How will the San Francisco 49ers deal with their potential holdout situations?
The continued holdouts of Alex Boone and Vernon Davis are the top stories for the San Francisco 49ers during this dead zone between the end of minicamp and the beginning of training camp. With no team events scheduled until the end of July, there’s no impetus for a deal to be done any time soon, and so this story will continue to wind into the dog days of summer.
With no action expected any time soon, it might be informative to look at recent holdouts by players on the 49ers, to see how these things have been resolved in the past.
The most instructive case is probably Frank Gore’s situation in 2011.
Just after the lockout in 2011, Gore was unhappy with his contract. The veteran back was coming off of an injury-shortened 2010, but he had rushed for over a thousand yards in the four years before that, and was arguably one of the top five backs in the league.
However, he wasn’t quite getting paid like one. Gore was scheduled to earn only $2.9 million in base salary and $2 million in bonuses in the final year of his deal. Gore wanted one last big payday, as, at age 28, he knew that the odds of getting another large contract would exponentially decrease as he approached age 30.
The 49ers, under then rookie head coach Jim Harbaugh, refused to negotiate at the time. That led to Gore missing the first four days of training camp before reporting, coming in to practice while negotiating a contract extension.
Once he was back in camp, negotiations began in earnest. About a month later, Gore and the 49ers came to an agreement on a three-year, $21 million contract, extending him through the 2014 season. The 49ers were more than willing to negotiate once Gore reported, with President Jed York and general manager Trent Baalke calling Gore a "49er for life."
This is the ideal case for the 49ers for both the Boone and Davis holdouts. When Jim Harbaugh talks about the “49er way”, this is what he’s talking about—showing up, honoring your contract and trusting that the team will do the right thing.
That’s not necessarily best for the players, of course. In a league with nonguaranteed contracts, it’s entirely understandable why a player would want to get the best deal possible. NFL careers are short, and an injury could end them at any time. Still, with Davis under contract through the 2015, the amount of leverage he has to force contract negotiations is very small. He would probably be best served following Gore’s example and reporting early to training camp, letting his agents and the front office negotiate an extension.
A worse scenario for San Francisco would be a situation like they encountered when negotiating Michael Crabtree’s rookie deal.
In the 2009 draft, Crabtree surprisingly fell to the 10th pick overall in the draft, falling behind Maryland receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey. It was pretty much universally agreed upon that Crabtree was the better player and deserved to have been picked higher.
One of the people thinking Crabtree deserved to be picked higher was Crabtree himself, and he put together one of the longer rookie holdouts in NFL history, in an effort to get paid as if he had been the first receiver picked. The negotiations dragged on into mid-August, to the point where Crabtree’s advisors insinuated Crabtree could wait an entire year and reenter the 2010 draft.
This was a case where Crabtree’s view of his own value differed radically from what the 49ers saw. The 49ers wanted to pay him according to his draft spot, while Crabtree wanted to be paid on his perceived talent. Negotiations got testy, and Crabtree ended up missing the first month of the season, not signing until October.
In the end, Crabtree received a six-year, $32 million contract. That was well short of Heyward-Bey’s five-year, $38 million deal and only slightly more than the 49ers offered at the beginning of the negotiations. The long holdout didn’t give Crabtree much more than he would have gotten by signing his initial contract.
Both Davis and Boone have a better argument for negotiations than Crabtree had, as they’ve proven their value on the field. Crabtree was an entirely unknown quantity in 2009. Boone, especially, can point to the fact that he’s a productive starter on one of the NFL's better offensive lines and is significantly underpaid compared to the average guard. Still, a holdout into the 2014 season is likely to backfire for Boone, as the 49ers have a number of interesting players they could slot into his right guard position.
There is one final 49er who has had experience with holdouts, but it’s not a player.
Back in 1987, the Chicago Bears drafted a rookie quarterback out of Michigan named Jim Harbaugh. However, he and the Bears couldn’t agree to a contract right away, and Harbaugh missed the first four days of training camp before signing a four-year, $1.5 million contract.
Amusingly, the Chicago Tribune at the time reported this story:
The turning point may have come on Sunday night when [agent Leigh] Steinberg greeted [director of finance Ted] Phillips with a burst of water from Harbaugh`s Uzi-shaped squirt machinegun.
“I had never met him,” Steinberg said.
“We told him if we don’t get the money, we’d shoot him. It lightened things up,” Harbaugh said.
Things can change quite significantly in 16 years. I can only imagine the histrionics Harbaugh would have if Vernon Davis found him on his trip to Peru and blasted him with a squirt gun. The situation is different, as well, as Harbaugh didn’t have a contract yet with the Bears, while Davis and Boone are under contract for San Francisco.
In the end, I’d expect both Davis and Boone to report before the first preseason game, though not at the start of training camp proper. Only time will tell whether or not either will receive the new contract he so desires.
Bryan Knowles is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Follow him @BryKno on twitter.