The Debate: Player Contracts I
Note to readers: this column is Favre-free.
The issue of unhappy players in the offseason – with the source of their unhappiness usually being money -- has become a hot-button topic lately. As I’ve written in the past, the NFL offseason tends to be "me" time before the official "we" time starts during training camp in August. My colleague Matt Bowen and I thought we would debate this sticky subject from our respective viewpoints – mine in the front office (with the disclosure that I’m presently consulting for the Eagles) and Matt's as a former player. Here are a couple of the basic issues:
Every player making the argument that his contract should be augmented strongly believes he deserves this special treatment, as does every agent working for them. They all have their arguments laid out explaining why their specific cases are unique and require a response from the team.
From a team perspective, though, it’s never about just that player. Every team executive knows -- as does every player -- that however the team reacts to these situations, players and agents will take notice. Everything is duly noted in the ultimate “keeping up with the Joneses” atmosphere of an NFL locker room.
If a team ripped up an existing contract with multiple years remaining, how would the team's top players with one year remaining react? If a team adjusted a player's contract after the player whined to the team and the media, what would be the reaction of players who kept their discontent quiet? The answer to both is that there would be a line at the front-office door demanding new contracts.
It’s never about just one player; the whole locker room is watching.
The Sanctity of Contracts
I’ve heard the argument, "Well, the team can cut me," many times when it comes to players wanting out of signed contracts. Well, yes, the team can release any player it wants and, in most cases, without the consequences felt in Major League Baseball and the NBA of future guaranteed money (although some players have been released with guaranteed money due, such as John Beck of the Dolphins last week).
There a couple flaws with this argument. First, a team may not want to cut the player; a team may just want to lower his contract to move money to other parts of the team. When I first got to Green Bay, I had to approach several Packers Hall of Fame players and request reductions -- Leroy Butler, Dorsey Levens, Antonio Freeman, Santana Dotson, Gilbert Brown, Antonio Freeman, Robert Brooks and others. It was certainly not easy. Yes, a team can cut a player, but that’s not always in its best interests.
Further, the fact that a team can cut a player without future liability is not an issue the player should have with his team; rather, it’s an issue the player should have with his union or his agent. The NFL system of compensation is heavily weighted toward bonus compensation rather than guaranteed salaries (although that’s changing a bit). If players want to change that system, it’s a subject to be addressed with the rest of the topics teed up for collective bargaining.
“I’ve Outplayed My Contract”
Haven’t we all? Sure, there are many situations around the league when, viewed in a vacuum, a contract appears to be inequitable. Often, however, that snapshot doesn’t take into account things such as the following: the amount of bonus money received by the player earlier in the contract, the player’s happiness upon signing the contract, the risk the team took in rewarding that player early in his career, the chance that the player could have been injured or replaced soon after receiving all the bonus money he received.
True, the Cap has gone up significantly. And yes, deals done in 2005 and 2006 do not look favorable compared to deals done in 2008 and 2009. That fact, however, should not cause history to be rewritten. When a player enters into a long-term agreement with a team and reaps the benefits of such financial security, there is never – to my knowledge – a companion discussion with the player and/or the agent that the contract will be adjusted for the change in the marketplace and the Cap. Were that the case, teams would only do short-term deals with much smaller signing bonuses, taking away the financial security that players crave.
When I was dealing with Javon Walker and his desire for a new contract with two years remaining on his rookie contract, he and agent Drew Rosenhaus kept pointing to a player who was Javon’s close friend and Drew’s client, a player whose team had just rewarded him with two years remaining on his contract -- a player who was deliriously happy now that he had financial security and was treated with respect by his team. The player? Anquan Boldin. How things have changed.
The frustrating thing for teams now is that players feel emboldened to act out in the offseason with public requests to have their contracts adjusted or, in the event of the team’s refusal, to be traded (to a team that would, as the theory goes, adjust their contract). It’s a strategy that has “worked” for players such as Clinton Portis and Javon Walker, although it has failed for the vast majority who have tried it.
I’m not sure how we got here. We’re now at a place where it’s news when a top player with years remaining on a contract does not request a contract adjustment. That should not be newsworthy.
Every contract is a bet -- a bet by the team and a bet by the player. That player may turn into a superstar; he may also suffer serious injury or turn into a dud. Those are the risks taken by each side. I remember going to a player in Green Bay, Robert Ferguson, and negotiating a long-term deal early in his career. The ink was not even dry when the media suggested that he would be unhappy with the deal in a couple of years. And, in a couple of years, he was released from the Packers, a player who never lived up to his potential. We had made a bad bet.
I understand players’ feelings when the market passes them by. It’s human nature. No one is immune to what’s going on around us. Sometimes, however, we have to live with our decisions, good or bad, especially from the team side, with dozens of players watching and waiting to see what the team does.
I’ve been on both sides of this. It’s a tricky issue, one that – even more so than the rookie salary issue – must be addressed in the near future.