In the NFL, the Business of Football Always Wins

The recent releases of superstars DeSean Jackson and Chris Johnson were classic cases of teams having leverage over players. It also again showed the fallacy of taking an NFL contract at face value
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The Eagles’ releasing of DeSean Jackson on March 28 and the Titans’ cutting ties with Chris Johnson on April 4 are stark illustrations of the inevitable leverage shift from player to club in the cold and calculated business of professional football.

For every player in the NFL, no matter how productive, there will come a time when the team gets the upper hand in the contract cycle. Once overlooked because the team either needed a player’s services or because guaranteed money was still in play, issues such a character and maintenance might become excuses for parting ways.

Cases like Jackson and Johnson are cautionary tales: both were one-time signature players of their respective franchises who were told the team was “going in a different direction”—a euphemism for “we’re done here.”

That was then …

Two short years ago, the Eagles not only valued Jackson’s game-changing abilities on the field, they also needed him content and distraction-free off it. Similarly, three years ago, the Titans faced contract dissatisfaction from Johnson, their most dynamic player. In response to rumbles of discontent, both teams caved and replaced relatively meager rookie contracts with glittering new ones.

The Eagles tore up the last year of Jackson’s rookie deal and replaced it with a five-year, $50 million contract, with $15 million guaranteed. The Titans disregarded two years on Johnson’s rookie contract, at roughly $1 million per year, and lavished him with a staggering deal that zoomed past the established running back market, with an eye-popping $30 million guaranteed. (Adrian Peterson’s contract would come weeks later.)

At the time of these negotiations, any concerns the Eagles and Titans might have had about the players being selfish or not fully committed were rationalized with a “Yeah, but we really need him now!” short-term view from the decision-makers who knew the secret code of the NFL: contracts are never what they appear to be.

NFL front offices view contracts with this question in mind: When can we get out? The answer, even for the most lucrative of contracts, is typically two years, three at most, when the guarantees fade. The Eagles and Titans needed Jackson and Johnson a couple years ago; but now the talent/need/contract equation has changed and the teams parted ways with no remaining cash obligations (though there are some potential leftover cap charges).

The Eagles had other play-making options on the roster, including Riley Cooper, which made DeSean Jackson and his high salary expendable. (Drew Hallowell/Getty Images)

The Eagles had other play-making options on the roster, including Riley Cooper, making DeSean Jackson and his high salary expendable. (Drew Hallowell/Getty Images)

This is now ...

The Eagles showed their hand regarding Jackson last summer and again this winter. In response to the infamous Riley Cooper N-word video, the Eagles sent Cooper away for barely a weekend before succumbing to the need of having him be a key cog in a new offense—a relationship that now continues with the proactive signing of Cooper before free agency began. The Eagles made a similar preemptive strike in re-signing Jeremy Maclin, who, while injured, “bought in” to Chip Kelly’s program. Further, the team acquired Darren Sproles, a “space player” who can take over some of Jackson’s previous role. These actions, combined with the lack of future guarantees in Jackson’s contract, proved lethal for Jackson’s continued employment in Philadelphia.

As to his alleged gang relations (which Jackson denies), selfishness and other rumors about his locker room chemistry, well, the Eagles have known everything about Jackson for years. They had questions about his associations and work ethic when he signed a $50 million contract, but those questions were brushed aside due to the need factor. The actual reason for Jackson’s release was not gang ties or selfishness or a poor work ethic; he was a victim of the business of the NFL and NFL contracts. Anything else is just pushing a storyline to hide the truth.

Similarly with Johnson, the player-leveraged portion of his contract had expired, shifting control of the talent/need/contract equation to the Titans. Further, with no early roster bonus forcing a decision point earlier this year, the Titans squatted on Johnson for a month hoping to find a trade partner. In fact, Johnson’s only leverage was the possibility of a season-ending injury upon returning to the team for offseason workouts last Monday, which could have activated his $8 million salary. Ultimately, that bit of control may be the only reason Johnson was released now rather than later in the offseason.

Jackson’s five-year, $50 million contract from two years ago turned to a two-year, $18 million deal, with the other $32 million turning to dust. Johnson’s five-year, $55 million contract from three years ago turned into a three-year, $30 million deal, with the other $25 million turning to dust. Unlike baseball or the NBA, there are no long-term deals, only long-term “suggestions” in the NFL.

On to the next …

With only 421 career carries, Ben Tate was more desirable than more experienced backs on the free-agent market. (Thomas B. Shea/Getty Images)

With only 421 career carries, Ben Tate was more desirable than more experienced backs on the free-agent market. (Thomas B. Shea/Getty Images)

Jackson elicited very little interest in the marketplace, but as the mantra of free agency goes: It only takes one team. Washington ended Jackson’s three-day free agency experience, offering him a three-year contract with $16 million guaranteed. With two fully guaranteed years at $8 million per, Jackson now has the leverage in the player-team relationship until 2016, when that equation shifts to Washington. At that point, the Redskins can (and probably will) do what the Eagles just did: release him with no remaining cash obligations, continuing the inevitable cycle of illusory NFL contracts.

Speaking of contracts, only in NFL accounting can this happen: the Redskins are paying Jackson $8 million, with a $4.25 million 2014 cap charge, while the Eagles are no longer paying Jackson yet have a $6 million cap charge (due to acceleration of his prorated $10 million signing bonus).

Johnson is entering a free agent market almost a month after the golden tickets were handed out in the first wave of deals. In a curious inverse value analysis based on “tread on the tire,” players who’ve been backups (Donald Brown, Toby Gerhart) are in higher demand and better paid than those with proven track records (Maurice Jones-Drew and Knoshown Moreno). Despite his production, Johnson may face a sobering experience in free agency, especially compared to the dizzying contract just terminated by the Titans. In the NFL, even for the best of the best, it rarely ends well.  The business of football always wins.

The crew

There is an element to Jackson’s story that is more pervasive in the NFL, and among professional athletes in general, than most realize. According to multiple sources I’ve spoken with over the years, it was well known that Jackson constantly had people around him who were not viewed as good influences and took him away from the team.

Having “their boys” around, whether from childhood or college, isn’t uncommon for players. In some cases, they serve as positive influences in new and unfamiliar surroundings. The crew, as I’ll call them, can be one person or several. Having been a player agent and a team executive for more than a decade on each side of the negotiating table, I dealt with “the crew” on numerous occasions.

As an agent, I empathized with their plight: advising a player to separate from one or more members of his crew risks the real possibility that the player will separate from the agent for merely suggesting the idea. Players can have strong bonds with crew members—often deeper than family (some crew members are family)—and any suggestion to move away from them is greeted with contempt.

From a team’s point of view, as with the Eagles and Jackson, it becomes an issue as well. I will share one such experience that I had during my time with the Packers, with whom I served as the vice president from 1999 to 2008.

“I make sure his s--- is right”

We had a promising young player who I found to be respectful and of high character. However, I kept hearing from our security people about fights and other troubling issues he was having around Green Bay and Milwaukee. Upon further inspection, we realized our player was always on the periphery of the trouble; it was his hometown friend who was always the instigator.

Over the course of weeks, I had several discussions with the player’s agent, who told me he had tried to reason with his client about the friend. I asked both the agent and the player if I, as a former agent and a concerned team executive, could speak with the friend. They consented, and I grabbed him from the family lounge after a game and brought him to my office. The conversation went like this, starting with my question:

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“What do you do?”


“What do you do?”

“I’m not following.”

“What exactly do you do here?”

He paused, then answered, “I make sure my guy’s s--- is right.”

I wanted to laugh, but stayed on task. “Ok. What does that mean?”

“You know, be around for him. No black people up here, you know.”

“Yes I know, but here’s the problem: he’s at practice all day and needs his rest. He comes home and you want to party. We can’t have that.”

“It’s not like that. We only go out 3-4 nights a week.”

I sighed. “That’s way too much. How about making it one night a week?”

He paused. “How about 2-3?”

I admired his negotiation skills, but said, “No. One. Listen, he could be a real important player here; we’ve told him that. Don’t screw it up.”

As much as I would have liked immediate returns after our conversation, security called the next week about another incident in Milwaukee. However, in time the player weaned himself off the friend and yes, the player’s performance improved and he went on to have a nice career.

In spinning back to Jackson, yes, he had a crew with some less-than-upright guys in it, but so do many NFL players, all with varying levels of talent. They only become “issues” the lead to team-player separation when the talent/need/contract equation has shifted in the team’s favor.