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Business of Football: How Fired Coaches’ Contracts and the End of the NFL Season Work

From terms like "with cause" to "mitigation" to possible arbitration with the league, here's what it looks like when a deal is terminated.

The NFL regular season ended a week ago Sunday night, and with six playoff exits this weekend, 24 of the NFL’s 32 teams are on to 2022.

The end comes fast

Having been around the game for almost 30 years, I am still, to this day, stunned by the finality of the end of the season each year.

One day the team facility is bustling with energy in preparation for the next game, humming with movement and activity of players, coaches and staff. The next day, when there is no game to prepare for, most of that group is packing up and leaving, some walking out of the facility for the last time. The football operation, in a span of a few hours, moves from in-season mode to offseason mode. The transition is stark and, in my experience, a bit sad.

On getaway day, the players pack boxes at their lockers, say their goodbyes and head to—at least in my case with the Packers—warmer climes. I remember standing by the door to the parking lot saying goodbye as the players left, feeling very much like a camp counselor at the end of summer. I’ll never forget one player looking at me with curiosity, saying, “Andrew, do you have to stay here?” I sighed, and said, “Yes, it’s my job.”

As soon as this ritual happens every year—now for 24 teams, and four more next week, two more the week after and two more after the Super Bowl—the business of football replaces the game of football. The season was “we time,” serving the best interests of the team. Now we enter “me time,” serving the best interests of the players. It is a marked change that I note every year.

Now, as per the CBA, players can’t even be around the team facilities until April. And the harsh reality is that some players walking out of team facilities this month will never return to that team again, some choosing to leave in free agency but more receiving a call in the offseason that the team has decided “to go in a different direction.”

A cold business gets even colder in the winter months.

mike-zimmer-coach-end-of-season

Dozens of lives thrown upside down

When the season ends, NFL coaches “come out of the submarine” for the first time in six months. I always remember how surprised I was to see our coaches, on the day after the season, wearing “real” clothes instead of their usual attire of team-issued gear. And then there are the firings, as a number of coaching staffs find out that their time is done, and that was no exception this year, with the Broncos, Bears, Vikings, Dolphins, Giants and Texans firing their head coaches, joining the Jaguars and potentially Raiders as teams moving to new leadership.

While fans and media move on quickly to debate the team’s next hires, I think about the detritus left behind with these firings, having seen it up close a couple of times. After the 1999 season in Green Bay, I threw a millennium New Year’s Eve party where the coaching staff was all invited and had a great time. The next day they were fired; I did not know they would be, although I’m not sure they believed me.

The fired head coach is usually fine, with a hefty contract and coaching options to come. However, there are dozens of assistant coaches and families thrown into limbo for weeks at the worst possible time in the calendar.

The life of these coaches, who have hitched their wagons to the now fired head coach, is a tough one now. They are hoping that the incoming coach would want them to stay, but they know that is highly unlikely. They scour the internet for rumors about where coaches are going and touch base with their networks. Their lives are put on hold, not sure whether or when to put the house on the market, where the kids should start school, what city to use as home base, etc.

I know what many of you are saying: Coaches make a lot of money and accept the life they’ve chosen. But too often, in the whirlwind news cycle of who’s coming and who’s going, the humanity of the business—or lack thereof—is glossed over. There are dozens of lives being affected by these firings that go far beyond that of the head coach.

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With and without cause

Business and legal issues surrounding the contract can linger long past the blowup of the coaching staffs. Unlike the vast majority of player contracts, coaching contracts are effectively guaranteed. The firing team has to pay off the remaining years of the coach’s contract. That obligation, however, comes with caveats.

Teams must designate how they are terminating the coach’s contract. In order for the fired coach to continue to receive payments, the firing must be “without cause,” meaning there have been no breaches of the contract; that essentially the coach was fired for his performance rather than any off-field actions. Were there some kind of material breach—defined loosely in most contracts so as to give the team greater latitude—the team could designate the firing as “for cause” or “with cause.” The latter designation is at issue with Urban Meyer and the Jaguars—and, I would think, with Jon Gruden and the Raiders—as the Jaguars and Raiders may be trying to avoid payments totaling up to $50 million by claiming a with-cause firing due to breach of contract and/or misconduct. The Meyer and Gruden cases aside—and there are, of course, lawyers—virtually all NFL coaching firings are without cause, meaning the coaches are due the remaining monies on their contracts from the firing team. Unless…

Mitigation

Guarantees in coaching contracts are offset guarantees, meaning the firing team’s financial liability is reduced if and when the coach secures work and is paid by another team during the term of the contract. While the firing team has an obligation to pay off the contract, the fired coach has a duty to mitigate, meaning he has an obligation to seek and find a similar coaching position with another team (that can be a college team as well). In other words, the fired coach cannot simply sit and collect his paycheck; he has to mitigate and try to find another job, with the payments from the new job offsetting the amount owed from the firing team.

Having dealt with this issue from both sides, having represented the team side in a couple of these cases as well as the coach’s side, I know the issue of the duty to mitigate is a sticky one. And it is extremely hard to enforce.

It is very hard for the firing team to know if and how 1) the fired coach is out there looking for a similar job; or 2) a job was truly offered to the fired coach. I am aware of at least one team that hired a private investigator to check on a well-paid fired coach to see if he was mitigating and trying to find a new job.

Like I said, the issue of mitigation can get messy. And there will be lawyers.

Reputation

Reputation-wise, the mitigation issue told me a lot about how a couple of NFL teams operate.

I dealt with the mitigation issue when managing legal and business issues with the Packers. After we fired a coaching staff in Green Bay, we found ourselves with many fired coaches being hired by other teams. Usually, the other team did the right thing, paying the fired coach a market-value contract for that job, often similar to what we owed him, sometimes wiping away our financial burden completely. However, in a few cases, the other teams were not as upstanding.

In one case, the new team—knowing we were paying the fired coach—agreed basically to not pay the fired coach. In another case, a team paid a coach we had fired around $10,000, when market value for that position was close to $200,000. These teams, of course, were trying to save money because, well, we were paying them anyway and, in their eyes, why not? As for the fired coaches, they certainly weren’t going to complain; they were upset with us about being fired, so they didn’t care how little the new team reduced our obligation to pay them.

In these cases, I had to get the league office involved to arbitrate and force these teams to pay market value to these coaches.

These situations showed me how certain NFL teams operate to save a few bucks at the expense of league “partners.” I will never forget these experiences, and they know that I know how they operate. And no, I will not name them here, but they know who they are.

The business of the NFL is cutthroat not only between players and teams, but can be between teams as well. Live and learn.

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