Recently, Robert Klemko of The MMQB.com wrote an article in which he defended Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor and his decision to hold out into the 2015 season. Doug Farrar of SI.com provides the following counterpoint to that point of view.
After the Seahawks took an agonizing last-second loss in Super Bowl XLIX to the Patriots, certain numbers popped up on the team's landscape that were far larger than that 28-24 final score. Two of Seattle's primary defensive stars, safety Kam Chancellor and defensive lineman Michael Bennett, made it clear that in their minds, they were each underpaid commensurate to their talents, their effect on Seattle's top-ranked defense and in comparison to other players at their positions in the NFL.
Chancellor signed a five-year, $29.323 million contract extension with $17 million guaranteed in April, 2013, and Bennett signed a four-year, $32 million contract extension with $16 million guaranteed in March of 2014. Both made it clear that they wanted more going forward.
Chancellor and Bennett have a few things in common. They're unique players who have taken turns playing their best games in Seattle's back-to-back Super Bowl appearances. Chancellor should have been the Most Valuable Player in Seattle's 43-8 demolition of the Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII, and Bennett was literally unblockable in the Patriots' game—New England offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo told me a few days before the Super Bowl that Bennett reminded him of Reggie White in his ability to play end and tackle at an insanely high rate (yes, that made me raise my eyebrows), and that his staff was at its wits' end when it came to how to deal with Bennett.
That played out precisely in the game. Chancellor and Bennett came out of college as relatively unheralded players, Bennett as an undrafted free agent out of Texas A&M in 2009, and Chancellor as a fifth-round safety/linebacker hybrid from Virginia Tech in 2010.
Where the two men obviously differ is in their approaches to their contract schisms. While Chancellor is in the midst of a holdout that has gone through training camp and into Week 2 of the season and has cost him over $2 million in accrued fines and missed game checks, Bennett dropped his dissatisfaction at the door, reported for training camp, and has played like an absolute beast ever since. There has been no dropoff from the two straight seasons that made him one of the most unique and valuable defensive linemen in the league. As for Chancellor, we can only guess what he'd look like on the field, and that particular holdout looks to last a while. Chancellor will have to report before Week 10 (if he doesn't, he'll lose an accrued season) but there's no concept on the team's part what kind of football shape he'll be in, and how quickly he'll be able to help the club.
The two players' effects on the Seahawks' 34-31 overtime loss to the Rams in Week 1 of the new season were fascinatingly different. Bennett was the most impactful defensive player Seattle had, and Chancellor was sorely missed against a Rams passing game that had no qualms about throwing the ball over the middle with the kind of crossing routes Chancellor usually blows up and inhibits. Chancellor has drawn the ire of most Seahawks fans with his holdout, while Bennett doesn't get nearly enough credit for his ability to compartmentalize his unhappiness and do what he does best on the field.
This is where I disagree with Robert Klemko, my esteemed colleague at The MMQB, who recently wrote a well-reasoned piece in which he stood up on Chancellor's side. Let me make a few things clear: I understand what Chancellor is doing, and I agree with Klemko that the structure of the standard NFL contract is onerous overall. Generally speaking, I'll side with the athlete when it comes to player-versus-team dynamics. But in this case, I don't believe that Chancellor is doing himself any good. In fact, he's playing chicken with his own career, while Bennett has become a standard-bearer for the younger players on his team.
According to one NFL Network report, Chancellor wants to be paid extra in part for the leadership he provides. And there's no question that on the field and in the locker room, he sets the tone for the team as much as anyone not named Marshawn Lynch. But in the NFL, you're never paid for what you've done; you're always paid for what a team thinks you can do in the future.
And that's why Bennett's strategy is the right one.
"At the end of the day, my situation is different than his," Bennett said Thursday. "I’ve got three kids, I’ve got a wife. My wife wouldn’t let me hold out, so I had to come to work. His situation’s different from mine. I respect what he’s doing, he respects what I’m doing too. I just come back and try to work as hard as I can and show the team the type of leader I am and the type of person I am, and what I’m willing to do and how far I’m willing to go playing in the games.”
And that's the fundamental difference. While the Seahawks were struggling with second-year man Dion Bailey in Chancellor's place against the Rams. Bennett, who has been mentoring younger players like second-round rookie end Frank Clark, was the best defensive player on the field against St. Louis. He had a sack and three quarterback hurries, and he was a consistent pass-rusher and run-stopper at the end and tackle positions.
“Yeah, I’m glad you brought that up," Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll told me mid-week, when I asked him about how Bennett is handling his concerns differently. "Mike has had a great camp, and he has been focused and just as serious as you can get to bring his best to this team. And you’re right, he has worked with young guys, and he has tried to pass on the message. We have very few older players in the program that have been around. Mike is one that has at least been to some different clubs, a lot of our guys have only been here and they don’t know anything different than that. He’s tried to share his experiences regularly, and it has always shown how much he cares, and then he played well too, and he’s practiced well, and he’s done everything. So I’m thrilled with how Mike has applied himself to his team and his work. He’s done great.”
Conventional wisdom would say that Bennett is also putting himself at risk for injury by playing through this contract issue, but just as there's no guarantee that Bennett will get hurt this season or next, there's no guarantee that Chancellor wouldn't get hurt if he returned not only in sub-optimal football shape, but also with an atrophied understanding of his role in a Seattle defense that is all about moving quickly, tackling intensely, and flowing to the ball.
It's no surprise, by the way, that Bennett is doing so well this year. He's been one of the most disruptive defensive linemen in the league over the last three seasons. And as Carroll said, he's done it with two different teams. Bennett was actually released by a previous Seahawks regime before signing with the Buccaneers in 2009. He worked his way up from a rotational role over the next few seasons and became a full-time starter in Tampa Bay in 2012. That season, he amassed nine sacks, 14 quarterback hits and 48 hurries. When the Seahawks brought him back as a free agent signing before the 2013 season, he'd already established himself as a productive and versatile player who could excel in any 4-3 defense.
Chancellor, on the other hand, is very much a product of his current system. At Virginia Tech, he wasn't really known as a coverage player. He had played some free safety in college, but he was far more a strong safety and hybrid rover linebacker. Eventually, in Carroll's schemes, he became the type of player who could fill more roles, but it happened under the watch of his current team. There's no guarantee that he would be able to serve such an expansive role without the coaching he's had, in his only NFL location.
There's also the matter of compensation tied to overall positional excellence. In 2014, Bennett tied with Carolina's Charles Johnson for the most total pressures among all 4-3 defensive ends with 72. But he was the 12th highest-paid at his position in average total contract value per year ($7.1 million, per OverTheCap.com), while Johnson's current contract has an average total value per year of $12.6 million. Johnson's guaranteed money in his current six-year, $76 million contract is $32 million, the total value of Bennett's entire deal.
Chancellor is the eighth highest-paid safety in the league in terms of total contract value per year ($7 million), and while he has been the best strong safety in the league over the last couple of years, he's not paid outlandishly less for that specific role than others in the league. Most of the highest-paid safeties are free safeties because they can patrol the deep third of the field and allow guys like Chancellor to do what they do in the intermediate areas. Earl Thomas is Chancellor's teammate and the best center-field safety in the NFL and he's paid accordingly, with a five-year, $44.7 million contract with $27.7 million guaranteed. When you factor in what's around him and how he developed specifically in this system, Chancellor's argument becomes weaker.
The final pull of reality against Chancellor's argument is pretty simple: teams don't usually bend to holdouts. Not because they don't want to, but because they can't. Carroll and general manager John Schneider have said all along that they have to keep every player's demands within the structure of the overall salary cap, and that's the way it is. When I asked former NFL general manager and current ESPN analyst Bill Polian what he would do if Chancellor was his player (and how he handled holdouts when he was in the NFL), the answer was easy.
"We did exactly what John Schneider is doing," he said. "You can't acquiesce to a holdout, because if you acquiesce to one, you'll have 50. The bottom line is, it has to get done in a way that is satisfactory to the club, and you don't acquiesce to a holdout. No matter who the player may be. Now, sooner or later, these things have a way of getting done, and you've got to keep the lines of communication open. John's doing that, and sooner or later, it'll get settled. But you've got to do it on your terms."
Does Chancellor have a point? Perhaps. Is there a realistic way for the Seahawks to manage it? Most likely not. Chancellor is a 27-year-old player who has played through multiple injuries at a position where players are generally out of the league in their early thirties ... and those are the old-timers.
Is it cruel that Chancellor has given so much of himself only to find a diminishing window? Unquestionably. But this is the reality of the current NFL. Is it unfair that the same teams who cry "Foul!" at holdouts and then release players all the time before their contracts are up? Absolutely. But again, this is the reality of the current NFL. Chancellor clearly has an issue with the current NFL contract structure, and that's totally understandable, but players who are fungible to any degree who do what he is doing don't generally get rewarded.
Guys like Bennett who go on faith and understand that the truly limited window is the one you have to be great at this game, are the ones who understand how the system works, as counter-intuitive as that may sound.
The NFL is a compressed money-and glory grab, and you have to get as much of both as you possibly can while you have the opportunity. You can't stop the merry-go-round and ask the world to review your unfair situation when it really isn't unfair. Chancellor isn't Curt Flood. He isn't sacrificing his career for the elimination of the reserve clause. He's a great player who has been compensated relatively fairly within a contractual structure that has its limitations and weaknesses, and the extent to which he's disgruntled about that fact is relatively irrelevant in the grand scheme of things.
Michael Bennett, on the other hand, is doing his job.