- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 2, 2006

Fortunately for the Redskins, Joe Gibbs has some experience coaching replacement players. It might come in handy if the NFL’s dealings with the players association get unnecessarily rough. In fact, Dan Snyder is probably on the phone with Keanu Reeves right now, trying to sign him to play quarterback.

Hey, why not? Keanu’s a lefty, just like Mark Brunell. Who’d be able to tell the difference?

There’s a potential problem, though: The Washington Sentinels might still own his rights.

There are any number of reasons why, after 18 years of labor peace, the league has gotten to this point. Greed, shortsightedness, stupidity, fuzzy memories — all the usual suspects. And here’s another possibility: Gene Upshaw might be trying to prove to the world that he does, indeed, have chest hair.

The NFLPA head has been criticized from time to time — usually by someone outside the league — for being too conciliatory toward the owners. According to these hard-liners, you’re not a Real Union Boss unless you go on strike every few years … and threaten the sport with: “Now playing quarterback for the Redskins, Ed Rubbert.”

One of Upshaw’s more vocal critics has been Marvin Miller, the crotchety former chief of the baseball union. In Miller’s warped mind, the NFLPA’s leaders have “failed their membership abysmally,” forced them to work for “crumbs.”

The current definition of crumbs, of course, is somewhere between $95million and $96million. That’s the projected salary cap for the ‘06 season. It’s also, I’ll just point out, nearly twice much as the Washington Nationals will spend on players this year.

For the NFL, this is the Golden Era; pro football has at least a three-touchdown lead over any other sport, and the margin is only increasing. The NFL Network, remember, is still in its infancy. A decade from now, it could be the Cable Channel That Ate Television.

Upshaw has been careful not to impede this unprecedented growth. He presided over the strike in ‘87, the one that inspired “The Replacements” (and Reeves as QB Shane Falco), but he was intelligent enough to realize that an Us vs. Them mentality is bad for both sides, that the players and owners are better off trying to work together. And so the NFLPA became the first sports union to accept drug testing and then the first to agree to a salary cap.

But Upshaw is only human. You get accused of being “soft” often enough and, well, the football player in you comes out. (And Gene wasn’t just any player; he was an Oakland Raider, a teammate of Jack “They Call Me Assassin” Tatum and Skip “Dr. Death” Thomas.) Then, too, maybe some of his constituents are growing restless — and would prefer a tad more contention in the bargaining process and a tad less back slapping.

If so, Upshaw has given it to them. His stance this time has been much more rigid, and, sure enough, talks broke off Tuesday with the parties still significantly apart, the players reportedly asking for 60 percent of revenues and the owners offering 56.2. Barring the intervention of Jimmy Carter, the NFL appears headed for some unpleasant times. Because the CBA hasn’t been extended, rules will go into effect that will make it harder for clubs to redo contracts and get under the cap. And one of those clubs — horrors — is the Redskins.

By 4 o’clock today, when cuts have to be made so the free agent sell-a-thon can begin, the Snydermen could be a significantly depleted team. Which might explain why Gibbs was so willing to turn his attention to personnel matters — and away from the offense — after the season ended. Ironically, the Redskins are one of few organizations Upshaw hasn’t had any gripes with; he’s gone out of his way to commend Snyder for his willingness to spend (and overspend).

And now Dan might have to go on an austerity budget — at least until 2007, when the cap is eliminated and the All For One League becomes the Every Man For Himself League. How can that be in the players’ best interests?

Logic tells you the owners and the union will work something out between now and Armageddon, but logic doesn’t always have a seat at the negotiating table. Upshaw atypically, is being very uncon-Gene-ial, and the league, all too typically, isn’t blinking. This could be a real steel-cage match, folks, one that leaves both sides clinging to the ropes and waiting for Morgan Freeman to arrive with the water bottle.

No matter what happens, though, rest assured the NFL will survive. It did in ‘74 and ‘82 and ‘87, and it will in ‘06. Besides, as Shane Falco says in “The Replacements,” “Chicks dig scars.”

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