Before getting to my column on the NFL, allow me to have a moment of pride for Villanova's second college basketball championship in three years. For those who don’t know, my day job is at Villanova, where I am Executive Director of the Moorad Center or Sports Law at Villanova Law School (our annual symposium, a must on the sports event calendar, is next week). As part of my role I have assisted players in interviewing and selecting agents, and serving as a resource for legal or business issues that arise. In doing so I have seen Jay Wright and his program up close and personal; it is impressive how grounded and focused they are. Jay preaches to stay “humble and hungry,” a mantra they—and the larger Villanova community—live by. Yes, the commercial aspects of these “amateur” sports serving as feeder leagues for pro sports can be frustrating and hard to jibe with revenues. However watching this run of sustained success at a small college in suburban Philadelphia is inspiring. The team concept is alive and well at Villanova.
Now on to the NFL, where there are no pretenses that business rules...
Odell: Oh well
My reaction to the offseason drama series “Will he stay or will he go?” featuring Odell Beckham Jr.? Yawn. Wake me up in August if Beckham is still saying he won’t “set foot on the field” for the Giants then. The NFL has the longest offseason in all of major sports. Tough talk by players and agents in March rarely, if ever, has the same vigor in July and August. Wasn’t Le’Veon Bell not going to play under his franchise tag contract last year (or is it this year)? Good luck with that.
Stories like Beckham’s usually play out predictably. Players will, directly or through media sources, threaten varying levels of disobedience to their teams, whether by missing offseason workouts, minicamps or, in extreme cases, training camp. The intent of such threats—this is Agent Playbook 101—is to create enough angst among the front office and/or coaching staff that the team reacts with contract negotiations or a trade. And occasionally, teams panic and succumb to the players’ requests. However, in the vast majority of cases—and there are more of these cases than the media knows —the player returns to his existing team and contract as if nothing ever happened.
Could Beckham be traded? Sure, there is a chance; there are only a handful of NFL players who are truly untouchable, and I don’t think any wide receiver qualifies. And when Giants ownership left the door open that no one is untouchable, the Beckham trade story, having no real basis in fact, was off and running.
So yes, if a team were to blow the Giants away with a stupid trade offer, Beckham could be had (assuming the new team is also prepared to give him a mega-contract). But beyond the is there a chance? hypothetical, my strong sense is this story will die a slow death and Beckham will be back with the Giants playing on his existing contract. Yawn.
Trade and consequences
The Giants did trade one of their star players, although did so after rewarding him with a mega-contract, illustrating how major contract decisions can backfire upon a coaching change. Jason Pierre-Paul, I am told, did not “fit the system” of the incoming Giants defensive coaching staff and was traded to Tampa Bay, leaving significant cap and cash consequences in his wake.
The Giants gave JPP a four-year deal that paid him $22.5 million in 2017 and now leaves a dead money hole on the Giants cap of $15 million this season while he plays for the Bucs (a salary-cap-101 lesson: a $20 million signing bonus is prorated over four years—$5 million per year—and the unamortized portion accelerates upon a trade). Thus, the Giants’ coaching change cost the team, on one player, $37.5 million of cap and cash allocation for playing one 3–13 season.
As we know JPP was one of several highly paid veterans traded in recent weeks, often for lower-round draft picks. The reasons behind this burst of activity? 1. Better cap management league-wide with fewer teams using large amounts of signing bonus proration (shown above) more having present cap and cash flexibility; 2. Higher values on mid-round draft picks and their four-year cost control, especially compared to the cost inefficiencies of high-salaried veterans and 3. the NFL is a copycat league; the Eagles just won the Super Bowl with the most active general manager in the NFL, “Trader Howie” Roseman.
Pricey Parallels between Suh and Bradford
Due in part to his good timing and in part to strategically leveraging free agency, Ndamokung Suh has won the business of football with now three teams. After record-setting contracts with the Lions and Dolphins (where he wrangled the highest NFL contract ever given to a non-quarterback), Suh now signs a one-year, $14 million contract with the Rams.
The career and earnings path of Suh and a player that started his career with the Rams, Sam Bradord, are eerily similar. There were the first and second picks in 2010 draft (the last year of “bonus baby” contracts before the new CBA). They both went to college in the Big 12; they were 2010 Offensive and Defensive Rookies of the Year. And their career earnings after 2018 will be shockingly similar, with Suh close to $140 million and Bradford close to $135 million.
As to on the field, Bradford has been injury-ridden yet somehow continues to “win” contractually. As to Suh, his honor roll includes five Pro Bowls, three first-team All-NFL selections and two second-team All-NFL selections.
Suh and Bradford are surefire first-ballot Hall of Famers in the Business of Football.
Safety first, complaints and all
The most-discussed outcome from last week’s NFL meetings wasn’t the simplification (or not) of the catch rule. Rather, the lowering the helmet penalty/potential ejection rule has drawn predictable ridicule from fans, media and players concerned about changing the game. With news almost every day about future brain trauma of football players, let’s hold the phone on the outrage here.
The NFL has increased emphasis on player safety—especially to the head—since 2009, a time of Congressional hearings on the topic and the early stages of thousands of concussion lawsuits. And despite some high-profile hiccups where Cam Newton (twice), Case Keenum (with the Rams) and Tom Savage appeared to be playing while obviously compromised, the measures seem to be improving awareness, reporting and safer protocols. This rule continues that priority.
No one knows how many fouls or ejections this new rule will or won’t bring. What we do know, however, is that the NFL, in response to concerns of head safety, has been changing before our eyes for years; this is simply part of the trend. The sport now has scant physical activity from January until August; merely 14 padded practices during the season; and several stages of concussion protocol before return to play. And, oh yes, kickoff returns—the most concussive play in the game—will soon become extinct. We are at a different time and place with the sport than we were even ten years ago.
The ultimate question with all of this is this: how do you make an inherently violent game safe? Simply, you cannot. But these are adults who have made an informed choice in playing a dangerous sport. The issue is more problematic with our youth, and that discussion is for another column.
It is now clearer than ever that this version of the NFL, the highest level of the sport and a beacon for all other levels to follow, is going to have a different and safer product than at any time in its history. This is not your father’s NFL; no amount of complaining about it will change that.