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Sunday, 15 July 2012

Breesy Money: what Drew Brees' contract could mean for negotiations around the league

So, the Saints finally did the right thing, and paid the best and most important player – by far – on their roster what he truly deserves. This Friday, Drew Brees signed a five-year, $100 million contract, with $60 million guaranteed in the first three years - $40 million of which is due in 2012 alone. That's just ridiculous money – but it raises some very interesting questions that may shape the face of contract negotiations for offseasons to come.

This contract, though, has not just made Drew Brees an even richer man: it has undoubtedly set a number of precedents that will be brought up time and again whenever a team places the franchise tag on a player, and may even be taken into account when a player, still under contract, believes he deserves more money than his contract dictates.

The most iron-clad of these precedents was set when Arbitrator Stephen Burbank ruled that, in figuring out how much the franchise tag was worth under the 2011 CBA, the tag placed on Brees was to have been considered as his second tag (having been tagged once by the Chargers in 2005), even though it was the first time he had been tagged by the Saints. Critically, this would have meant that, should Brees have played this year under the tag, then if the Saints were to tag him again next season, he would be due a 44% increase on the previous year's tag. While, in this instance, the ruling proved moot (beyond the role it played in the Saints offering Brees enough to work out the long-term deal), there will no doubt be times in the future when players could potentially have faced three franchise tags.
"This franchise tag is just a one-time
thing, right guys? ...Guys?"
Thanks to this ruling, I will go out on a limb and say that we will not see any player face three franchise tags in their career under the current CBA. Simply put, that 44% increase will be too expensive an option for almost every team, as in many cases, it would tie up a huge amount of the salary cap for a team. Even with all the salary cap wizardry that takes places in front offices around the league, the current CBA may make it incredibly difficult for teams to use a third franchise tag on a player, due to the significantly higher salary floor that every team will have to meet starting 2014. Remember, when 2014 rolls around,
there will not be that much of a gap between the salary floor and the salary cap – meaning that if teams have structured contracts in a way to make certain they remain above that salary floor, that extra 44% they'd have to pay a franchise player under their tag might bring them much, much tighter to the cap than they were expecting. As such, the owners may find that the freedom to use the franchise cap as they saw fit, which they had fought hard for in the CBA negotiations (the NFLPA had been pushing for a rule whereby no player can be tagged more than once in their entire career), may be far more restricted then they had realised.

The next precedent that Brees' new contract has set is not one that is exclusive to this contract, but one which this contract has redefined – specifically, the worth of his position. Whenever a player becomes the highest-paid at his position, he sets the standard against which all other contracts are measured against. Earlier in the offseason, Calvin Johnson set a new NFL record for the largest contract in NFL history in terms of total value ($130 million). I sincerely doubt anyone could really deny that Johnson is worth every penny of that, being arguably the greatest physical specimen in the league (and, of course, being ranked the fifth-best player in the NFL in the TPL100) – but that massive figure was not arrived at arbitrarily. Rather, the value of the contract was no doubt agreed upon thanks to Larry Fitzgerald signing a contract the year before for $120 million. Fitz is hardly a slouch himself, but I believe most would agree that, right now, Johnson is the better receiver; obviously, both Megatron and his agent think the same, and so, naturally, Johnson's contract had to reflect that.

And so, Brees' contract becomes the new benchmark for quarterbacks, redefining the guidelines set by Peyton Manning's final contract with the Colts. When looking at the 2013 free agency class, there aren't any quarterbacks who could justifiably think of even asking for Brees-type money – the only starting QBs due to hit free agency are Matt Schaub and Joe Flacco (who, to be fair, seems to be deluded enough to believe he does deserve a comparable contract). Then again, Calvin Johnson's new contract did not come as a result of free agency – he was signed through to the end of this season – so you have to look at which quarterbacks may be hitting free agency in the next few years, and who are certainly out-earning their contract. One candidate immediately jumps out – Aaron Rodgers.
They're paying you how much?
No one can deny that Rodgers' level of play is at worst neck-and-neck with Brees, and at best, arguably surpasses him (as seen in the TPL100). While Rodgers still has three years left on his contract, compare his contract to Brees': over the next three years, the Saints QB will earn $61 million dollars, $60 million of which is guaranteed; in the same time frame, Rodgers will earn just $27.75 million dollars – and, crucially, none of that is guaranteed (as far as rotoworld.com suggests). NFL history is littered with great players whose careers have been cut short by injury. Sure, injury is a constant risk in the NFL, which could take out any player at any time, and it would not really be justifiable for every player in the NFL to threaten to hold out unless they received huge guarantees throughout their contracts – but that's in part because there are very few players who would actually garner enough leverage by threatening a hold-out over their contract. I'm not trying to encourage Rodgers to hold out, but surely he must realise that he is scheduled to earn less than half of what Brees will be getting, and without any of it guaranteed should he be hurt; if Rodgers has another stellar year, and I see no reason why he wouldn't, words may well be exchanged between his agent and Ted Thompson come the 2013 offseason.

Yet, there is perhaps another precedent (of sorts) Brees has set that runs deeper than the others, if perhaps being a less tangible, more conceptual precedent. While the NFL is primarily a business, many of us football fans outside of the league like to believe that we, the fans, do hold at least some marginal influence, and that our support – or our resentment – makes a difference. Realistically, we probably do not, but if the fans' support does hold some sway, it certainly appeared to be with Brees rather than the team during the contract negotiations. Even if the players and the teams don't pay too much attention to the fans' views, the fans' influence is perhaps more keenly felt by pundits and analysts – and it seemed the belief that the Saints should pay Brees whatever he demands seemed to be as ubiquitous among the media as it was with the fans. It's not hard to see why support lay so much with Brees; over and above his superior play on the field, it is the role he holds among the community of New Orleans that makes him perhaps more valuable to the entirety of his franchise – by which I mean everything about the Saints, the team, the business, and the brand – than any other player in the league. With the team reeling from Goodell's punishments over Bountygate, and the loss of their de facto leader, Sean Payton, for the 2012 season, more than ever the team needed their field general to fill the void, and it is all of those factors – not just the leadership he brings to the team, but to the wider New Orleans community – that certainly played into the size of Drew Brees' contract.

But you know all this already – where's the precedent? Well, the very last point – taking over Sean Payton's leadership duties – is probably going to be unique in NFL history, but even if Payton had never been suspended, Brees would probably be paid a similar amount. The Saints could not have risked going through any part of the NFL season without Brees because of what that man means to the city of New Orleans. In times of tragedy, it appears to be a human trait to draw strength from an external source, drawing solace from it to make the other areas of life seem less bleak. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, it was the Saints that the New Orleans community turned to for strength and distraction, a common cause around which they could rally – one which rewarded them with a Lombardi Trophy in 2009. If the team hadn't been able to work out a contract with the team, there is no question that there would have been an incredible backlash from the locals, and whether the fans would have felt more betrayed by the team, or by Brees, we cannot say, but in either case, that bond between team and community would have been seriously damaged. With all the negative press surrounding Bountygate, that's something the Saints simply couldn't risk – and here's the part where I have to say again, the NFL is, primarily, a business. You might call me cynical, but I truly believe that every agent with a client in the NFL has come to this realisation. Of course, the cult of “Breesus” arose in New Orleans from a very specific set of circumstances that, one would hope, won't be seen again any time soon; but still, there is a massive scope for players to become figures in their communities, and on the back of the Brees deal, it will not be surprising if agents increasingly try and capitalise on this angle in attempts to extract more money from teams. Admittedly, you can be the most community-minded player in the league – if you don't have the on-field skills, then there will likely be no backlash if you get cut. If, however, you're one of the better players on your team – and if you've been slapped with the franchise tag, then you are – then the potential fan backlash may well have an influence on the team's approach to the contract negotiations. You can see, to an extent, an example of the effect severing ties with a beloved player can have in Tampa Bay. While there are myriad reasons why the team has sold out just two home games over the last two years (not including the International Series game against the Bears in 2011), no doubt one of the contributing factors was the handling of the release of Derrick Brooks, and there is a small but vocal section of Bucs fans who will never forgive the front office staff for that particular move. Even if it had been previously speculated

You guys couldn't have just paid me
four months ago?
or known what the effect of cutting these fan favourites would have been, this Brees deal shows the flipside of that effect – that those teams wanting to avoid such backlashes from the fanbase need to pay for that privilege; and, what's more, agents looking to exploit this angle now have an idea of the lengths teams are willing to go for it. As a result, do not be surprised if any top-tier NFL player who is coming up to free agency starts stepping up his community involvement to previously unheralded levels (under their agent's advice, of course), just to give the player that extra bit of leverage when it comes to talking money. Still, even if it may be for this most cynical of reasons, if this speculation is correct, it will see an even greater degree of player involvement in charities and local communities than already exists – and that can only be a good thing, regardless of underlying motivation.

Realistically, the Saints knew they would have to do whatever they could to get Drew Brees under contract before the July 16th deadline, and they did so by offering him the most money any NFL player has ever made in a single season. In doing so, the two camps between them set the framework of discourse for the contract negotiations of every top-tier player while the current CBA is still in place. By making it thoroughly impractical for a team to place a franchise tag on a player for the third time in his career; by dictating the benchmarks against which QB contracts will be measured against; and by taking on a huge off-field role, on Brees' part, and delivering such a reward in recognition, on the part of the Saints, introducing a new dimension to calculating the value of a player – between all these factors, the art of contract negotiation just got that much more complex.

- Gur "Fred" Samuel (@FredTheGur)
- The Pulling Linemen

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