Since my last column in this space, it seems a year’s worth of business of football stories have happened in what has been the busiest two weeks of the year. As I always say, the games are just the storefront; the real action of the NFL happens behind the game in the decision-making and intrigue of the NFL and its teams.
Although hard to streamline a list of any kind for what has happened in the last two weeks, I present the Early Top Ten 2022 Business of Football stories from this eventful time in NFL history.
1. Deshaun Watson’s Perfect Storm: Free Agency Despite Accounts of Misconduct
I would have never thought that a player facing 22 civil lawsuits alleging sexual misconduct would receive the largest and most guaranteed contract in NFL history. Ironically—and sadly—due to circumstances actually brought by his own alleged misconduct, Watson was able to pick his team and essentially write his contract. As I always point out, the only true financial player empowerment comes from free agency, and it is proved once again here: The only two fully guaranteed veteran NFL contracts have been for a true free agent (Kirk Cousins) and a functional free agent ( Watson). Watson was able to select his team due to a no-trade clause in his earlier contract and the fact that, a little more than a year after Watson demanded a trade, the Texans decided they wanted no further part of him. The Browns were initially out of the running as Watson had narrowed his choices to the Saints and Falcons but, alas, follow the money. My sense is that the Browns would not be denied, cracking open their wallets and selling part of their soul beyond anything the Saints and Falcons, even making this year’s salary the minimum (roughly $1 million) so that Watson would suffer as little as financially possible with a suspension likely coming. Browns owner Jimmy Haslam then put out a statement about “comprehensive research” that did not include any contact with the lawyer for the women suing Watson, insulting fans everywhere. I feel even conflicted writing about this. Something I have advocated for players for so long—a truly guaranteed long-term contract—comes to a player about to be suspended under the NFL’s personal conduct policy, but here we are. Now other elite quarterbacks will ask for the “Watson deal” while their teams try to explain it away that Watson’s bad, not good, behavior led to unique circumstances. Essentially, Watson was a free agent, and a rising young quarterback is precious gold in the NFL no matter the circumstances, it seems.
2. Davante Adams’s Divorce From Green Bay
I was initially shocked to see this trade (I found out from a crying emoji text from my son—we are still big Packer fans, as you know from this space), but after thinking about it, I am not surprised. Something was amiss with the relationship between the Packers and Adams. Part of it was the Packers being one of the most proactive teams in signing core players early before free agency. They have even done so recently with players such as David Bakhtiari, Kenny Clark and, of course, Aaron Rodgers. And they have known what it would take to sign Adams, since the market was set in 2020 when DeAndre Hopkins secured a $27.5 million per year average of new money. The Packers told the media they offered Adams even more money than he is getting with his new team, the Raiders, but if they did, it seems it only happened in response to another team. Adams had said he would not play this season under the franchise tag, something teams usually regard as offseason hyperbole, as players aren’t going to walk away from $1 million or more per week come September. With Adams, however, the Packers did not want to call his bluff from him. This divorce was clearly not about the money; something was not right about the relationship with Adams and the Packers. Speaking of the Packers…
3. Aaron Rodgers Redux
Listen, I actually really do want to stop talking and writing about Aaron Rodgers, and I promise I will, but now that the contract numbers and structure are out, the situation screams out for me to be the contrarian once again. While reports blare about guarantees of $150 million over three years, I view this contract as a one-year deal for $42 million. Next year there are two guaranteed option bonuses, but these bonuses (1) have to be exercised by the Packers, and (2) would travel to a new team upon any trade. And with this option bonus structure, the dead money actually goes up the longer the contract goes on. Were Rodgers to retire or be traded before the option next year, there would be roughly $40 million of dead money (as with Matt Ryan and the Falcons below) but also a credit of $59 million in nonexercised bonuses back to the Packers. And if he were to play again for the Packers next year, the dead money would rise to never-before-seen proportions. The Packers knew this in negotiating this contract, as did Rodgers’s agent. In my humble opinion, this contract suggests a one and done for Rodgers and Jordan Love will ascend to the Packers starting quarterback job after three years of apprenticeship, the same term that Aaron waited years ago.
4. Randy Gregory’s Change of Plans
Gregory had agreed to return to the Cowboys when his agent noticed forfeiture language in his contract that voided future guarantees if Gregory was fined. Contract language is not a CBA issue; it is team to team, and the Cowboys appear to have more restrictive language than most teams (usually it requires a player to be suspended, not just fined). Gregory and his agent got upset and he opened up his free agency again, ultimately signing with the Broncos who, of course, were not requiring such language. As someone who wrote team contracts for 10 years, I know the importance of team precedent, and the Cowboys reportedly have that forfeiture language in all contracts, save for Dak Prescott who they could explain away as an outlier. And if Gregory were only negotiating with the Cowboys, he would have certainly accepted that language. The difference here is that Gregory was not only negotiating with the Cowboys; he had the leverage of free agency and a team (the Broncos) giving him not only the money he wanted, but also the contract language. So he’s off to Denver. I like it to a thriving real estate market where a buyer expects an inspection before closing, yet another buyer swoops in and buys the house with no inspection required. I spoke about this Gregory situation in a Twitter video.
5. Russell Wilson’s Seattle Escape
The Seahawks foreshadowed this trade when coach Pete Carroll earlier said, “We have no intention of trading Russell Wilson,” which, of course, meant, “We are still evaluating offers to trade Russell Wilson.” That marriage seemed somewhat like the Rodgers-Packers marriage a year ago, with the player wanting more say and more control and a feeling that he may be better off elsewhere. While the Packers and Rodgers moved towards each other over the past year, it did not happen in Seattle. Wilson appeared influenced by what I call the “Brady effect,” seeing the input and control that Tom Brady had in Tampa when he went there. And with quarterback-desperate teams like Washington and Denver, the Seahawks could leverage a blockbuster trade. Of course, a trade like this—with multiple top picks who have to get going in their careers the next couple of years—cannot be judged for years, but it is a short-term win for Denver, a franchise for sale that is worth tens of millions more today than two weeks ago. Finally, as to the notion that Wilson (or Rodgers) would not want to play in a division with Patrick Mahomes, Justin Herbert, etc., well, isn’t that exactly the type of division that they would want to play in?
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6. Carson Wentz’s Dead Money Ricochet
The Eagles paid a king’s ransom to move up to draft Carson Wentz and a few years later paid a top-of-market contract to sign him. But things soured in Philadelphia with the shadow of Nick Foles and then Jalen Hurts, and the Eagles shipped him to Indianapolis, incurring the largest dead money cap charge in NFL history ($34 million) in doing so. With the Colts, we thought Wentz would flourish with his one true champion in the league, Frank Reich. But alas, he was one and done and shipped to Washington, creating another hole at quarterback for the Colts. They have now turned to Matt Ryan, fresh off being put on hold while the Falcons pursued Watson, and a trade was made. And this one gives the Falcons the (unwanted) championship over the Eagles in amount of dead money counting for one player, activating a staggering $40.5 million cap charge for Ryan (almost 20% of the Falcons Cap), who, of course, will be nowhere near the Falcons this year. Colts general manager Chris Ballard has now brought out the two most damaging nonroster cap charges in the NFL, foisted upon the Eagles and the Falcons, in his acquisitions of Wentz and Ryan. Ballard and the Colts have assumed no dead money in these trades while triggering almost $75 million of it on other teams.
7. Chargers “Win Now” With a Cheap Quarterback
The Chargers have been the “other team” in Los Angeles despite having a scintillating quarterback talent in Justin Herbert. Now, as their shared tenant at SoFi Stadium, the Rams, they appear to be going for it. They acquired pass rusher Khalil Mack, signed perhaps the top free agent available in cornerback JC Jackson, and re-upped receiver Mike Williams at a top-of-market rate, making them the first NFL team with two $20 million-per-year receivers (Keenan Allen is the other). Their spending this year is clearly taking advantage of the most valuable asset in the NFL, a proven top quarterback playing on his rookie contract, making roughly $5 million a year while similar players make $30 million to $40 million a year or more (see Watson) . The Chargers, per the CBA, are able to leverage one more year of Herbert playing for relative peanuts, and they are operating accordingly. The Bengals, with Joe Burrow in the same situation, are doing some of the same.
8. Tom Brady’s 40-Day Retirement
This never really seemed to be a real retirement to begin with, and now we know why. Brady was mum about the first reports of his retirement from him, said nothing about it on his podcast that week before retiring (sort of) through a social media post—one overshadowed by the explosive Brian Flores lawsuit on the same day. Six weeks later, his “spending time with the family” turned to “him spending time with his football family.” I lived this with Brett Favre in Green Bay a few times before he actually retired; in our case, we had a replacement waiting in the bullpen at Rodgers. The Bucs had and have no such replacement, so they left the light on for Brady, who never seemed committed to retirement. And they just went from a middling team to a Super Bowl contender once again.
9. Bills Biggest Winner of All
Even Watson’s contract is a relatively inconsequential amount compared to the contract the Bills received from the state of New York: a reported $1 billion to subsidize a new stadium. A few years ago the state of Nevada forked over $750 million to Mark Davis and the Raiders to help build their new stadium; Bills owner Terry Pegula now says to Davis, “Hold my beer!” This public largesse will once again stir the debate about states and municipalities funding billionaire owners rather than allocating these resources to schools, public safety, hospitals, etc. However, the tone from New York Gov. Kathy Hochul was reactive to a perceived threat from Pegula to move the Bills even though, now that Los Angeles and Las Vegas are secured, there are no obvious strong markets for relocation (Austin? St. Louis?). This is a massive win for Pegula, who now will socialize the cost of the building while privatizing the profit. What a business.
10. Remembering John Clayton
Like so many, I was saddened to hear about John Clayton’s passing. He was a fixture and favorite not only by all NFL media but by NFL team coaches and executives as well. Nicknamed “The Professor,” he was also a keen student of the NFL salary cap and picked my brain often about it, armed with his ubiquitous spreadsheets. And John was such a giving guy: When I joined ESPN he was always helpful in showing me the ropes on camera and off; he was never too big a television personality to help others, he was such a humble and selfless guy. What a loss this is for the NFL and media community.
A year’s worth of business of football stories in a week. Exhale…
More NFL Coverage:
• How 22 Women and One Star Quarterback Got Here
• The Browns Will Never Live Down the Watson Trade
• Introducing the Business of Football Hall of Fame
• MAQB: What Evaluators Think Matt Ryan Has Left
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism