No One Makes Friends in NFL Negotiations
The recent “How do you like me now?!” interaction between Kirk Cousins and Washington GM Scot McCloughan provided a rare public glimpse at a common dance in the business of football: maintaining relationships on a rollercoaster ride of emotions, value and leverage
Watching Kirk Cousins’ productive play and “How do you like me now?!” comment to his general manager over recent weeks resonated with my background as a former agent and team contract negotiator. It brings back memories, not all of them good, of dealing with players in their contract years and the weekly rollercoaster of emotions and leverage coming from their performances.
Interactions between team management and players in contract years (and negotiations) happen often, more than people know, and in more private settings than the encounter caught on tape between Cousins and Washington general manager Scott McLoughan. As I learned from dozens of such experiences, it was important to 1) not react emotionally about what just happened (or didn’t happen) and 2) not say anything that you may later regret, acting as professionally and tactfully as possible with an eye toward the long view. It is human nature to selectively take away pieces of conversations, so I had to be careful to not say anything that would be used against the organization in negotiations.
The Packers Fishbowl
I cannot speak for every NFL player-management environment, but the one I experienced for 10 years in Green Bay was unique for several reasons, especially the frequent interactions inside and outside the team facility. Virtually all of the Packers staff—players, coaches and management—came from somewhere else and were thrown together in this fishbowl at Lambeau Field. I never wanted an atmosphere where the front office was referred to as “the guys upstairs” and removed from the team.
I was around the players both inside our facility—seeing them in the hallways, the weight room, the dining area, etc.—and socially around the small town where everyone knew everyone (we would see almost half the team at the one movie theater every Friday night). My wife was friendly with many players’ wives or girlfriends; we even went out as couples with several different players and their wives.
This close atmosphere, physically and socially, became skewed during certain player negotiations. I learned an adage that I say all the time: no matter how much people say negotiations are “business, not personal” they are always personal. I would sometimes receive a sideways look or a terse comment from a player with whom I was negotiating. I understood it; I was the one on the other side of the table.
Some of my most stressful negotiations occurred when a few players over the years came to me and essentially said, “Andrew, you were a former agent and I trust you; I’m going to negotiate with you directly, I don’t need an agent.” While that prospect sounded like a good experience at the time, it was not.
Negotiations are emotional and raw and, of course, very personal. I had to tell players with whom I was friendly, as tactfully and professionally as I could, that they were not as valuable as they thought and that the comparable players being used by them were not realistic comparisons to their value. After a couple of those negotiations, which strained relations with a couple players and even cost me a couple friendships, I truly appreciated the value of an agent serving as a buffer between the team and the player in difficult discussions about value. I eventually suggested to players that, no matter how much they liked and trusted me, they should consider using the services of an agent.
Players could also serve as de facto agents for their peers. I remember standing with a group of players before a game—on Thanksgiving one year in Detroit—while in the midst of a tough negotiation with an offensive lineman. A few of his buddies came up and asked me where I sit during the game; I pointed to the press box high up in the stands. I asked why they wanted to know. They said that if I didn’t sign our lineman they wanted to know where to look up and stare every time Brett Favre was sacked. Message received.
Watching games and seeing the fruits of our labor should have been one of the most enjoyable parts of the job, but it could be stressful watching players with whom I was negotiating. When a player would have a big play, I would often get a text from his agent as people around me looked my way and even said “Cha-ching!”
I would laugh it off—it was part of the job—but it was not the optimal way to watch a game. Of course, I would never send a text to an agent or react when the player had a bad play or screwed up. Negotiations were never about one play, one game or even one season: they were about a past body of work and future look into future value and what it means for the organization.
Spinning back to Cousins, this space will certainly have multiple columns addressing his situation, the continuing power of the franchise tag and value heading into March. That discussion, like his negotiation, will wait for a more detached look.
Now in the midst of the seasonal rollercoaster, Cousins’ recent play has launched the current Pay the man! narrative, but the devil is always in the details. What, exactly, does that mean here? What leverage and options does each side have? What kind of structure and cash flow? How long will the guarantee, perhaps north of $55 million, bind the team to exit even if there is a downturn in performance? Would the team be better off applying another tag, for $24 million and one more year, than tying their future to Cousins? What about the option of a transition tag to allow the market to set the price? These questions will all be answered in due time.
Cousins’ situation will play out—for the second consecutive year—after a solid season. Until then, every interaction between the player and the team will be scrutinized as the “How do you like me now?” moment was. It is an occupational hazard of team management. Whatever the response, it has to be devoid of the emotion of fans and media, with a long view setting a strategic course for their future.
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