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More money, more problems

Cardinals work backwards in restructuring Fitzgerald

Posted: Wednesday March 12, 2008 11:07AM; Updated: Wednesday March 12, 2008 2:45PM
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Larry Fitzgerald has appeared in 60 games over four seasons with Arizona, collecting 330 catches for 4,544 yards and 34 TDs.
Larry Fitzgerald has appeared in 60 games over four seasons with Arizona, collecting 330 catches for 4,544 yards and 34 TDs.
John W. McDonough/SI
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The Arizona Cardinals finally agreed to terms with Pro Bowl wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald on a $40 million, four-year deal Tuesday, but fans of the long-suffering franchise shouldn't celebrate long.

Fact is the Cardinals could be back in a similar situation within the next few months or years if they don't show more flexibility and creativity when it comes to the structuring of contracts -- particularly as it relates to voidable years, the seasons on the back end of a contract that a player can erase by reaching certain performance benchmarks.

Most teams use voidable years because it helps them fit large contracts under the salary cap, allows them to get out from under a contract if a player fails to live up to expectations, or enables them to "buy back" the voided years at a set cost if the player proves to be as good as (or better than) advertised.

Still agents contend that the Cardinals, under the ownership of the Bidwill family, are one of the few organizations that won't do voidable deals. One agent who has done multiple deals with the team said general manager Rod Graves "repeatedly told me they don't like to do phony money contracts." Graves said Tuesday that since joining the franchise in 1997 he can't remember doing a deal that included voidable years.

The irony is that the original Fitzgerald deal, signed in 2004 after he was drafted third overall, included significant money that the team never intended to pay. Phony money, if you will. It came in the form of escalators -- monies that are added to a contract if a player reaches certain performance levels.

According to figures obtained from the NFL Players Association, Fitzgerald's rookie deal had a minimum of $35 million in escalators, including $13.5 million this year and $16 million in 2009. Graves said Tuesday the Cardinals always intended to redo Fitzgerald's deal after four years if the former Pitt star triggered his escalators. He said there was a verbal understanding with Fitzgerald's agent, Eugene Parker, that the sides would return to the negotiating table in such a situation.

The primary flaw with that strategy, from the Cardinals' standpoint, is that it failed to protect the organization's backside if Fitzgerald actually achieved his escalators. In that case, Fitzgerald would have little incentive to sign a new contract unless the Cardinals included financial guarantees in the neighborhood of the $32 million he was scheduled to earn in salary the next two seasons.

In essence, Fitzgerald was in a position to say, "Pay me the $14.6 million you owe me this year and the $17.4 million you owe me next season, or trade me or release me." If the Cardinals allowed him to play out his original deal at those salaries, he then would have become an unrestricted free agent or eligible to receive $21 million in salary on a one-year deal as the team's "franchise" player. In that case, he would have earned $53 million over three seasons.

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