Tuck's Takes: Guaranteed contracts are risky business for NFL teams
Teams should be very hesitant when doling out guaranteed money
Players can use large contracts as leverage on the practice field
In the physical, violent world of the NFL, you have to dangle a carrot
The first wave of free agency has come to a close, which means the total money for any one player in general, and guaranteed money in particular, will be significantly less going forward.
That's fantastic news if you're a general manager or team owner who has to dole out the guarantees, and disappointing if you're an unsigned free agent.
As most football fans know, NFL contracts are not fully guaranteed like the contracts in other professional sports. It is basically a document that details what a team will pay a player should it keep him around. Several years ago, agents and players talked primarily about the amount of the signing bonus involved and the money being paid out in the first three years of a lengthy contract. That has given way to the amount of guaranteed money and the Year 1 take-home.
Though the huge increase in guarantees have been a boon for players who are well aware of the injury risks and insecurity inherent in their profession, the reverse can be true for the organizations that give out the money. If a team isn't careful and gives that money to the wrong guy, it can mess up things for years to come.
Take Albert Haynesworth. He reportedly got $41 million guaranteed from the Redskins on a four-year contract, all funny money aside. That basically makes him untouchable, or above the law, as far as the other players, the coaches and the front office personnel are concerned. Some players will describe this as having "leverage" in terms of how you can act and conduct yourself.
Things work most effectively when players take instruction and critique from their coaches. But honestly, what can the defensive line coach for the Redskins really say to Haynesworth about his technique or effort? What can the strength coach tell him about his conditioning or workout program? More to the point, why does Haynesworth have to listen?
Therein lies the problem. He doesn't. If he doesn't want their opinion or their advice, he can more or less tune them out and there really isn't anything anyone can do about it. Management can fine him for conduct detrimental to the team if he decides to become a handful, but that assumes the assistant is willing to go to the owner or general manager and tell them Haynesworth is acting out. That could be career suicide for that assistant because the organization could decide it needs to get rid of one of them, and trust me, Haynesworth isn't going anywhere.
Don't think stuff like that happens? It seems to me that Julius Peppers' wish for a new defensive system in Carolina was a command of sorts to coach John Fox and GM Marty Hurney. Now, I know the Panthers offered defensive coordinator Mike Trgovac a contract to come back, but I think he and the rest of his defensive coaches knew the writing was on the wall after Peppers' public comments.
To be clear, I am not saying Haynesworth will cause any trouble in D.C. Hopefully he doesn't. I am simply saying the possibility exists for any player with that type of contract to more or less run the show. Believe me, players think about it. I have heard several players talk about how they would act or what they would do if they signed that type of contract.
This issue doesn't just pertain to free agency. The same can be said for players re drafted in the top 10 picks of the first round. They, too, are virtually untouchable.
Another problem than can arise after a player gets a big contract is lack of motivation. Football is a brutal game. It hurts to play it and it takes a tremendous amount of effort to be successful. What exactly is Haynesworth's motivation now? I know that he and others in his situation will say all the right things, but what will they do when nobody is watching? How will they act if things aren't going well?
Let's say Haynesworth gets an MCL sprain and is questionable for a game. He is legitimately 50-50. The doctor clears him and now it is a personal decision. He can probably get through the game and help his team, but the potential exists for further damage. What exactly is his incentive to play? For most guys it would be a sense of pride and a feeling of obligation to teammates. But not every player has that pride or feels that obligation.
To be honest, I would like to think I would be the same person with that type of contract as I was when I was a rookie making the minimum, but how do I really know? Would I be? Would I play as hard? The problem is you don't really know until you are in those shoes. I can picture having a real long conversation with my wife if I was really banged up and hurting and making the decision whether or not I was going to play. It is easy to imagine my wife bringing up the fact that she wants me to be able to play with our kids when they are older. And that we already have enough money. It would not be an easy decision, because you could justify it in your head as making a decision between your current team and your future health repercussions.
I once played with a top five pick who didn't really like football, who did whatever he pleased around the facility, practiced more or less how and when he felt like it, and pretty much never played when he had any type of injury. Nobody respected how he handled his business, but they were also aware that he was in a different situation. Guys knew he could do whatever he wanted and they resented him for it. It hurt team chemistry. Everyone in the building knew there was a problem, but there was nothing that could really be done about it because of the amount of money guaranteed and the salary-cap implications.
In the NFL, you have to dangle a carrot. It is bad enough to watch big-money guys in the NBA play lackluster defense or high-priced sluggers in MLB barely jog to first base to run out a grounder. Football is a different animal because of the violence and physicality. You have to want it. Not everybody is going to really want it once they are financially secure for the rest of their life.
If I were working for an NFL team, I would be extremely safe with my selections in the draft and my contract offers in free agency. The mental makeup of the player would be far and away my greatest concern. How is this guy really going to act when he gets over $10 million guaranteed, which, ironically, is a relatively small number in today's NFL? Is he going to be like a Peyton Manning or a London Fletcher and continue with business as usual? Or is he going to rest on his laurels or, even worse, cause trouble?
That is the question that keeps front-office personnel and owners up at night when the time comes to pull the trigger.
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