Tales From the NFL Negotiating Tables
I posted a picture on Twitter last week of myself sitting alongside Aaron Rodgers not long after the Packers selected him in the first round of the draft nine years ago. I was Green Bay’s vice president at the time, and the photo was snapped as we both put our signatures to his rookie contract. It drew quite a response from my followers, mostly due to the magnitude of the player but also in small part due to my haggard look from having stayed up most of the night negotiating the contract.
Yes, there was a time (prior to the 2011 CBA) when negotiating first-round contracts was taxing. Indeed, first-rounders were among the most leveraged players in the NFL, with striking guarantees early in the contract and exploding escalators on the backend. Under the new CBA, first-rounders are locked into preset four-year contracts and a fifth-year team option.
As a nod to first-round negotiations before 2011, when there were actually terms to hash out, I will share three stories, including Aaron’s. Each involved important agent relationships, and each has an interesting twist beyond the numbers.
‘Sorry for your loss’
On the eve of training camp in 2004, I was settling in to negotiate the contract of our first-round pick, cornerback Ahmad Carroll, when player personnel director Mark Hatley stopped by my office. Mark was a friend to all, happy to lend a hand wherever he could. He asked if I needed anything before he headed out; I thanked him for the offer but said I was all set. He then left to play golf “for the last time,” meaning he wouldn’t have time for anything outside of work once the grind of training camp set in. Those words linger ominously today, as that was the last time I saw Mark.
When Mark didn’t arrive at his usual time or call in the next morning, his assistant Jeannie—a woman with a true sixth sense—knew something was wrong and feared for the worst. I remember driving over to his house hoping against hope, only to be greeted by a police officer in his driveway who stated matter-of-factly, “He passed.” At some point after golfing, Mark suffered a fatal heart attack.
Everyone was devastated, and the last thing I wanted to do was negotiate a first-round contract. Fortunately, Carroll’s agent, Eugene Parker, was a longtime colleague who also knew Mark. Gene immediately called to say, “Andrew, don’t you worry a second about Ahmad; we’ll get that done whenever you’re ready. Sorry for your loss.” After a few days of mourning, we quickly came to agree upon a reasonable contract. I believe you always learn a lot more about people in tough times rather than in good. I will never forget the compassion and professional courtesy Eugene showed during such a difficult time.
When will Brett retire?
The intersection of Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers started in 2005 during Aaron’s rookie contract negotiation. Mike Sullivan represented Aaron. Mike is an experienced and skilled negotiator who, a couple years ago, made the same switch I once made: going from the player side to a team’s front office; he now works for the Denver Broncos and negotiates with agents.
Mike and I quickly negotiated the frontend of Aaron’s contract, which was suitable for the 24th overall selection that year. Much more difficult, however, was the backend—performance escalators, incentives and upside. The challenge, of course, was not knowing when (or if) that upside would kick in, with the unanswerable question dominating the negotiation: “How long is Brett Favre going to play?”
I tried drafting language tying Aaron’s performance arc to whenever Brett, identified only as “the Packers’ starting quarterback,” would retire. Not surprisingly, the NFL rejected such a clause. Ultimately, after a late night negotiation session that left me looking zombie-like in the picture shown here, we agreed on a sliding scale of performance triggers. But as often happens, all of that negotiation was for naught, as that contract was torn up and replaced when Aaron took over as the starting quarterback in 2008. Never before (or ever again) did I have a negotiation in which one player (Brett) dominated discussion about another player’s compensation (Aaron’s).
A whole new neighborhood
While fortunate to have only experienced one losing season in my nine years in Green Bay, the 4-12 slog in 2005 put us in the unfamiliar position of picking fifth in the 2006 draft. When I started researching the market for the fifth pick, I began to sweat profusely. I was not very familiar with the neighborhood around No. 5, and what a pricey neighborhood it was!
Although Reggie Bush’s representatives pleaded with us to trade up to No. 2 and take Bush (where New Orleans ultimately stayed and selected the running back), general manager Ted Thompson had his heart set on A.J. Hawk from Ohio State.
Hawk’s agent, Mike McCartney—as reasonable an agent as there is—and I were able to negotiate a relatively normal (but highly expensive) contract without some of the elaborate bells and whistles that typically adorned many of the top-of-draft contracts. Even without those crazy terms, A.J.’s contract was still close to 50 pages, some of which became sweat-stained after A.J. picked up a pen to sign it shortly after one of his maniacal workouts.
First-round negotiations may never be what they once were, a fact that everyone seems to like except for players and their agents. Even with predetermined numbers, however, the experience is often more about the relationships formed, whether good or bad. As I often say about negotiations, it is the people, rather than numbers, that matter most.