Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Clouds on the Horizon - Part One

Barometric pressure at Redskins Park is dropping, fast

Two players, two problems, one common denominator: money. As the 5-11 2006 season recedes into the past and the Redskins look toward 2007, two key defensive players, Shawn Springs and Sean Taylor elected not to attend voluntary workouts, publicly exposing rifts between player and team. In this three-part series, The Curly R examines league and team factors contributing to this development.

Part One: The Modern Era
Part Two: Terrell Owens, Shawn Springs and Sean Taylor
Part Three: Policy, Practice and Personnel

A perfect storm is brewing, right on top of the Redskins. For now, all fans get to do is speculate and ramble, punctuated by a few breathless and desperate narcissists with an unshakeable belief in the the value of their internet writings. Soon enough though will be mini-camp, the resolution of free agency, more cuts then training camp then the season and we'll get to see it in action. Policy, practice and personnel are converging to ensure that 2007, specifically the defense, will be actually in a worse place than dreadful 2006.

The Modern Era
Like HBO's Entourage, the modern era is about players and agents, not the games they play. The Redskins have been collecting University of Miami players (Santana Moss, Sean Taylor, Clinton Portis) that are also Drew Rosenhaus clients. As early as 1996, Sports Illustrated called Drew 'the most hated man in pro football.' Contrary to everything a football fan would have wished on the league, Drew did not go away and in fact inspired Jay Mohr's Bob Sugar character in the 1996 movie Jerry Maguire and has grown his list of clients to over 90 players, including the aforementioned three Redskins, plus London Flectcher-Baker.

Although Miami players are not satan incarnate and Drew is not to blame for the way things are, this combination serves as an easy example, with some teeth.

Drew is known for taking his tactics to the edge, advocating mid-contract holdouts and using his players to woo other players away from their agents. It is through the tactics of hardball negotiators like Drew that the NFL has its current pay-labor structure: giant non-refundable signing bonuses attached to contracts so long than no one in the room can say with a straight face that the player will see the end of it without a restructure.

Drew's argument is simple: careers are short and upfront money is worth more than money in later years given the NFL's termination rules, ie that a team can cut a player at any point in the player's contract and the team will not be responsible for compensation specified in future years of the contract (way back when, at the dawn of free agency in the early 90s, long-term NFL contracts were often referred to as 'a series of one-year contracts,' terminology that has disappeared). The more he gets for his players, the more secure they will be, and the more he gets up front in fees.

Over the past decade, the model has turned upside down and top-tier players now often have the upper hand in dealing with their team. Drew has been a major advocate of mid-contract holdouts for players whose previous performance reveals them to be compensated below some ever-rising 'market value.' The engagement model goes something like this: you are not paying me enough, so I won't play until you tear up my contract and give me a new one for 'market value.' When teams capitulate, they deliver a big signing bonus that then must be prorated over the years of the contract.

But the model does not usually work in reverse with a growing breed of player. If a player is deemed by his performance to be overpaid, the player is at liberty to refuse to accept a paycut, due to the contractual nature of the team's agreement with the player.

Yes, in both cases the team's recourse is to release the player. A player holding out can be fined daily, but every day the player accrues another day's fines is another day of disgruntlement and teams would usually rather either pay the guy or just get rid of him, both ways avoiding locker room poison. Of course paying him teaches his teammates and their agents that the team can be forced into regular pay raises at the point of a holdout.

But in many cases in the high-money era of football, teams are so heavily leveraged into the aforementioned longterm contracts. Most of these contracts are structured with astronomical signing bonuses and modest early annual salaries. Pro rating a large bonus over the life of the contract combined with a low salary yields a friendly cap number in the early seasons. These contracts are back-loaded with escalating annual salaries that quickly become cap unfriendly. Unless you have a bona fide star that can earn that money, the natural progression is to restructure in one of a number of ways, sometimes as an effective paycut, sometimes as a method of getting cash to the player in a way that is cap friendlier than the weekly salaries. Mark Brunell is one of the Redskins that agreed to restructure his contract.

When players realize their opportunities may be limited elsewhere, or that the Redskins organization may offer them something they want out of that part of their career, players agree to restructure. When players feel they have the upper hand and that they could command a better contract elsewhere, or that the team literally cannot afford cap-wise to cut the player, they refuse. Shawn Springs was on that list of players expected to restructure, but he declined...

Curly R's Clouds on the Horizon continues tomorrow with part two.

The November 1, 1991 perfect storm of 'The Perfect Storm' fame from NOAA's website here. Drew Rosenhaus Sports Illustrated cover from this eBay auction here. Image hosted here.