The spin cycle on the Donovan McNabb-Redskins contract has had equal time in the past 48 hours. Headline-grabbing numbers of a $78 million contract with $40 million guaranteed drew the reaction: "Why would the Redskins do that?" Subsequent reports of only $3.5 million guaranteed changed the reaction to "Why would McNabb do that?" Both reports are technically correct, as are equally conflicting accounts of many contracts every year.
Having negotiated these deals from the team side for ten years, I know the code of how this works: teams tell the agent that the deal terms remain confidential yet fully expect the agent to call his media contact of choice to spin it most positively. The agent then incorporates those clips into his recruiting pitch. This is standard operating procedure among NFL agents, both big and small.
Agents are keenly aware of the limited news cycle that contract numbers have. The vast majority of people hearing about McNabb's deal heard the splashy numbers on Monday Night Football, and will not drill down to see the real deal. Well played by McNabb agent Fletcher Smith.
The truth is that McNabb’s contract does have “outs” along the way, yet that is true of virtually every deal done in this uncertain year. For instance, Elvis Dumervil of the Broncos signed a deal with $43 million guaranteed earlier this offseason, yet the Broncos can get out of that deal no new money to Dumervil, who is now out for the season with an injury. Will the Broncos release Dumervil before next year? No. Will the Redskins release McNabb before next year? No.
Let’s take a closer look inside the McNabb numbers, with compensation listed for each season:
2010: $3.5 million
McNabb receives a $3.5 million signing bonus in addition to existing amounts for this year.
2011: $13.5 million
The Redskins owe a $10 million option bonus in the first days of the 2011 League Year, whenever that may be, an offseason workout bonus of $250,000, a $2.5 million salary and a potential $750,000 in 45-man active roster bonuses. If the option is not exercised, McNabb will be a free agent having with a $3.5 million parting gift.
2012: $13.25 million
McNabb has a $12.25 million salary, $250,000 workout bonus and a potential $750,000 in active roster bonuses. If McNabb is on the roster as of April 1, 2012, $6.25 million of the salary becomes guaranteed for skill.
2013: $14.75 million
McNabb has a $13 million salary, $250,000 workout bonus and potential $1.5 million in 45-man active roster bonuses.
I place little value to contracts beyond their first three years, assuming no guaranteed money left, but here is the remainder of the contract extension:
Salary 45-man roster bonus Workout bonus
2014 $13.75 million $3 million $250,000
2015 $13.5 million $2.25 million $250,000
The final years bring the total amount to $78 million. There are also $10 million of potential bonuses and playoff incentives.
McNabb’s salary is reduced by $750,000 in each subsequent year following a year in which the Redskins do not win at least eight games, starting next season. This is a potential loss of $3.75 million to McNabb.
The total value is a number with little meaning compared to the year-by-year value over the first three new years:
One year: $17 million
Two year: $30.25 million
Three year: $45 million
Taking that $15 million average over three new years – more realistic than the $15.76 average of the five new years – this is where McNabb places among average salary for some of the top veteran quarterbacks (in millions).
Tom Brady 18
Eli Manning 16.25
Carson Palmer 15.9
Phillip Rivers 15.3
Peyton Manning 14
Brett Favre 14
Aaron Rodgers 12.25
There is close to $34 million in total injury guaranteed money, payable only if unable to play in a subsequent season(s) due to an on-field injury. Injury guarantee payouts are rare.
The only skill guarantee -- payment if released for any reason beyond injury -- is $6.25 million in 2012 if McNabb is on the roster as of April 1 of that year. For a young, ascending player, the lack of skill guarantees would not be as much a concern, but for a player turning 34, the deal is light in guaranteed money.
Positives for the Redskins
They bring their starting quarterback under contract for as long as they want him or can trade him with years remaining on his contract. They limit their exposure on the skill guarantee for a 34 year-old player to $6.25 million, and only if McNabb is on the roster in 2012, and avoid a funding requirement for future guaranteed money with the NFL. They have limited risk following this year’s $3.5 million upgrade. They negotiated some further risk protection with a de-escalator clause of $750,000 for each year McNabb playes and has a losing record. They retain their Franchise tag in approaching an uncertain labor environment next year.
Positives for McNabb
This was a deal McNabb had to take, despite the limited skill guarantee. Although the Redskins can release him prior to next year – which they won’t – he will be in the same place he would have been without the deal, a free agent with $3.5 million in his pocket for his trouble.
In the event the Redskins release or trade him after 2011, he will have made $17 million, a figure that exceeding the expected Franchise tag of $16 million for quarterbacks. In the event the Redskins release or trade him after two new years, he will have made $31 million. Could McNabb have expected to make $30 million over the next two years in free agency? Or $45 million over the next three years? That may have been difficult.
As with every story with two sides, the truth lies somewhere in between. This deal is living proof.
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