The six owners who comprise the NFL’s Compensation Committee were stunned to hear what Jerry Jones said on a Nov. 2 conference call, when the committee was trying to iron out some final details of commissioner Roger Goodell’s contract extension.
According to a source with knowledge of the call, the Dallas Cowboys owner said he had “papers drawn up” in the event that the current proposed Goodell deal was finalized. That deal would extend Goodell’s contract through 2024, (if completed, it would make his commissioner’s tenure 18 years). Jones, it was clear from this call, wanted the committee to take the unprecedented step of sending the finalized deal back to the entire membership for possible adjustment or cancellation.
“Are you telling us you’re prepared to file litigation against us?” committee member John Mara of the Giants asked, according to the source. Jones, a former disciple of the late, contentious Raiders owner Al Davis, said he was, per the source.
Mara spoke. Committee member Art Rooney II of the Steelers spoke. The committee chairman, Arthur Blank of the Falcons, spoke, and said this, per another source who heard the call: “I’m shocked. I’m disappointed. We may have differences, Jerry, but this is not the way we resolve them. This is not the way we do things in the NFL.”
On Saturday, I had a conversation with a source who had spoken to two members of the committee since that Nov. 2 conference call, and I asked what the feelings of the Compensation Committee members were after they got off the call. “Shocked,” the source said. “Totally shocked. Emotional. Angry. In disbelief. This was an owner [Jones] who, earlier this year, voted in favor of authorizing the committee to do the deal with Roger. He was still in favor early in August.”
Jones has consistently denied that he turned anti-Goodell after the Aug. 11 suspension of star Dallas running back Ezekiel Elliott for six games after a yearlong domestic violence investigation. But in an Aug. 9 dinner meeting the source refers to, Jones, connected to the meeting via telephone, did not raise concerns about the Goodell extension, the source said. “Once the suspension came down,” another source with knowledge of the committee’s deliberations said Saturday, “Jerry’s attitude changed completely. That tipped him against Roger.”
It is not that simple. Jones, quietly, got involved earlier this year as an ad hoc Compensation Committee member—a role that was rescinded last week when he threatened to sue—and grew to believe Goodell was overpaid, with annual compensation around $35 million. The new contract proposal addresses that concern, with, as the New York Times reported Saturday, 88% of Goodell’s new deal set to be incentive-based. But because of the vague parameters of the incentives, I am told Jones believes that regardless of the performance of the league, Goodell will make close to the same money in the new contract as he did in the old one. There were other things that Jones and some owners didn’t like about Goodell’s recent performance. Why didn’t this commissioner have the juice to make the approximately 16 current players who have not been standing for the national anthem—only 1% of the league’s active players, but enough to drive fans and major sponsors batty—end their demonstrations? Why was Goodell so suspension-happy, particularly in cases (Tom Brady, Elliott) that had significant doubt?
According to someone close to Jones, the suspensions, even before Elliott’s, riled him. The Hall of Fame owner has been angry that Goodell came down hard on players even when overwhelming evidence did not exist. Still, in that fateful conference call Nov. 2, after Jones’ threat, the source with knowledge of the call said Patriots owner and committee member Robert Kraft told Jones words to this effect: Jerry, my franchise got killed for a BS incident with so-called deflated footballs. We lost our quarterback for 25% of the season. We got fined a million bucks. We lost first- and fourth-round picks. For hogwash! But I took it. My fans killed me for it, but I try to be a good partner.
Jones was unmoved. Six days after the contentious conference call, ESPN’s Chris Mortensen reported that Cowboys attorney Jason Cohen sent a letter to the Compensation Committee, claiming that NFL owners have been “unquestionably misled” by Blank as chair of the committee. The letter says Blank reneged on his commitment that the six members of the committee would be unanimous in their support of the Goodell extension—a charge I am told Blank denies. It is believed that Jones is adamant that the Compensation Committee’s proposed contract for Goodell be sent back to the full membership for possible adjustment. The committee would surely take that as an affront and object; the long tradition of the committee is that it is empowered to make a deal with the standing commissioner and the other owners will approve it. And in this case, the committee would object because owners voted unanimously to empower the committee to work out a Goodell extension last spring, and one owner source said the six committee members have gone back to their fellow owners “a minimum of two additional times this year” to update them and gauge their reactions. The committee has found consistent support for a new Goodell deal. But that hasn’t stopped Jones. As his 28-year ownership history shows, he is not afraid of taking an unpopular stand—and of angering his peers—when he feels he is right.
“There is little question in my mind,” said one ownership source, “that Jerry Jones wants to overthrow Roger Goodell.”
At the heart of the dispute between Jones and the league is guaranteed money. And he is right about the current contract Goodell has: The guaranteed compensation, with no performance aspect to it, seems excessive bordering on avaricious. A little history is in order.
Months ago, when the Compensation Committee was beginning its work in earnest to extend Goodell’s contract, he made an unexpected offer to the committee. Two sources told The MMQB that Goodell said he would give up the vast majority of guaranteed money in his next contract, because he knew some owners had become uncomfortable in guaranteeing virtually all of the compensation on Goodell’s pact.
“I’m willing to bet on myself,” Goodell said in that meeting.
As one source who has seen Goodell’s contracts—the current one and the one being negotiated with him now—said Saturday, his existing deal was just as one-sided as Jones has charged. This is how that source described it: There was a provision in the old deal that mandated Goodell receive an average of $25-million per year in guaranteed bonuses in a rolling three-year period over the life of the deal. If Goodell did not receive $25 million in bonuses in one year, it would have to be made up over the next two years, and in each three-year period, he’d be guaranteed approximately $75 million in bonuses.
Particularly in a time of uncertainty—TV ratings are down, player protests during the national anthem are roiling fans and advertisers—Goodell’s offer was welcome. But how would it be administered?
Goodell, the committee devised, would get a base salary of almost $4 million. And the rest would be incentivized—88% of the contract would consist of money Goodell would earn on the basis of the league’s performance.
How Goodell’s compensation would be figured, according to one ownership source who has been briefed on the proposed deal, is highly complicated. “It will be very discretionary,” the ownership source said Saturday. As he described it, NFL committees with more than half the current owners on them will all play a part in recommending bonuses for Goodell that the Compensation Committee will be empowered to approve. The MMQB could not determine exactly how the bonus protocol would work for Goodell under the new contract, but this is how it was put by the ownership source: If the TV ratings in 2018 continue to tank, Goodell would get a lower bonus in the first year of his new deal. And if in 2021 the next labor negotiations go positively and no games are missed, the committee of owners who negotiate the collective bargaining agreement will recommend a relatively larger bonus for Goodell than if games are missed. Although Jones would not comment for this story, it’s believed he thinks Goodell’s annual compensation will be relatively close to his current pay almost regardless of league performance.
“Roger is taking a leap of faith,” another owner who is familiar with the talks said late Saturday. Jones believes he wouldn’t be, really. Goodell might simply be getting less rich than he was before.
Two more points. One: Many have asked if there’s a contract on Goodell’s desk ready to sign currently. There is not. The Compensation Committee and Goodell are still cleaning up some points, and I’m told the committee wants to get this done promptly but it’s not just a case of dotting some I’s and crossing some T’s. It could take a couple of weeks, particularly now that Jones is throwing up these legal smoke bombs.
Finally, there’s this point to make: Jones has taken the unpopular side on several occasions in his ownership career. A quarter-century ago, he fought the NFL’s TV Committee as it proposed to give money back to the money-losing networks. Jones won, and the lucrative marriage between FOX and the NFL was born. In 1995, the NFL attempted to enforce its exclusive rights under the NFL Trust to prevent the Cowboys from pouring Pepsi in Texas Stadium instead of the league’s cola, Coca-Cola, among other sponsorship deals. Jones countersued, and he ended up settling with the NFL to maintain his deals with Pepsi and other non-NFL partners.
So do not underestimate Jones. He has won when it has appeared darkest before. As one league insider said Saturday night, as Goodell’s image nosedives, do not be surprised to see Jones find some kindred souls. But there is one difference between this fight of Jones’ previous ones: Despite how tarnished Goodell is, Jones doesn’t have many partners—at least now—in trying to overthrow the current way of doing business.
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