cap, hypothetically, teams could go down wildly different paths in how much they choose to spend on player personnel. A similar system in Major League Baseball has led to a landscape in which the teams with less spending power have a very difficult time remaining competitive.
Allen, however, seems relatively unconcerned about similar economic issues hurting the NFL, even with the prospect of an uncapped season. A former player agent and longtime NFL executive who is thoroughly versed in the league's economic structure, Allen has seen enough to expect the league to handle the situation well
"I don't believe [it will be difficult for the NFL to handle]," he said. "This league has been the premier sports league in this country for a number of years, and for 75 of the years, there was no salary cap. It operates very successfully because it's a great game, it's a great sport and it's not an individual-driven game. You cannot get by with one superstar player. It's different than the other sports. It's not like baseball, which is [about] individual statistics."
Still, that doesn't mean it will be easy. Allen didn't dig too deeply into the special considerations for the season before an uncapped year when he met with the press on Thursday because there are simply too many of them. As difficult as it is to be a "cap guru" in the NFL, it's apparently even more difficult when that cap is in danger of going away for a year. Most NFL executives are probably rooting for the labor issue to be resolved and a cap put in place for 2007 by March. However, they can't simply assume that outcome and risk being unprepared when the new year begins.
"We have two plans," he said. "Clearly, it makes it easier once you know what the rules are. If it is an uncapped year, there is not as much danger as you would think, for '07. It makes it important that you know the rules; once the league year starts, those are the rules that you are playing with and it's fair for everybody. We are anticipating. We are going on two different paths right now, preparing for each."
One rather straightforward difference between the two possible paths is the 2006 salary cap situation the Bucs will find themselves in. On the day the new league year begins, March 3, a new and higher cap number will be in place but all of the Bucs' 2006 salaries will also begin to count against that cap. Even though the Bucs were, by necessity, under the salary cap with their current players in 2005, escalating salaries in 2006 mean that the Bucs would be over the cap if it started today and they still had the same players. How much they are over the cap will depend on whether or not a new CBA extension is in place.
"If there is no extension of the collective bargaining agreement, we will be about $19 million over the cap," said Allen. "If there is an extension of the collective bargaining, then probably around $14 or $15 [million] over the cap."
Of course, either number represents a lot of work for Allen and his crew. As he stated on Thursday, there are only two ways to get in compliance with the salary cap if you are projected to go over: restructure contracts or release players. Obviously, the second option is less appealing, particularly in regards to the higher-salaried players who are usually a team's best players, so it is no secret that the Bucs will explore the first option thoroughly.
"You can feel confident that anybody who has one of our top 15 cap numbers will be approached," said Allen.
That's part of the plan for the 2006 season. Which plan is still to be determined.