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The Real Issues in Russell Wilson Contract Talks and the Rodgers-McCarthy Story is Overblown

Two Super Bowl-winning QBs are in the news for different reasons. Here's what really matters when it comes to Russell Wilson's contract and Aaron Rodgers's relationship with his old coach.

The business of football never stops, and the two QBs in the news right now are a couple of Super Bowl champs who happened to face off in one of the wildest games of the decade back in January 2015. Here are my thoughts on the current situations in Seattle and Green Bay.

The reality of the Russell Wilson contract negotiation

Regular readers know my saying by now: Deadlines spur action. Monday’s deadline that Russell Wilson and his agent imposed on the Seahawks—the start of team offseason workouts—is not a typical NFL deadline. But offseason workouts do represent the actual start of team activities for the 2019 NFL season, and it worked for Wilson here as he now has a four-year extension reportedly worth $140 million with a $65 million signing bonus. While full details of the deal have not yet come out, I am familiar with both sides of the negotiation and have a strong sense of what happened.

Wilson’s contract negotiations were not about what you may think. Whether he made $33, $34 or $35 million a year, or some other number, was never the true sticking point. Whether he made $150, $160, $170 million or some other number in total over the life of his next contract was not the question either. This negotiation, from the team’s point of view, was all about one thing: Seahawks precedent.

The Seahawks had managed to negotiate every one of their contracts, including Wilson’s prior deal, without true guaranteed money in the future. The only future guarantees have been injury guarantees, which have very little risk for the team, as players rarely are injured for multiple seasons. The Seahawks, like most teams, ascribe to a “rolling guarantee” format that, beyond the first year of the contract, will only provide true guarantees if the player is on the roster at certain trigger dates. Teams like the Seahawks hide behind the antiquated NFL funding that makes the team put any future guaranteed money beyond Year One in escrow. In other words, even though the ownership of the estate of the late Paul Allen is worth $20 billion, the team was strongly fighting the possibility of funding tens of millions. The Seahawks were maintaining that stance and holding fast to the precedent in their negotiations with Wilson.

Wilson, of course, wanted to be treated differently. His agent was likely saying what many of you are saying: “Precedent shouldn’t matter for the face of the team and its franchise quarterback.” Thus, we had a stare down until a resolution at the deadline.

Again, without seeing the contract, my sense is that the Seahawks did the same thing the aforementioned Packers did with Aaron Rodgers: they threw “stupid money”—at least in NFL terms—at their franchise QB to avoid any departure from their standard contract structure. The Seahawks likely not only avoided future guarantees but also some novel bells and whistles that some were suggesting (that never had a chance) such as tying compensation to percentage of the salary cap or making contracts adjustable to the market.

So many ask me about the prospect of stronger NFL contracts for the players side and whether this will be an issue in the upcoming CBA negotiations. Well, the union has to do a better job on the collective side, but players with extreme leverage—such as Wilson—have to be willing to push the envelope in the face of teams hiding behind precedent. It appears Wilson, like Rodgers, could not turn his back on the riches thrown his way in the name of fighting team precedent.

Ultimately, Wilson was disadvantaged by the same thing Kirk Cousins was in Washington: a naturally kind and pleasing personality. Everyone knew, including the Seahawks, that Wilson would never hold out or be a problem for the team. So if a deal had not been done, well, there really would be no 2019 disruption. Sure, there would have been talk of franchise tags and future contract uncertainty, but Wilson would have never been “a problem.”

Those wanting a ground-breaking deal for an NFL superstar will continue to wait. Ultimately, teams have and continue to control these contracts beyond the low-risk early years, even for the best of the best.

As always with NFL contract negotiations, ignore the headline numbers and focus on the guarantee, the structure and the precedent. There you will find you answers.

On the Packers: Relax

Due to my nine years serving as Vice President of the Packers, I have been asked a few (hundred) times over the past couple weeks to comment on alleged dysfunction in Green Bay during the 13-year partnership of Mike McCarthy and Aaron Rodgers. Discussion of that relationship reached a crescendo with a recent Bleacher Report article citing sources describing varying levels of discord. Understanding that I have not been with the Packers for almost a decade, here are some thoughts.

First, let’s dispel the myth that professional sports locker rooms, especially NFL locker rooms, are fully harmonious. NFL teams have roughly 100 coaches and players—thrown together by their employment—consisting of different ages, socioeconomic backgrounds, races, religions and value systems. Players and coaches move in packs, often depending on position, and I saw position groups that rarely, if ever, talked to other position groups.

I have never seen nor heard of an NFL team of players and coaches that all get along. True, some teams are better than others at keeping their professional and personal disputes out of public view, and most conflicts are relatively minor and resolved without intervention. I became aware of several issues between our players or between players and coaches, and in some instances they rose to the level of my involvement as they were affecting other parts of the team. I will keep those matters confidential, but it is terribly naïve to think NFL locker rooms—or those of any other pro sport—are full of like-minded people never in conflict. Please.

Although I was with McCarthy and Rodgers only in years where Aaron was our backup quarterback, I never saw anything but a close and growing relationship. In those first offseasons of Rodgers’s career, 2006 and 2007, when Brett Favre would be in Mississippi, our young backup was the primary student in what Mike referred to as his “quarterback school.” Indeed, during that time, our front office and coaching staff became true fans of Rodgers and comfortable with, at some point, handing the keys to the franchise to him. Coach and QB were developing a close relationship, which, I was told, only got closer after I left. As to any change in that relationship, I take at face value what both have hinted at: the reality that after a length of time, many relationships become stale and somewhat frayed.

In the NFL world, 13 years is an eternity, especially in a place as insular as Green Bay. I was there for nine years and, while I developed great memories and lifelong friends, that time frame was enough. My mentor and former general manager Ron Wolf, who I remember remarking about Green Bay that, “the walls close in on you,” was also there nine years. Mike Holmgren was there only seven years. Living in a fish bowl such as Green Bay can be difficult. And, with a wife from Green Bay and high school age children, McCarthy is now still living there. I know firsthand that every conversation in Green Bay revolves around the Packers or the weather, and I feel for McCarthy living in that environment.

I do strongly believe, as Rodgers mentioned, that it is very unfair and unfortunate to minimize or even tarnish the accomplishments of McCarthy. How many NFL coaches not named Belichick have a Super Bowl championship with teams perennially in the playoffs? As to Rodgers freelancing play calls now and then, is that really a story? How many tales in sports lore are there of some great player shaking off the coach’s play call to do something dramatic, often heroic? For every one of those, there are hundreds of such “insubordinations” that fail.

I get it; fans and media expect more from a team with Aaron Rodgers, but it is obviously not as simple as a quarterback playing at that level guaranteeing a Super Bowl. If it were, the Kansas City Chiefs would be the current defending champion. McCarthy had a heck of a run in Green Bay; that should not be tainted by comments from “sources.”

Soon the stories of Packers dysfunction will be a distant memory, especially with a new coach and the excitement surrounding that. But as to whatever happened between McCarthy and Rodgers, believe me: (1) It wasn’t as bad as some made it out to be, and (2) Many of the same things—with different players, coaches and situations—happen in all NFL team environments. Sausage making in NFL offices and locker rooms can be a messy process.

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