According to NFL lore, future Hall of Fame center Jim Ringo of the Green Bay Packers showed up in coach Vince Lombardi’s office after the 1963 season, seeking a raise. He brought with him an agent, which was an unheard-of negotiating ploy, one that didn’t play well. Lombardi excused himself, left the room and came back after a few minutes to inform Ringo he had been traded to the Eagles.
That story might be embellished — Lombardi supposedly already had been working on a Ringo trade — but it is indicative of the lack of power players held in the league’s fledgling days, and well beyond. And even after the advent of free agency in 1993, NFL players generally are regarded as having far less leverage than their NBA and MLB brethren.
Fast forward to last week, when star defensive lineman Jadeveon Clowney orchestrated his own departure from the Houston Texans with tactical brilliance and fearless audacity, landing in Seattle. Sure, Seahawks general manager John Schneider was prepared when the opportunity presented itself, and skillfully pounced upon the situation. Sure, Clowney’s former teammate, Duane Brown, extolled the virtues of Seattle and the Seahawks in persuasive fashion.
But make no mistake: Clowney was calling all the shots here, as a result of misplays by the GM-less Texans, and his own maneuvering. By refusing to sign his franchise tag once the Texans foolishly made it known they were trying to trade him, Clowney had complete leverage. He foiled a potential deal to Miami, which is the one the Texans desired. Not only did Clowney steer the trade to the team he wanted — the one he probably felt gives him the best chance to have a dominant season, and thus cash in as a free agent next year — but he got the Seahawks to agree not to franchise him next year.
That’s a huge concession on the other end.
It reminds me, in a way, of Ken Griffey Jr.’s insistence on being traded to the Cincinnati Reds after the 1999 season, which severely hamstrung Mariners GM Pat Gillick in his dealings with Reds counterpart Jim Bowden. Gillick managed to make out fine when Mike Cameron emerged as an All-Star player who more than doubled Griffey’s Wins Above Replacement over the next four years.
But by the looks of it, the Seahawks all but swindled the Texans by giving up a player they were on the verge of cutting (Barkevious Mingo), a young player not yet established in the NFL (Jacob Martin) and a third-round draft pick (what they likely would get as compensation if Clowney walks after the 2019 season). That’s what happens when all your leverage is yanked away.
The question being raised in many quarters is whether this is the tipping point in what USA Today this week called “The Player Empowerment Era.” On Tuesday, it appeared that Cowboys holdout Ezekiel Elliott was on the verge of signing the largest contract for a running back in history. The Chargers on Monday gave their holdout running back, Melvin Gordon, permission to seek a trade partner, perhaps enhancing Gordon’s chances of getting the contract he’s seeking.
That’s on top of other recent coups by players, as pointed out by USA Today. By declining to sign a long-term contract with Washington, quarterback Kirk Cousins played two years on a lucrative franchise tag and then got the fully guaranteed, multiyear deal from the Vikings he was seeking — the first of its kind in the NFL.
There’s Khalil Mack, who refused to play out the final year of his rookie deal with Oakland and forced the Raiders to trade him to the Bears, who promptly signed him to a contract that made him the highest-paid defensive player in NFL history. Steelers star wide receiver Antonio Brown demanded a trade after last season, scuttled Pittsburgh’s original trade of him to Buffalo and wound up being sent to the Raiders — where he got a new contract that added $30 million in guaranteed money.
But it’s a little premature to say that the NFL players are seizing control of their destinations in a similar fashion as those in the NBA, where it is common for superstars to band together in alliances that result in pockets of “super-teams.” LeBron James started that trend when he took his talents to Miami, and it was in full force this offseason with Anthony Davis forcing a trade to join James on the Lakers, and Kawhi Leonard and Paul George teaming up on the Clippers, among other examples.
As veteran agent Leigh Steinberg pointed out in a phone interview, “In football, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George all get franchised.”
The dreaded franchise tag, which was put into place in 1993 at the insistence of NFL owners fearful of losing their star quarterbacks, still mitigates against the free movement of superstars. Look at Le’Veon Bell, who sat out last year rather than sign his franchise tag. He signed with the Jets this offseason, but there’s no guarantee he’ll make up the $14.5 million he gave up by not playing in 2018.
“The Bell example is a complete aberration, because very few players, rational players, turn down $14 million in a sport where their future is not guaranteed,” Steinberg said.
One agent speculated that the lesson teams will learn from the Clowney situation is to trade such players before the draft, so they can avoid that mess. That’s what the Chiefs did with Dee Ford (to the 49ers) and the Seahawks with Frank Clark (to the Chiefs in a trade that netted them the capital to greatly enhance what would otherwise have been a depleted 2019 draft, gave them the cap room to sign Ziggy Ansah and helped them make the Clowney trade).
You can also bet that NFL management will try to tighten the rules to prevent such machinations in the next collective-bargaining agreement. The current one expires after the 2020 season.
So yes, players around the NFL no doubt are watching with keen interest as Clowney, Mack and others wield newfound power (like Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, who set an April 15 deadline for his contract negotiations and wound up as the highest-paid player in NFL history). Some no doubt will be emboldened to try to emulate their game plan.
But as Steinberg points out, the CBA is specifically designed to stop veteran holdouts. And beyond that, the tenuous nature of an NFL life span works in the same fashion.
“It’s the same problem they have with striking,” he said. “They know they have a short playing career, and every check matters.”
On the other hand, the skill set of a Jadeveon Clowney is extremely rarefied, and tremendously coveted. And a few NFL players are starting to throw that weight around.