Shaun Phillips led the Broncos with 10 sacks during the regular season. (Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
JERSEY CITY, N.J. -- Since his rookie deal expired after 2006, Shaun Phillips has earned two additional NFL contracts. The first, worth $31 million, kept him in San Diego for six seasons. The second, paying him a mere $1 million, was enough to get him to leave.
The Broncos made Phillips that clearance-sale offer, which came with a promise that he would see extended playing time and have an opportunity to start. San Diego made no such guarantees, instead hoping to retain Phillips as a rotational backup. So even though, as Phillips says, the Chargers brought more dough to the negotiating table, the 32-year-old jumped ship prior to the 2012 season.
"In my mind, I was still a starter in this league," Phillips said at Tuesday's Media Day. "Denver, when they brought me in really told me how they wanted me to play in this defense, showed me their scheme and they were really excited to have me."
His story is surprisingly familiar among the two Super Bowl combatants. Phillips' defensive linemate, Terrance Knighton, also signed with Denver prior to 2013 at a $1 million base salary -- and just $4.5 million over two years. Meanwhile, Seattle snagged Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril for a combined base salary of $4.5 million and a cap hit approximately $4 million steeper.
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Knighton may turn out to be the biggest steal of all. Reunited with former Jacksonville head coach and current Denver defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, he has more than repaid the money committed to him by anchoring the Broncos' line all year. He has been even more effective in the playoffs, as Denver downed San Diego and New England.
On each side of the ledger, the prospect of playing this week was an obvious draw. Phillips enjoyed five postseason appearances with the Chargers but never made a Super Bowl; Avril, Bennett and Knighton had one playoff game between them (a loss for Avril while with the Lions).
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And Bennett believes that his path -- rolling the dice on a one-year bargain of a contract in exchange for a shot at a ring -- could serve as a precedent for others hitting free agency in the future.
"I think so because winning feels a lot better," he said. "Everybody says money, money, money, but when it's cold outside and you're not winning, it's miserable. This has been one of the best experiences of my life, being with a winning organization."
Bennett is on course to hit free agency again after this season ends, and he has put himself in position to earn far more than what he raked in last summer. Same goes for Phillips, though they could end up staying given their 2013 performances.
"Of course, you play this game to win football games but you also want to make a lot of money so you can support your family," Phillips said. "So it's in the back of your mind."
No matter what happens in the coming months, the results delivered by Avril and Bennett in Seattle and Knighton and Phillips in Denver underscore why their teams will meet in Super Bowl XLVIII. Though reaching the NFL's ultimate height requires a great deal of good fortune, those franchises that do make the Super Bowl often do so on the strength of moves that initially fly under the radar.
Such was the case with Phillips, whom many people (including some in San Diego's front office, apparently) believed was close to being washed up.
"What sold me [on the Broncos] is the fact that they wanted me here, they expected me to come here and play right away," Phillips said. "I just wanted to be able to play and be in a defense that I liked."
Avril was a bit of an outlier amongst this group. The ex-Lion turned down a reported three-year, $30 million offer from Detroit prior to the 2012 season in hopes of hitting free agency. Once there, though, the market cooled more than Avril could have anticipated. He jumped at the two-year, $15 million offer from Seattle, a deal that will become far less cap-friendly in 2014 when he's owed more than $9 million.
"Free agency was stressful," Avril said. "Coach Carroll, I felt like he wanted me here and the situation we had ... [was] really good already, [it just] needed a pass-rusher.
"Once you narrow down the teams, you just [try to find one] that fits your scheme, fits the way you play."
There's the buzzword for the Broncos and Seahawks' defensive lines: fit.
Avril and Phillips could have taken more money, at various times, to ride it out with other franchises. Instead, they bit the financial bullet.
"You just try to weigh your options -- the best situation in the best city with the best team," Bennett said. "Other guys think about money, but I try to find the best situation."