The Chancellor Holdout: When a Good Deal Goes Bad

In the spring of 2013 Pro Bowl safety Kam Chancellor and the Seahawks agreed to a deal that made both sides happy. A little more than two years later, a changing market and Seattle’s willingness to spend money elsewhere on the roster has led to the summer’s most bitter contract dispute
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The Kam Chancellor holdout in Seattle is a clear illustration of a contract negotiation that appeared to be “win-win” at the time turning into “lose-lose” just two short years later. Now a frustrated player and a team standing behind its cherished “precedent” have hardened positions on both sides and there appears no mutually agreeable solution in sight.

Having been both an agent and a team representative, I see both sides.

Kam’s Frustration

A fifth-round pick in 2010, Chancellor quickly developed into a core player the Seahawks wanted to secure for the long-term. After playing three years on a fifth-round rookie contract that provided for a $213,600 signing bonus and minimum salaries, the two sides agreed to tear up the remaining year of that deal and replaced it with a new one worth almost $30 million over five years with $17 million guaranteed. Upon signing that deal in April 2013, there were smiles all around.

That was then; this is now. Beyond seeing the market change league wide (as it always does), Chancellor has noticed contract negotiations, extensions and modifications among his teammates that have caused him to take a principled stand. While Chancellor is certainly happy for his teammates, my sense is he feels a bit left behind. I have seen it before: the first player or players from a core group to sign their contract become frustrated as they see the next wave of signings come in at a higher level.

Since the Chancellor deal, the Seahawks have added top-of-market contracts for (1) defensive backfield colleagues Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas; (2) inside linebacker Bobby Wagner, and (3) quarterback Russell Wilson, whose signing bonus alone is greater than the total value of Chancellor’s five-year contract. And after consecutive years of low rumbles of discontent, the Seahawks have twice upgraded Marshawn Lynch’s existing deal. Chancellor has watched, waited and perhaps seethed thinking he “took one for the team” when others have been more lavishly rewarded. Now, with no satisfactory response from the team, he is expressing his displeasure with the only leverage he has: the disobedience of a holdout.

• INSIDE RUSSELL WILSON’S DEAL: A breakdown of what the quarterback’s new deal means for Wilson and his Seahawks supporting cast.

The Precedent Position

The Seahawks negotiate, as most teams do, with distinguishing explanations for each situation, always coming back to “team precedent.”

Their mantra with Chancellor is likely that he just received a contract extension two years ago and still has 60% of the deal—three more years—remaining. And, of course, the Seahawks will subtly remind Chancellor and his agent how satisfied they were signing the extension 28 months ago when the team removed the risk of injury before they “had to” pay him.

NFL teams have built-in leverage with young players who haven’t made significant earnings, especially those drafted late or undrafted. It takes a rare player to turn down earnings of many multiples of what is scheduled in bargain rookie contracts, with the alternative being free agency later. I thought Russell Wilson may have been one such player—he seemed patient and willing to wait—but even he could not turn down the siren song of a $31 million bonus when he was scheduled to make just $1.5 million.

Now, having negotiated a typical NFL extension with no guaranteed earnings in the latter part of the deal, Chancellor sees himself locked into fixed and reasonable non-guaranteed numbers—$5.1 million and $6.8 million—for the next two years after this one. Chancellor is asking for an augmented deal, with the Seahawks resisting due to their treasured precedent.

• ASK ANDREW BRANDT: At 4:30 on Thursday, the Business of Football columnist will take over The MMQB Twitter account for an #AsktheMMQB Q&A on Chancellor’s holdout or anything else on your mind.

Jeff Gross/Getty Images

Jeff Gross/Getty Images

What will happen?

Leverage is what drives negotiations, and Chancellor has little. As a player with three years left on a five-year contract, he and his agent will continue to hear the broken record refrain of the team, something like this: We love you Kam, but if we did this for you we’d have a line at the door of every player with three or less years remaining on his deal!

Chancellor may have enough conviction to carry his protest into the season and try to force a reaction from the team to eliminate the “distraction” element, especially before Seattle’s nationally televised game in Green Bay in Week 2. The Seahawks will certainly not tear up the current contract; the most Chancellor can hope for is some augmentation of 2016 and ’17, mostly with earnable money—such as workout and game day active roster bonuses—and perhaps a year or two added to the deal.

Whenever Chancellor does return, I expect the Seahawks will opt to not recover fines and bonus money that they are entitled to due to the holdout. They obviously cannot promise that now as Chancellor would have no incentive to return, but I expect those fine letters that Chancellor is now receiving to become moot.

As the saying goes, deadlines spur actions, and I would expect the deadline here to be the Tuesday of opening week for the Seahawks. The only question is whether Chancellor returns with no new money or an amount far less than what he would like. If it is the former, I would expect a similar stand next year when he will only have two years on the contract remaining, not three, and team precedent will be a less compelling argument.

• DARRELL BEVELL: ‘I WOULDN’T CHANGE IT’: For the first time in detail, the Seattle offensive coordinator discusses why the Seahawks chose to pass on their final play of the Super Bowl, what went wrong and how he handled the fallout.

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Kelvin Benjamin's torn ACL happened during a Panthers practice. (Chuck Burton/AP)

Kelvin Benjamin's torn ACL happened during a Panthers practice. (Chuck Burton/AP)

Injury Prevention

From a team perspective, we used to call injuries such as these “the bane of our existence.” Teams spend months building their rosters, drafting and acquiring players at certain positions—or passing on others—only to have the best-laid plans go up in smoke. Injuries are an unfortunate byproduct of a game of collisions; the 100% injury rate further reinforces the need for teams to draft well and always have a pipeline of young talent available. Infrastructure and scouting departments separate themselves when major injuries occur.

Were there a way to prevent such injuries, it would obviously already be universally used. Resting top players until the season starts is one way, but these injuries happen in practice as well (Kelvin Benjamin, Orlando Scandrick). I do think there can be advantages gained from more holistic approaches to player health, such as Chip Kelly’s sports science monitoring of sleep, hydration levels, etc. There are more teams than we know doing some element of this, although they do not want to admit it.

Finally, sorry to bust the myth: Save for three or four roster spots, teams know who they are keeping and cutting before the preseason games even begin. Not a lot of good can happen in preseason games, only bad. And we see it every year.

Cris Carter’s “Fall Guy” Comment

First, I felt for Cris, who I know has influenced many young players in a positive way. However, my main reaction, aligned with feedback I’ve heard from players about the Rookie Symposium, was that these comments focused too much on the stereotypical, flashy side of NFL players’ lives (the Ballers view): entourages, drugs, guns, strip clubs, etc. I’ve heard from many players that they didn’t feel the symposium spoke to them at all, with some even offended by the nature of that messaging.

Here’s a thought for the NFL in its preparation of the Rookie Symposium: Don’t underestimate the intelligence and character of the group. Instead of focusing on a life we want players to avoid, why not spend a couple days of training on skillsets that will be important for life beyond football? Sessions on money management, marketing, entrepreneurship, networking, etc. would have a longer-term impact than the information presently being shared.

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