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McNair's new deal gives Titans cap relief but leaves his future in question

Updated: Monday March 29, 2004 3:02PM
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Steve McNair
The always-hobbled Steve McNair has missed only 11 games because of injury in the past seven seasons.
John Biever/SI

PALM BEACH, Fla.-- In 20 years covering the NFL, I have seen a lot of weird player contracts, but I do believe the one signed by Tennessee quarterback Steve McNair on March 2 takes the cake.

According to NFL contract databank figures obtained by SI.com, the Titans, in whittling down their massive salary-cap figure before the start of free agency early this month, re-worked and extended the 2003 co-MVP's contract through the 2009 season. In so doing, they agreed to pay McNair the highest bonus ever given to a football player: $50 million. But there are several large asterisks to the deal, asterisks that mean he may never see the big payday -- and that leave me wondering if McNair will play football beyond 2006.

"I know [GM] Floyd Reese and Steve got something done," Tennessee coach Jeff Fisher, here for the start of the NFL's annual owners meetings, told me Sunday night. "But I'm not aware of the specifics of the deal."

Let's examine those specifics. The Titans were in salary-cap trouble entering the offseason, more than $20 million over the league's $80.5 million per-team limit. McNair agreed to play ball with them, and the Titans handed him a $6.09 million signing bonus and extended his contract three years, through 2009 -- but lowered his base salary for 2004, allowing them to spread out his new signing bonus over six years instead of three and saving them money against the cap this year. In addition, they inserted a bonus of $50 million, to be paid at the club's option by Sept. 1, 2006, which means the team must decide whether to exercise the option after the 2005 season. If Tennessee chooses not to pay the $50 million by then, the club would instead give him a $1 million "non-exercise fee," and McNair would play the 2006 season for Tennessee, then his contract would expire.

The reason I can't see the Titans ever paying the option bonus, other than the sheer enormity of the dough, is that it would ruin their cap. McNair now has reasonable-for-a-superstar cap numbers of $5.7 million and $12.6 million in 2004 and 2005 after his contract restructuring. Then the cap numbers get silly from 2006 through 2009: in order, $26.8 million, $24.8 million, $26.8 million, $28.8 million. Not even great players can take up 30 percent of their team's cap number, which is why I say McNair will never get the $50 million.

Neither Reese nor McNair could be reached Sunday night, but let me interpret something else from reading this contract. McNair is 31. Like his buddy Brett Favre, he's a small-town Mississippi guy who probably has more money than he and future generations of his family will ever be able to spend. He's been battered so consistently over the years that you wonder how many more beatings he can take in and out of the pocket. As is his usual postseason custom, McNair is recovering from surgery right now. He had a cracked bone spur removed from his ankle in February. He's one of the toughest guys in the recent history of the game. But there comes a time where even he must wonder: How much longer do I want to feel pain every day when I wake up and every night when I go to bed?

I have no inside information. It's just a gut feeling. I'd be surprised to see him play beyond three more seasons. That could be why the Titans didn't choose to make salary room for valued starters Jevon Kearse and Justin McCareins this month but did find over-market money for backup QB Billy Volek; even though obviously Volek didn't cost what Kearse or McCareins did, the Titans did outbid Atlanta and Buffalo to keep him, which shows me how much Volek is valued by Fisher -- and how much he may be wondering about the health and the future of McNair.

Fisher told me last night he thinks the Titans will stay competitive despite their cap woes. "I don't feel over the next few years it'll be any worse than it was this year," he said. "We feel our window is there and will be open for the next two or three years."

Which could be right in line with how much longer McNair will play.

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You might call The Breakers, the host hotel of the NFL owners meetings, posh.

I might call its gouging obscene.

You're free to taste the 33-ounce bottle of water in the room, if you'd like to pay $8 for it.

I have written about this before, but what arenas and stadiums and hotels will try to get away with when it comes to selling water continues to amaze me. I just paid $5.99 for a case of 24-ounce bottles of spring water. So 576 ounces of water in the New Jersey Costco is $2 less than 33 ounces of water in a hotel room.

One last point: The tap water at The Breakers sure is good.

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Every week there are some good ideas in these letters. Some I disagree with, but at least they make me think.

THE BEST USE OF TIM COUCH. From Jeff of Cleveland: "While I don't love the Jeff Garcia pickup, I think there is a way the Browns can make something good out of this. Why don't they trade up with San Diego to make sure they get either Sean Taylor or Robert Gallery, giving the Chargers their first-round pick (seventh overall) and Tim Couch? The Browns need a secondary and an O-line, and the Chargers get a QB with something to prove and can pick up a top WR to go with him."

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Good suggestion, Jeff, except for one thing: If the Chargers wanted Couch, they could go get him right now. They're not pursuing him, and so that would lead me to believe, though I haven't asked, that they have no interest in him. Think of it from San Diego's perspective. The Chargers are trying to solve their quarterback dilemma, and bringing in Couch would only cloud it further. Can you say, even if you were the staunchest of Couch supporters, that you're confident he'll turn it around and be a great pro? No. And that's why the Chargers would be foolish, I think, to bank their future on the guy. The place for Couch is Green Bay, where he can regain his sanity during the next couple of years and then give the Pack a good option for Favre's heir when he chooses to retire.

HE DOESN'T LIKE THE L.A. SOLUTION. From Eric Kennedy of Houston:

"Last week a guy in your column proposed that the NFL play games in Los Angeles on Thursday nights. You seemed to agree this was a good idea. But something like this would never be sanctioned by the owners, for one reason: It would mean that half of them would have to give up one home game's revenue. Sixteen games, 32 teams, right? So which teams get chosen to sacrifice one home game's worth of revenue?"

Good point. But if each team gets 50 percent of the gate (normal NFL splits are 60 percent for the home team, 40 percent for the visitor), and if the TV contract is jacked up sufficiently because of the added allure of a Thursday-night game, I could easily see all 32 teams making out pretty well by losing one home game every other year.

THE COWBOYS STILL NEED A RUNNING GAME. From Scott Pountney of Brampton, Ontario: "Neither Drew Henson or Keyshawn Johnson will help Dallas run the ball. What will it take to return the swagger to Big D?"

Two things: One, Parcells isn't done retooling the offense yet. He'll get a running back, don't worry. Whether it's via a draft pick or low-cost guy, he'll find one. I like the acquisition of Johnson. The Keyshawn deal was all about moving the chains. He's a possession receiver. That's something that Parcells is always going to want, and he got a great guy for the nine-yard curl in Keyshawn.

WINSLOW'S GETTING DISSED. From Jonathan Ruckman of Chevy Chase, Md.: "Why is Kellen Winslow Jr. not mentioned as a top-five pick, considering the incredible impact his father had on the game, along with his own staggering play at Miami? I know that people have 'character issues' with Winslow Jr., but beyond some typical jockish quotes, what am I missing? I think he's a better receiver, blocker, and player than Jeremy Shockey and at the very least, more physically talented than his father. Maybe I'm loco. What do you think?"

I think Winslow Jr. looks like a great player from the highlights I've seen. And he will be selected sooner than Shockey was (he went 14th in the first round of 2002) -- maybe a lot sooner. Winslow will go higher than any tight end has in years. I don't see the diss, really. Why won't Winslow be picked first overall? Very, very few teams would use a tight end as a kind of weapon that would make him more important than a quarterback.

SPY VS. SPY. From Ryan Kirby of Salisbury, Md.: "Is it possible chargers GM A.J. Smith purposely mispronounced Ben Roethlisberger's name, knowing full well bits of your conversation would be covered in MMQB? Maybe that was his intention."

One Thing I Think I Think: You're thinking too hard on this one, Ryan.

I NEVER THOUGHT OF THIS, BUT I DON'T BELIEVE IT WOULD HAVE WORKED. From Anthony Ricci of Alexandria, Va.: "As a Ravens fan, what I don't understand is: Why didn't Baltimore hold firm on the Terrell Owens transaction? If the trade had been voided by the arbitrator, the Ravens would at least have gotten their second-round pick back, and then they could have appealed to the NFL, possibly getting a compensatory pick -- maybe a first or a second for a player like T.O. The Ravens blinked, and they paid for it -- big time."

Anthony, if the NFL had let the arbitrator rule on the case and the Ravens lost Owens there's no way the league would have given Baltimore a first- or second-round pick. Imagine that precedent: Lose an appeal before the special master and get a high draft choice. Some team in the future might try to tank a grievance because the pick would be worth more than the player.

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1. I think the best rumor making the rounds of the lobby Sunday night was this: that New England and Indianapolis will open the season in Foxboro on Thursday night, Sept. 9. Makes sense to me. Indy is New England's most attractive home date this year (San Francisco, Seattle and Cincinnati are the other three non-AFC East Patriots home games). Patriots owner Bob Kraft loves having his team in the limelight, and this could be one of the best games of this season. The specter of Peyton Manning trying to redeem himself right out of the box for the four interceptions he threw in the AFC title game would be a terrific way for ABC to kick off its season.

2. I think one of the bonuses the Cowboys got in signing Drew Henson was brain-related. He scored an impressive 42 on his Wonderlic test, which the NFL gives to all prospective players. It's a 50-question intelligence and personality examination, taken against the clock. I was once told that a score of 19 is the average for firefighters, 26 for teachers ... and anything above 40 means that mastering an NFL playbook ought to take about seven minutes.

3. I think it's not unusual that the only coach not here is Bill Parcells. Parcells likes to do what you don't expect him to do. In 2003 he stunned most people in the league by actually attending the league meetings. This year, when it's in the backyard of his beloved Jupiter, Fla., winter playground, he stayed back in Dallas. Everyone keeps asking, "When are the Cowboys going to do something in free agency?" Good question. The answer is they're not going to pay big money for the Bobby Taylors, guys who might give the team a year, maybe two, of above-average play. I think you'll see Dallas make a play for a running back either high in the draft or in a bargain-basement trade for Corey Dillon (the Bengals swear they're not going to give him away, and the Raiders will probably end up offering a better draft choice than Dallas for Dillon), or in a post-June 1 deal when a decent back gets released.

4. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:

a. Hey, announcers: Xavier is not pronounced "EGG-zavier." It's "Zavier."

b. I believe I heard CBS' Verne Lundquist say of Blue Devils guard Chris Duhon: "What a player! What a man!" Sheesh. Duke-worshiping was at its zenith over the weekend, I thought.

c. But what defense the Blue Devils play. Boy do they get after it.

d. I'm the only one of 95 people in my NCAA pool to have Georgia Tech winning it all. This will show how much I know: I'm so far out of it that even a Tech championship won't give me enough points to win the pool.

e. Aaah, college notification week! All you parents of high school seniors, isn't this a wonderful time? I don't ever remember hearing the words "wait list" back in the day when Ohio University admitted me, but I know now from my two daughters the havoc those two words can wreak on your life.

f. I don't want to put the cart before the horse, but I fear Derek Lowe has almost zero chance of re-signing with the Red Sox, even though he's going to have a ridiculous year. He'll be angling for $15 million a year in 2005, and I think Texas' Tom Hicks will give it to him. Or George Steinbrenner.

g. Coffeenerdness: I wish Krispy Kreme would understand that "bold" coffee shouldn't mean "harsh and acidic" coffee.

5. I think the NFL owners will ratify a permanent instant-replay system this week. At least I hope they will. The sense I got Sunday around the lobby here is that the vast majority of the league thinks it should be a permanent bylaw. But you never can tell what will happen behind the closed doors of the meeting rooms Monday and Tuesday. Some weird votes have come out of there in recent years.

6. I think the Patriots will continue to ignore the bleatings of Ty Law and not re-do his contract before the season. But on March 18 they did quietly re-structure the contract of playmaking linebacker Mike Vrabel, whose stunning touchdown grab was one of the biggest plays of the Super Bowl. The Patriots basically guaranteed some of Vrabel's money in the next two years, which could lead to a more permanent contract restructuring down the road.

7. I think the biggest thing to happen at these relatively news-less meetings could be what the owners do to the NFL Trust -- the agreement, which expires Wednesday, that allows teams to revenue-share their merchandising and licensing money. I'm all for allowing teams to maximize their revenues, but I feel about this the way George Halas and Wellington Mara felt about revenue-sharing more than 40 years ago, which led to the socialistic and ultra-successful NFL: The league should do nothing to change the structure of sharing income. Nothing.

8. I think the Chargers, after watching him work and dining with him, still really like Philip Rivers, the North Carolina State quarterback, a lot.

9. I think Iowa tackle Robert Gallery could go anywhere from first to fourth in the draft. That's how highly regarded as a sure thing he is.

10. I think, judging by the very strong workout Texas WR Roy Williams had last week, the receiver group is totally in flux. Now there are three guys who could go in the top seven or eight, including Larry Fitzgerald and Mike Williams, and that could push one or more them way down the list. How many teams drafting very high have receiver as a first priority?

Sports Illustrated senior writer Peter King covers the NFL beat for the magazine and is a regular contributor to SI.com. Monday Morning Quarterback appears in this space every week.

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