Precedence Important For Teams During NFL's Crying Season

It’s the crying season in the National Football League. Players upset that contracts to which they agreed in the recent past are now outdated are posturing, protesting, or withholding services in search of more money. No NFL team is immune to this, and none should delude itself into thinking it is. It is predictable with human nature that these complications arise. The free-agent market raised the bar at the top of the pay scale for each position and created long-term ramifications for players watching the marketplace race past the contracts they signed. Moreover, the attention given to the contracts of top draft choices who have yet to play a down in the NFL further fans the flames of players who think they are underpaid. To these players, highly competitive on the field and off, the equation is simple: “Player X got paid this. I am as good or better than Player X. Therefore, I deserve that or more.” The fact that the complainer has remaining years on his contract has little bearing in his mind. Whispering crew Even for the player with strong inner peace about his own worth, at the first news of a large contract extension for a similar player, there is often a cavalcade (his agent, competing agents, teammates, friends, family, media) whispering that he is underpaid and deserves more. He may even feel his contract is inherently fair, but constant banter from others takes its toll. It is difficult to underestimate the effect of the whispering crew. While at the Packers, I always braced myself for the week after the Pro Bowl, when I routinely heard from agents and players about perceived salary inequities. There are different kinds of private or public stands that a player can make to ratchet up the stakes with a team. Most players and their agents choose to handle the issue, at least initially, privately with the team. There are those situations, however, that become public and wear on the team. Two that stand out are Terrell Owens with the Eagles a few years ago and Chad Johnson with the Bengals this year. Due to the flamboyant nature of certain players (wide receivers as the Hollywood divas of the NFL), their public demands for new contracts become much-needed fodder for offseason coverage. The NFL is the only major sport whose offseason is longer than its season. Thus, stories such as these in May, June, and July are godsends to hungry NFL media. Leveraging assets What leverage does a player have under an existing contract? In many ways, that is dependent on how his team responds. A player’s perceived leverage may be to hold out of organized team activities, voluntary offseason events, or even mandatory offseason activities such as minicamp. He may even threaten to hold out of training camp. As to fines for missed mandatory minicamp ($8,000) or daily fines ($15,000) for missing training camp, the amounts are minuscule compared with the potential bounty of a new contract. Johnson, who had said he would retire rather than play for the Bengals, has changed his tune. Players are further emboldened due to recent arbitrations involving Ashley Lelie and Michael Vick that make forfeiture of previously received bonus money difficult for teams to recover. The player’s objective is to generate angst among management that eventually may lead to action. The greater the swirl of discussion the player can create internally (coaches buzzing how much they need the player, teammates supporting the player getting what he can, management feeling some real or imagined pressure), the closer he is to his objective. Once the team steps out and takes a stand, however, the player’s goal of creating tension that leads to action dissipates. Case in point: Earlier this offseason, Johnson said that he would retire rather than continue playing for the Bengals. Coach Marvin Lewis responded by wishing Johnson luck in his retirement. Johnson recently conceded he will be back playing with the Bengals. End of story. Resonating message The team’s response is important in ways far beyond the specific player, as the message resonates within the locker room on how the team deals with the issue. If a team rewards a player who has expressed public or even private dissatisfaction, his teammates will take note. In contrast, if the team takes a stand that it will not rework the contract of one of its best players, the rest of the players know to be careful about how they handle these situations. Every player can make a case why he should be treated differently, but the most compelling argument a team can make is existing precedent. The crying season is in full swing and will continue through training camp. Some players will be rewarded with new contracts, others will be stonewalled and some will reach a compromise. With the market changing drastically due to free agency, a rising (and perhaps disappearing) salary cap, and lush numbers given to players at the top of the draft, this by-product of unhappy players is becoming an annual rite of spring and summer in the NFL. Come September, however, it will be a shock if any of these players is not playing. Still crying perhaps, but playing nonetheless.