Business of Football: Buccaneers Hope Antonio Brown Has Changed; Le'Veon Bell Lands With Chiefs

Thoughts on Antonio Brown signing in Tampa Bay, Le'Veon Bell resurfacing in Kansas City, how some recent running back extensions have turned out and contracts for bridge quarterbacks.
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We’re now on to Week 8 of the NFL season and, as always, the business of football has given us several major story lines to follow.

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Good luck, Bucs

I know this AB has been hard on another AB, Antonio Brown, but my comments today are more about the Buccaneers than their new wide receiver. The Bucs are now hoping that Brown has changed, or that they can be the ones to change him, and that things will be different this time. But thinking Brown will change is like thinking our tweeter in chief will change; wishing it will happen will not make it happen.

Over the past year, three NFL teams have run away from Brown despite negative consequences to their football operations. The Steelers traded him despite incurring a debilitating $21 million dead money cap charge. The Raiders released him despite giving up two draft choices to acquire him. And the Patriots cut him two weeks after giving him a $9 million signing bonus.

We have seen it throughout the NFL, sports and life: An organization and its leadership thinking that once a high-maintenance person is “part of their program” he will change. Jon Gruden and Mike Mayock thought that about Brown; Robert Kraft, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady thought that about him; and now Bruce Arians (and Brady again) think that about him.

These two adages are trite but tend to be true: 1) There is no better barometer for future behavior than past behavior; and 2) hope is not a plan. Good luck, Bucs.

Derrick Henry runs through traffic against the Chargers

Revisiting running back deals

NFL running backs are financially disadvantaged in so many ways, from the start of their careers through their usually early end. They spend their peak earning years making no money (in college) or the fixed and modest earnings from their rookie contract. And data is telling teams that despite outliers like Adrian Peterson and Frank Gore, productivity wanes at an earlier age than for all other positions. Furthermore, the fact that undrafted or lowly drafted running backs excel every week in the NFL—such as this past week, with 100-yard games from undrafted players Jeff Wilson (49ers) and James Robinson (Jaguars)—keeps teams from investing resources into the position.

Despite that, a dormant market did see a recent uptick with extensions for Christian McCaffrey, Derrick Henry, Dalvin Cook, Joe Mixon and Alvin Kamara. However, despite the appearance of a new dawn for belief in the efficacy of paying running backs, the jury remains out.

McCaffrey has been injured. Henry has been playing well, but the Titans would have had him playing under a franchise tag even without a new deal. Mixon and Cook are now missing time on last-place teams. Kamara forced the Saints’ hand by staging a “hold-in” but, as outlined below, his extension was not a heavy lift for the team.

The most curious running back extension of them all was when the Cowboys panicked and rewarded Ezekiel Elliott last season, despite so many other issues to resolve financially (especially at quarterback). The Cowboys, which may be the worst team in the NFL right now, have suffered in part due to top-of-market resources allocated to lower-impact positions like running back and receiver.

The reality of these contracts is that they are all “two years and we’ll see” deals, allowing teams to exit after that with no remaining financial obligation. Here are the “real” deals, with each player and their two-year cash total:

• McCaffrey: $30 million
• Elliott: $28 million
• Henry: $25 million
• Mixon: $21 million
• Cook: $18 million
• Kamara: $18 million

The performance of these players and their teams will now be tracked, as more data weighing whether to make future investments into this historically disadvantaged position.

The Bell tolls

One running back has fallen fast in the business of football world, with some of the damage being self-inflicted. In 2018 Le’Veon Bell forfeited $14.5 million due from a franchise tag applied by the Steelers. His ostensible strategy was to protect his “usage” before a bigger pay day in free agency. But following a year of no usage and no wages, Bell had only one suitor, the Jets, who bid against themselves and paid Bell $28 million over two years (with more nonguaranteed years). The Bell signing was part of a spending spree orchestrated by a general manager no longer there and a coach who never seemed to like Bell (the feeling appeared mutual).

Bell made $15 million in 2019—barely more than what he forfeited in 2018—and had $6 million of an offset guarantee (reduced by any new compensation) remaining with the Jets when they released him. He has now signed with the Chiefs for a minimum contract. Perhaps he accepted less only to minimally reduce the Jets’ obligation, but a more likely explanation is that while other teams were interested, there was a soft market for a back for whom the Jets couldn’t even muster a low draft pick in a trade.

Bell may now enter a stage of his career signing lower-level one-year (or effectively one-year) contracts, making his decision to walk away from $14.5 million even more impactful to his financial future. But give credit where credit is due: Bell did lure the Jets into paying him $28 million when the market said they never they should. Saved by the Jets.

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Tua, Fitzpatrick and placeholder pay

My sense is that the Dolphins’ decision to start Tua Tagovailoa around this point in the season was made long ago. Leadership determined, maybe around draft time, that assuming he was healthy, Tagovailoa would be the team’s starting quarterback. When the schedule was adjusted because of COVID-19 postponements and the Dolphins’ bye week was moved from November to October, it only expedited the process of getting him in the lineup. I have no inside knowledge of this; that’s just my perspective on the timing of the change.

The inevitable ascension of Tagovailoa begs this question: Why do teams with first-round quarterbacks feel the need to pay “placeholder” quarterbacks like Fitzpatrick, Josh McCown, Tyrod Taylor, Sam Bradford and others? All first-round quarterbacks are playing by October, if not sooner (with the Packers’ first-round quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers and Jordan Love being the exceptions); why not just let them start—and have the growing pains—right away?

I know what you’re saying: These older quarterbacks serve as mentors to the younger ones. But then why not pay them $1 million to be an assistant coach which, of course, would be an off-the-cap charge. The $8 million to 10 million paid for these placeholders like now-backup Ryan Fitzpatrick—who are signed to keep the seat warm for the rookie for a handful of games—could, in my opinion, be better allocated in a cap-constrained environment.

Regarding Fitzpatrick, his candid comments about sitting next to his replacement resonated. When I worked for the Packers, I often heard the same from Brett Favre’s camp when Rodgers was his apprentice. Brett’s agent would say: “Andrew, do you know what it’s like to come into work every day and sit with your replacement? It sucks.” It is the circle of life in the NFL, happening every year at quarterback—Rodgers is now experiencing it with Love—as well as all other positions.

Fitzpatrick will now earn his $8 million for the rest of the year from the bench, adding to his $70 million in career earnings for several teams, the most coming from the Bills ($27 million). Fitzpatrick (did you know he want to Harvard?) is winning the business of sports; he is a likely first-ballot entry into the Business of Football Hall of Fame.