Darrelle Revis announced his retirement on Wednesday exactly seven years, 10 months and 12 days after ending one of the most significant contract holdouts in NFL history.
Depicted on HBO’s Hard Knocks in 2010, Revis’s unwillingness to play under a deal he’d already massively outperformed sent the Jets scrambling. Owners and coaches flew to meet him in Fort Lauderdale on a moment’s notice. The team’s general manager, Mike Tannenbaum, appeared beaten and exhausted almost every night from spinning his wheels in the mud. Secret rendezvous were planned at diners in central New York to Band-Aid the situation away from the press.
Money often comes up when talking about the cornerback nicknamed an island, arguably one of the five best players at his position in NFL history. And while he recoiled from the notion that he was a cold and calculated businessman toward the end of his career, especially during his lone Super Bowl season in New England, he and his original agents, Neil Schwartz and Jonathan Feinsod, will be cemented in modern NFL history for their ability to strongarm franchises at a time when owners and general managers wielded more power than ever.
The inevitable debate, whether he will be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, will consume those who wonder whether four years of transcendent play is good enough. But the truth is that Revis’s fingerprints are all over the evolution of the modern NFL cornerback and modern NFL defense—there shouldn’t be that much of an argument to his candidacy at all. As he said himself in a retirement letter, “my passion to play the game at an elite level brought fun and excitement to the term shutdown corner, which was nearly on the verge of extinction.”
The wave of Revis love in the coming weeks will trigger the pushback from those who viewed his meteoric rise as a product of the market he played in, and the carnival barker head coach he played for. Sometimes, though, the hype is real. Here is how Revis helped changed the NFL…
‘You let them see you’
As The MMQB’s Jenny Vrentas wrote while covering the Jets for the Star-Ledger back in 2010, Revis was raised in the school of former Raiders great Lester Hayes. The game was as much about mentality, preparation and intimidation as athletic ability.
Revis would meet his opponents at the ball, jutting his way into their headspace before the snap. Most players fancy themselves some sort of arena gladiator, flashing their armor and weaponry but with Revis, it was more about what he knew about yourself that you might not even know. How much more terrifying is quiet, creeping confidence?
His dossier on opposing wide receivers was almost encyclopedic—the product of long offseason film sessions that focused on tendencies and weaknesses. It lead to a shutdown streak that stands up to any great corner in NFL history. Consider the numbers from 2009, a season that Pro Football Focus called the finest for any cornerback since ’06:
Andre Johnson: 4 catches, 35 yards
Randy Moss: 4 catches, 24 yards
Terrell Owens: 3 catches, 13 yards
Marques Colston: 2 catches, 33 yards
Steve Smith: 1 catch, 5 yards
Chad Johnson: 2 catches, 28 yards
Reggie Wayne: 3 catches, 55 yards
“The year that Darrelle Revis had has never been done in the history of the league, and I think that was a once-in-a-lifetime year for any corner,” Ryan said at the time.
Before the days of Josh Norman and Richard Sherman, Revis made and legitimized an on-field brand out of these heavyweight fights. His ability to essentially remove one half of the field from the opposing offense blew open the discussion about cornerback value and what a true ‘shut-down’ player was worth. Cornerback salaries climbed 138% between 2001 and ’09, the year that prompted Revis’s epic holdout. From there, spending sprees on corners like Nnamdi Asomugha changed the market altogether.
Today 17 teams allocate more than 10% of their total cap spending toward the cornerback position. Thirteen cornerbacks are currently operating on salaires that average $10 million or more annually.
‘We will not be bullied by anybody…’
That was Rex Ryan’s line on Hard Knocks during a lunch early in Revis’s holdout in 2010. While his poor understanding of media comments and player leverage ended up contributing to the cornerback’s vicegrip on the team’s finances, there was no player/agent/advisor combination that better capitalized on talent and opportunity.
Revis held out before his rookie season and ended up signing a deal in 2007 that was almost identical in average per year to one Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie signed almost seven years later while at the top of the market, amid a bidding war in a seller’s market.
Revis made it O.K. to separate the business from the football, and while it will always be engrained with his legacy, it provided a soapbox for other premiere players to stand on. Revis was surrounded by Pro Bowl superstars taking less money to be a part of those back to back AFC title seasons in 2009 and ’10, though it didn’t seem to matter. His comments to Sports Illustrated in 2015 seem to resonate more now than ever.
“We’re fighting against 32 billionaires,” Revis says. “A lot of guys are brainwashed, feeding into the system. It’s genius how the NFL did it.”
There are players who never break free of football’s military industrial complex, though Revis was never afraid to smash the fourth wall and expose some of the league’s more callous business practices. While some fans will always associate that with selfishness, it was a gift bestowed on other players working for teams that needed them.
Consider this passage from that same 2015 story in SI: Since the Jets traded him to Tampa Bay in April 2013, Revis has signed three contracts with three teams for $68 million in guaranteed salary. He earned $17 million in ’13 ($1 million from the Jets, the rest from the Buccaneers) and $12 million in ’14 (from the Patriots), and he will accrue at least $39 million in his latest deal with New York. Should he play all five seasons of this pact, he would push his career earnings to $155 million. That’s quarterback money—and it doesn’t even account for endorsements with the likes of Nike and Bose. Through eight seasons Revis has banked $85 million. He’s earned more than all but two players in his 2007 draft class: Calvin Johnson and Joe Thomas, who play two of the highest-paid positions in football, receiver and left tackle. Three-time All-Pro running back Adrian Peterson has made $13 million less.
Ryan was wrong during that lunch. The Jets were bullied with television cameras in tow for all the world to see.
As defenses become more specialized, we may again see the cornerback market recoil. Among average defensive spending, defensive back is now behind defensive tackle and on par with linebacker. Teams are now more efficient in skirting the premiere defenders for more favorable matchups. But whenever that next market boon arises (think the soaring market for interior pass rushing), Revis’s fingerprints will be all over the next big deal.