Drew Hallowell/Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images
Drew Hallowell/Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

In the NFL, the Business of Football Always Wins

The recent releases of superstars DeSean Jackson and Chris Johnson were classic cases of teams having leverage over players. It also again showed the fallacy of taking an NFL contract at face value

By
Andrew Brandt
· More from Andrew·

The Eagles’ releasing of DeSean Jackson on March 28 and the Titans’ cutting ties with Chris Johnson on April 4 are stark illustrations of the inevitable leverage shift from player to club in the cold and calculated business of professional football.

For every player in the NFL, no matter how productive, there will come a time when the team gets the upper hand in the contract cycle. Once overlooked because the team either needed a player’s services or because guaranteed money was still in play, issues such a character and maintenance might become excuses for parting ways.

Cases like Jackson and Johnson are cautionary tales: both were one-time signature players of their respective franchises who were told the team was “going in a different direction”—a euphemism for “we’re done here.”

That was then …

Two short years ago, the Eagles not only valued Jackson’s game-changing abilities on the field, they also needed him content and distraction-free off it. Similarly, three years ago, the Titans faced contract dissatisfaction from Johnson, their most dynamic player. In response to rumbles of discontent, both teams caved and replaced relatively meager rookie contracts with glittering new ones.

The Eagles tore up the last year of Jackson’s rookie deal and replaced it with a five-year, $50 million contract, with $15 million guaranteed. The Titans disregarded two years on Johnson’s rookie contract, at roughly $1 million per year, and lavished him with a staggering deal that zoomed past the established running back market, with an eye-popping $30 million guaranteed. (Adrian Peterson’s contract would come weeks later.)

At the time of these negotiations, any concerns the Eagles and Titans might have had about the players being selfish or not fully committed were rationalized with a “Yeah, but we really need him now!” short-term view from the decision-makers who knew the secret code of the NFL: contracts are never what they appear to be.

NFL front offices view contracts with this question in mind: When can we get out? The answer, even for the most lucrative of contracts, is typically two years, three at most, when the guarantees fade. The Eagles and Titans needed Jackson and Johnson a couple years ago; but now the talent/need/contract equation has changed and the teams parted ways with no remaining cash obligations (though there are some potential leftover cap charges).

The Eagles had other play-making options on the roster, including Riley Cooper, making DeSean Jackson and his high salary expendable. (Drew Hallowell/Getty Images)
The Eagles had other play-making options on the roster, including Riley Cooper, which made DeSean Jackson and his high salary expendable. (Drew Hallowell/Getty Images)

This is now …

The Eagles showed their hand regarding Jackson last summer and again this winter. In response to the infamous Riley Cooper N-word video, the Eagles sent Cooper away for barely a weekend before succumbing to the need of having him be a key cog in a new offense—a relationship that now continues with the proactive signing of Cooper before free agency began. The Eagles made a similar preemptive strike in re-signing Jeremy Maclin, who, while injured, “bought in” to Chip Kelly’s program. Further, the team acquired Darren Sproles, a “space player” who can take over some of Jackson’s previous role. These actions, combined with the lack of future guarantees in Jackson’s contract, proved lethal for Jackson’s continued employment in Philadelphia.

As to his alleged gang relations (which Jackson denies), selfishness and other rumors about his locker room chemistry, well, the Eagles have known everything about Jackson for years. They had questions about his associations and work ethic when he signed a $50 million contract, but those questions were brushed aside due to the need factor. The actual reason for Jackson’s release was not gang ties or selfishness or a poor work ethic; he was a victim of the business of the NFL and NFL contracts. Anything else is just pushing a storyline to hide the truth.

Similarly with Johnson, the player-leveraged portion of his contract had expired, shifting control of the talent/need/contract equation to the Titans. Further, with no early roster bonus forcing a decision point earlier this year, the Titans squatted on Johnson for a month hoping to find a trade partner. In fact, Johnson’s only leverage was the possibility of a season-ending injury upon returning to the team for offseason workouts last Monday, which could have activated his $8 million salary. Ultimately, that bit of control may be the only reason Johnson was released now rather than later in the offseason.

Jackson’s five-year, $50 million contract from two years ago turned to a two-year, $18 million deal, with the other $32 million turning to dust. Johnson’s five-year, $55 million contract from three years ago turned into a three-year, $30 million deal, with the other $25 million turning to dust. Unlike baseball or the NBA, there are no long-term deals, only long-term “suggestions” in the NFL.

On to the next …

With only 421 career carries, Ben Tate was more desirable than more experienced backs on the free-agent market. (Thomas B. Shea/Getty Images)
With only 421 career carries, Ben Tate was more desirable than more experienced backs on the free-agent market. (Thomas B. Shea/Getty Images)

Jackson elicited very little interest in the marketplace, but as the mantra of free agency goes: It only takes one team. Washington ended Jackson’s three-day free agency experience, offering him a three-year contract with $16 million guaranteed. With two fully guaranteed years at $8 million per, Jackson now has the leverage in the player-team relationship until 2016, when that equation shifts to Washington. At that point, the Redskins can (and probably will) do what the Eagles just did: release him with no remaining cash obligations, continuing the inevitable cycle of illusory NFL contracts.

Speaking of contracts, only in NFL accounting can this happen: the Redskins are paying Jackson $8 million, with a $4.25 million 2014 cap charge, while the Eagles are no longer paying Jackson yet have a $6 million cap charge (due to acceleration of his prorated $10 million signing bonus).

Johnson is entering a free agent market almost a month after the golden tickets were handed out in the first wave of deals. In a curious inverse value analysis based on “tread on the tire,” players who’ve been backups (Donald Brown, Toby Gerhart) are in higher demand and better paid than those with proven track records (Maurice Jones-Drew and Knoshown Moreno). Despite his production, Johnson may face a sobering experience in free agency, especially compared to the dizzying contract just terminated by the Titans. In the NFL, even for the best of the best, it rarely ends well.  The business of football always wins.

The crew

There is an element to Jackson’s story that is more pervasive in the NFL, and among professional athletes in general, than most realize. According to multiple sources I’ve spoken with over the years, it was well known that Jackson constantly had people around him who were not viewed as good influences and took him away from the team.

Having “their boys” around, whether from childhood or college, isn’t uncommon for players. In some cases, they serve as positive influences in new and unfamiliar surroundings. The crew, as I’ll call them, can be one person or several. Having been a player agent and a team executive for more than a decade on each side of the negotiating table, I dealt with “the crew” on numerous occasions.

As an agent, I empathized with their plight: advising a player to separate from one or more members of his crew risks the real possibility that the player will separate from the agent for merely suggesting the idea. Players can have strong bonds with crew members—often deeper than family (some crew members are family)—and any suggestion to move away from them is greeted with contempt.

From a team’s point of view, as with the Eagles and Jackson, it becomes an issue as well. I will share one such experience that I had during my time with the Packers, with whom I served as the vice president from 1999 to 2008.

“I make sure his s— is right”

We had a promising young player who I found to be respectful and of high character. However, I kept hearing from our security people about fights and other troubling issues he was having around Green Bay and Milwaukee. Upon further inspection, we realized our player was always on the periphery of the trouble; it was his hometown friend who was always the instigator.

Over the course of weeks, I had several discussions with the player’s agent, who told me he had tried to reason with his client about the friend. I asked both the agent and the player if I, as a former agent and a concerned team executive, could speak with the friend. They consented, and I grabbed him from the family lounge after a game and brought him to my office. The conversation went like this, starting with my question:

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“What do you do?”

“Huh?”

“What do you do?”

“I’m not following.”

“What exactly do you do here?”

He paused, then answered, “I make sure my guy’s s— is right.”

I wanted to laugh, but stayed on task. “Ok. What does that mean?”

“You know, be around for him. No black people up here, you know.”

“Yes I know, but here’s the problem: he’s at practice all day and needs his rest. He comes home and you want to party. We can’t have that.”

“It’s not like that. We only go out 3-4 nights a week.”

I sighed. “That’s way too much. How about making it one night a week?”

He paused. “How about 2-3?”

I admired his negotiation skills, but said, “No. One. Listen, he could be a real important player here; we’ve told him that. Don’t screw it up.”

As much as I would have liked immediate returns after our conversation, security called the next week about another incident in Milwaukee. However, in time the player weaned himself off the friend and yes, the player’s performance improved and he went on to have a nice career.

In spinning back to Jackson, yes, he had a crew with some less-than-upright guys in it, but so do many NFL players, all with varying levels of talent. They only become “issues” the lead to team-player separation when the talent/need/contract equation has shifted in the team’s favor. 

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24 comments
jazzdog2
jazzdog2

I'm not sure the article proves it's point. Yes, the Business of Football wins at the end of the contract, but Johnson got 10 million a year for 3 years of average at best productivity, didn't he? He won those years. Eventually the Titans cut their losses, but their losses were Johnson's gains. Seems like Johnson got the best of the contract, compared to what the Titans could have got by doing something else 3 years ago.

Mr.Dolfan
Mr.Dolfan

Players would benefit from reading this article


raput76
raput76

the guy in Green Bay has to be anonymous....

dei1c3
dei1c3

This whole idea that NFL contracts aren't really what they seem when they are announced is hardly a new notion.  Rather than see that idea re-hashed yet again here, I would have been really interested in seeing some kind of data analysis on what actually happened with contracts that have been signed in the past.  It seems like there is a real opportunity for an article here, maybe some predictive trends could be identified (are certain teams more/less likely to pay all or most of a contract?  certain positions?  etc...), but to date I haven't seen anyone write it.


Jazzaloha
Jazzaloha

I have a similar reaction as Ocean_State--Andrew's explanation about DJax doesn't seem right--or at least, incomplete. The notion of the business always wins signifies to me that the player has to be productive and worth the price--otherwise, a team will drop them. The thing is,  DJax was very productive last year, and he's still fairly young. Was the price really so bad that the Eagles felt they had to release him? That's not the sense I got. On the other hand, in the case of Chris Johnson, his contract seemed way too high given his productivity. So, in that case, the principle of the business always win is clear and makes sense. I don't know, it seems like other factors besides DJax's productivity or price tag seemed to go into the decision to release him. 

Ocean_State_Patriots_Fan
Ocean_State_Patriots_Fan

I’m not entirely sold on what Mr. Brandt, who I enjoy reading, is selling here as it relates to “D-Jax.”In general, I think Jackson’s release was less about dollars and cents, and more about his act wearing thin with Chip Kelly and the club.Philly likely concluded that “D-Jax” simply wasn’t worth the headache, which I see as the reason rather than an “excuse for parting ways.”

The Eagles got a good read on Jackson’s trade value when even the wide receiver-starved Panthers didn’t nibble on “D-Jax.”The only impact the NJ.com story had on Jackson’s trade value is that it reduced it from next-to-nothing to nothing.Hence the timing of that story’s release with Jackson’s.It was then that Philly decided to cut their bait rather than continuing to fish for a trade partner.

Heloise Walker
Heloise Walker

I don't understand the point of this story.  If a team feels like a player is valuable, they are willing to let go of the current contract and pay him handsomely (as happened with both these players' rookie contracts getting replaced with much more lucrative ones).  By that token, the team should also be allowed to restructure contracts or let a player go if the player is not deemed to be a value any more.

Mojojo
Mojojo

Well stated Thomas. Spare me the poor players whine. Let's not forget they also got at least the opportuniy to get at least part of an education in college. Whether they took advantage or not


ThomasCooper
ThomasCooper

Here is the thing, both players were under contract for their rookie deals.  Both complained and pushed for new contracts.  As stated in the article, Jackson signed his new deal with 1-year left on his rookie deal.  It states his big contract turned into a 2-year, $18 million contract.  One of those two seasons could have been the final year of his rookie deal which was certainly under $1M a season.  So, the Eagles ended up paying him $17M to extend his contract by one season and he still hits the free agent market, just one year later.  How is that bad for DeSean Jackson?  He received $18 million over two seasons where he would have only received his salary on the rookie deal and hit free agency?


Chris Johnson got it even better.  He had two years left on his rookie deal.  He pushed for a new deal and, as stated in the article, ended up getting $30 million over 3 years.  In essence, he gave up free agency for one season to net another $27 million that he would not have gotten IF he had played out his rookie deal.  


And we should feel sorry for these two players?  When players hit free agency, many push for the biggest contracts they can land, often pressing the team to hand them large guaranteed money and signing bonuses.  Then, when the leverage ends and they fail to play to that contract, the team is forced to release them to free cap space.  Why would they not accept a little less money, maybe push for more guarantees later in the deal, be a little more cap friendly.  It may make them last longer.  I won't cry for them.  


Redskins
Redskins

NFL Players are employees, not partners. Enough said!

MidwestGolfFan
MidwestGolfFan

Why all these articles feeling sorry for athletes?  

First off, these guys are still making millions.

Second, most NFL players have at least a portion of their contract guaranteed -- which is more than people with normal jobs can say.


Buck2185
Buck2185

Another story about DeSean Jackson. Is there nothing else in the NFL that you guy's can write about?? Who cares about Jackson anyway? The thug belongs in a cell and will be there soon...

jb22
jb22

Another great article as usual Andrew. Thanks for the unique insight.

Bongo
Bongo

@jazzdog2 :  I think his point is that the Titans were willing to give him that contract to keep him happy for a few years because he was such an important player.  Was his production worth what he was paid?  That's a good question, because it's always a crap shoot.  Of course today it would be handled differently - i.e. he wouldn't get that ridiculous contract. 


When a team overpays, the player certainly wins, and then it can have a domino effect of forcing other teams to overpay their guys who are up for renegotiation.  So maybe the business of football always wins, but star players will often get overpaid at least once during their careers.

pcwhite2
pcwhite2

@Mojojo  


"Let's not forget they also got at least the opportuniy to get at least part of an education in college. Whether they took advantage or not"


You mean like hockey and baseball players, right?

Bongo
Bongo

@ThomasCooper :  I don't think we're supposed to feel sorry for anyone.  I didn't get that from the article.

Bongo
Bongo

@MidwestGolfFan :  Where in the article does it say we should feel sorry for anyone?  It talks about player leverage vs. team leverage. 

jbber
jbber

@MidwestGolfFan  When people make the "they make millions" comments, what they are really admitting is that they are broke and don't really understand how business or economics works. "They make millions" is not the issue should for example they happen to be getting screwed out of more millions. (Note, I'm not claiming this to be the case.)

StephenGrange
StephenGrange

@Buck2185  I assume that when you say 'The thug belongs in a cell and will be there soon" despite there not being even a whiff of any legal issues EVER being raised..you mean that he is black, right?


Casual racism at it's finest.

eddie767
eddie767

If, by your picture, you really are white THANK YOU. I get tired of blacks being the ones that find these types of ppl stupid. Also, I wonder what they call themselves, if some of their friends might dabble in, what some might call illegal activities?

Buck2185
Buck2185

@eddie767 They would be called a "thug".....Is this hard for you to grasp??

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