NFL Offseason Contract Disputes: Who Has Leverage, Who Doesn't
Professional football is just that: a profession. It's a business, and a career for the men who play the game. For all the drama, glory, blood and guts, none of it happens without money changing hands.
Over the years, NFL fans have become much more savvy about the action between the sidelines. When contract disputes keep their favorite players from suiting up for their favorite teams, however, they don't understand what's going on—or what's at stake.
NFL contract disputes are all about leverage: who has it and who doesn't.
"Leverage," as attorney Thomas Noble put it at Findlaw.com, "is negotiating power, pure and simple." He explains the most common leverage factors: necessity, desire, competition, and time:
These factors usually come along with the deal; they are intrinsic to it. If someone steals your car, and you need another right away, you have less leverage than the person who can wait a month or two to see if the market will soften. If you fall in love with a Porsche, you have less leverage than the person who can live without one. If three people want to buy your house, you have a lot more leverage than if no one will even stop to look. If you have to get that premarital agreement signed because the wedding is tomorrow morning, you do not have as much leverage as you did a month ago.
In the NFL, necessity is usually the player's greatest source of leverage. If a player has truly exceptional talent or production, his current team has a great need to keep him. This is maximized immediately before a player hits unrestricted free agency and during the season.
That's why the franchise tag is so powerful, and why a player can't hold out all season long and still accrue a year of service: The franchise tag prevents star players from hitting the open market at their peak negotiating power, and a player can't withhold his services indefinitely.
Players have collectively bargained away their right to maximize individual contracts in exchange for bigger total slices of the pie.
Drew Brees gained massive leverage when special master Stephen Burbank ruled Brees has now been franchise-tagged twice. This means the Saints can only tag him one more season, and doing so would bring their two-year Drew Brees bill up to a whopping $40 million.
With the franchise tag no longer a practical option, Brees' leverage is maximized. The Saints are now under massive pressure to get a long-term deal done.
Necessity can swing the other way; players can be so desperate for just a roster spot, they'd happily sign for the veteran minimum. That's the governor on the owners' leverage; there are dozens, if not hundreds, of players who'd make far less if there were no minimum wage.
Desire can push NFL teams to offer a contract much bigger than the market might otherwise bear; desire can goad players into signing a less than optimal contract to move to a great city or work with a specific coach.
As reported by the Associated Press, Buffalo Bills defensive end Mario Williams was given more guaranteed money, about $50 million, than any defensive player in history.
Williams is a superlative talent, but he certainly didn't have a lot of factors going in his favor: his production had tailed off in 2011 while being miscast as a 3-4 ROLB, and he tore a pectoral muscle in the middle of the season. Still, Buffalo desired him desperately and was willing to overspend in order to make a deal.
Not only did the Bills' own desire to get Mario Williams on their roster rob them of leverage, they also had to overcome Williams' lack of desire to play for a mediocre team in a cold-weather city. Williams had free-agent visits scheduled with other teams and nearly took them, but each time Buffalo stepped up its offer and convinced Williams not to leave town.
That brings us to the next leverage factor: competition. Let's say your team had the opportunity to acquire a 36-year-old player who missed all of last season after two neck surgeries severed some nerves and fused some spinal discs together.
Would you be happy if your team offered that player a five-year contract worth almost $100 million? No, you say, that would be insane?
Well, it's what the Denver Broncos had to offer to win the bidding competition for quarterback Peyton Manning.
According to ESPN.com, 12 teams reached out to Manning's representatives the day the Indianapolis Colts released him. None of those 12 had any kind of leverage: They all wanted Manning, they all needed Manning and the only question was how much the team that wanted him most would have to part with for him.
Of course, players can also lose their leverage through competition. In baseball, the New York Yankees' Derek Jeter expected blockbuster numbers for what will likely be his final contract. As Jon Heyman of Sports Illustrated reported, Yankees GM Brian Cashman wisely refused to accede to Jeter's initial demand.
It made sense: No other team would pay Jeter the big money he was seeking. Cashman knew that every concession he made would be bidding against himself.
A much more common example is the roster churn that occurs constantly in the NFL. You don't see any bench-riding, veteran-minimum earners holding out for more money, because there's plenty of competition for roster spots.
If a minimum-earning player decided to hold out for another $100,000, he'd simply be cut and the next one brought on.
The final major source of leverage is time.
Detroit Lions defensive end Cliff Avril has been franchise-tagged, meaning he's set to make nearly $10 million this season and at the end of it will likely be an unrestricted free agent. The Lions and Avril are about $2 million per year apart, according to Albert Breer of NFL.com, and neither side has enough leverage to make a deal happen.
The Lions need Avril locked up long-term more than Avril needs job security. The Lions like Avril and think he's a good fit at the right price, but Adam Schefter of ESPN.com reported the Lions also had serious interest in Mario Williams before the Bills overspent.
Meanwhile, Avril likes the Lions and per Breer's piece "would like to stay" with the team that drafted him, but Avril would have plenty of suitors in the open market—and his skill set might translate even better to a defense that plays in a 3-4 alignment.
Since neither side has enough leverage to move the other, both sides will simply wait until time either forces the Lions to cave in and get Avril into camp, or Avril reports in Week 10 to avoid losing an accrued year of service.
Darrelle Revis, Maurice Jones-Drew, Dwayne Bowe and other franchise-tagged players are all in similar situations. The NFL's rules prevent both the players, and their teams, from reaching terms in pure negotiation—so they wait, until time either gives themselves, or their employers, leverage.
Ty Schalter is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. His NFL analysis has been featured on Scout.com, Mlive.com and his own blog, The Lions in Winter.
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