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The Earl Thomas Saga Is Only the Beginning

On Sunday, one of the best defensive players of his generation broke his leg and then flashed his middle finger at his own team’s sideline while he was carted off the field. It was a sad end to Thomas’s contract negotiations with Seattle, and an illustration of growing frustrations in a league where even the best players barely have any leverage.

AP Images/Ringer illustration

Just four weeks into the NFL season, the future is here and it looks like startlingly accurate young quarterbacks throwing darts, running innovative schemes, and scoring points. It also looks like this: Earl Thomas, a future Hall of Famer and one of the best players of his generation, flipping off his own team from an injury cart after a frustrating contract dispute that ended with a season-ending injury on Sunday.

NFL teams have gotten very good at figuring out how to efficiently build rosters. The smartest teams are—rightly—praised for their cap management. And over the past seven years, the Seahawks have been one of the models of team-building.

But here is the contradiction at the heart of the modern game: What is good for these smart teams is awful for most professional football players. The Seahawks got a lot of value for their money from Thomas over the past eight years, which ended in a four-year, $40 million deal that expires after this year. Since Thomas signed his deal in 2014, right after winning a Super Bowl, the safety market reset itself a handful of times, culminating in Eric Berry’s $78 million deal last year with the Chiefs. Thomas wanted an extension or a trade, but the Seahawks wanted neither.

In a league where players struggle to gain leverage, Thomas’s episode shows the limits of what even a great player can do when he doesn’t like his situation. Thomas skipped training camp and then showed up for the first week of the season. From there, he tried something else: Thomas, according to Fox’s Jay Glazer, staged a “hold in” for most of September instead of a holdout. This means he was in the building during the week and playing games, but he’d plop down on the sidelines at practice in protest of his situation. In a stroke of bad luck, his broken leg came just before a rumored trade to the Kansas City Chiefs looked like it might go through. This, of course, is the worst-case scenario for a player like Thomas, who could have skipped games because of the injury risk, especially in a league where injury rates are up. In Pittsburgh, star running back Le’Veon Bell is sitting out half the season in order to preserve his health for free agency. He’s been unhappy with his contract for at least three seasons and has been franchise-tagged in both 2017 and 2018. Bell was drafted by the Steelers in 2013 and will have played six seasons for the team—in three of which he made less than $1 million. Bell made three All-Pro teams in Pittsburgh but will likely never agree to anything other than a rookie contract with the team. There is no guarantee Bell’s absence will pay off—he’ll reportedly return for a Week 8 clash against the Browns—and what kind of market Thomas can command coming off a broken leg will be a mystery until next spring.

Given what it does to their bodies, football players especially deserve to be paid fairly. And yet the modern NFL rewards teams for doing the exact opposite. A player’s goal is to land a lucrative second or third contract—and the NFL does give those out—but giving out as few of those as possible has become the quickest way for a team to build a contender.

Thomas is probably the best safety of his generation, and he was the best defensive player in football going into Sunday, according to Pro Football Focus. He was the most important member of the Legion of Boom, the now-disbanded secondary that featured Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor and propelled the Seahawks to one of the best runs of any team this century. Sherman, age 30, left for San Francisco this offseason and signed a deal packed with per-game bonuses, another tactic that shifts risk from teams to players. Sherman will lose $125,000 every time he doesn’t play and will lose $1 million if he doesn’t play 90 percent of possible snaps. He’s now expected to miss a few weeks with a calf injury.

Seattle Seahawks v Arizona Cardinals
Earl Thomas
Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images

How did we get here? In 2011, tired of seeing the likes of Sam Bradford get $78 million on his first contract, the NFL enacted a rookie salary cap as part of its collective bargaining agreement. Suddenly, first overall picks were getting about $55 million less on their rookie deals, and the thinking was that all of that money would go to veterans across the league. That was partly true. There was a veteran spending boom—most of it on veteran quarterbacks and select superstars who hit the open market. The salary cap is rising about $10 million a year and with that, the record for largest contract in history keeps getting broken—by quarterbacks. Derek Carr, Matthew Stafford, Jimmy Garoppolo, Aaron Rodgers, and Matt Ryan have all broken the record for salaries in the past year and a half. The salary cap boom—it has risen $54 million per team in five years—has dovetailed with the rise in passing that has seen scoring and passing records rewritten dozens of times this decade.

With the rookie salary scale came something else: teams figuring out that cheap young players can help you win—and that the franchise tag, the most valuable negotiation tactic for teams in all of sports, could conceivably keep the best of those young players with a team for three more years after their original contract. In theory, a team could keep a first-round star for eight years without ever sitting down for a real negotiation. Football Outsiders, which tracks the age of NFL players (weighted by the amount of snaps they play) said the average age of a player in 2017 was 26.46, the lowest on record, breaking the record set the year before, which broke the record of the year before. Half of all NFL value comes from players on rookie contracts, a 20-year high. There’s even an idea that teams should always have a quarterback on a rookie contract and just trade away their quarterback every time he gets expensive—which, in theory, is a great idea in the context of how the NFL is set up. In practice, it’s much harder. Yes, it’s possible that trading Jared Goff before he signs his first big contract would net the Rams more value in the long run, but there’s no guarantee Goff’s replacement could make the throws needed to keep the Sean McVay train rolling, even if you could spend the remaining cap space on a better supporting cast. But it’s also not an idea that should be dismissed out of hand, and that says a lot about where we are.

With cheap, replacement-level young players serving as useful stand-ins for veterans, those veterans have in turn lost most of their leverage. Add in the compensatory draft picks that teams get when they lose a free agent and there is very little incentive to keep anyone but the elite of the elite—and even then, that’s only true at positions that teams deem valuable. So quarterbacks, dominant pass rushers, select wide receivers, and some elite offensive or defensive linemen.

Teams have been ruthless with their salary cap management, and the best ones have earned universal praise, including from me, for that practice. Below-market deals are thought of as part of expert team-building. When a franchise extracts all the value it can from a rookie and then lets him go, that front office is doing its team a massive service. But the players are getting screwed: squeezing value from a young player and tossing him aside is ideal for the team and awful for the player.

Baseball underpays its young major leaguers as well, except there’s no salary cap and players eventually enter a lucrative free-agency process that can result in a worse-than-average player like San Diego’s Eric Hosmer somehow getting between $13 million and $21 million a year guaranteed through 2025. Basketball has plenty of player movement when players’ contracts are up and teams are granting trade requests to a point that the league is being compared to European soccer, where player transfer requests are granted a majority of the time for even the thinnest of reasons. On top of all this, football is the only sport without guaranteed contracts, meaning that most of the money players do manage to negotiate may never materialize.

Now, not all holdouts fail. Khalil Mack had no intention of showing up for the Raiders and then they inexplicably traded him to the Bears, where he’s single-handedly transformed the franchise. (Note how the Raiders, who gave a player what he wanted, are the ones getting mocked here.) Aaron Donald, after multiple summer holdouts, finally got the contract he deserved because the Rams believe they’re ready to win the Super Bowl while Goff is still on his rookie deal.

“The draft has to be front and center of how you build a football team. [Rookies] are younger, they are less expensive than veteran players. That’s the way the CBA is set up. I didn’t set it up. That’s just the way it’s set up,” Titans general manager Jon Robinson told me over the summer. Collecting rookies and shifting lots of money to the quarterback is the standard operating procedure in the NFL. The Seahawks probably taught the league lessons on this when they hit on a number of mid-round draft picks—Sherman, Chancellor, and Bobby Wagner, among many others—and became one of the best teams in the league. Head coach Pete Carroll said he hopes guaranteed contracts are considered in the next round of CBA talks. I’m guessing most NFL teams don’t agree.

Even in the media, the default suggestion is often “don’t pay the players.” When Donald held out at the beginning of last season, USA Today wrote: “The team has plenty of options. Paying Donald is the one most fans are clamoring for. That doesn’t make it the most sensible option, though. In fact, it might be the least logical decision the Rams could make.”

The Rams disagreed and finally gave Donald a record-setting contract in August, but if there’s a case to be made that paying Aaron Donald is illogical, then the system is illogical. Perhaps this is a problem solved by an NBA-style max contract, which would prevent teams from putting so much money into their QB deals and force them to spread it around elsewhere. A cap on quarterback salaries is something that Washington cornerback Josh Norman proposed to me in training camp. Norman, of course, became the highest-paid cornerback in league history because the Panthers inexplicably renounced the franchise tag they’d placed on him in 2016. Norman is very good, but when it comes to contracts, it’s better to be lucky.

Divisional Round - Jacksonville Jaguars v Pittsburgh Steelers
Le’Veon Bell in January 2018
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

NFL teams are, in some cases, stuck in the dark ages. They don’t go for it on fourth down enough. Some coaches have no idea what schemes to run. But one trend absolutely no team has missed is the one that puts nearly all the risk on the player. That includes split contracts that pay players less if they get hurt, despite this being a league where getting hurt is the norm. There’s also per-game bonuses where teams get to save money if their investment can’t get on the field.

Call it selective efficiency. When there’s the option to keep a salary down—despite the rising cap, running backs’ franchise-tag number has dropped over the past five years—teams never miss it. Every franchise has a different concept of value—some love trading picks for players, some hoard mid-round picks. The only thing universally valued by NFL teams is paying as little money to the players as they can.

Now, there are ways to force teams to spend. A team must spend 89 percent of its available cap space over a four-year period. However, they get to keep rollover cap space, meaning teams can stockpile massive amounts of cap space in order to give one mega-contract. This is how Jimmy Garoppolo signed a deal giving him the largest cap hit in history, $37 million this year. San Francisco had a salary cap of $233 million this year if you include rollover space.

Among the top 20 cash earners in NFL history, there are three defensive players: Julius Peppers, Ndamukong Suh, and Darrelle Revis. All of them found a way to reach free agency at least once, and in Peppers’s and Revis’s cases, twice. But 16 of the top 20 earners in history are quarterbacks. This is the conundrum for a player like Thomas: If he tried to reach free agency when his first contract was up, the Seahawks could have franchise-tagged him into oblivion. When he tried to get a new contract this time, his holdout didn’t force a trade or extension talks, and then he got injured. The fact Kirk Cousins had to pull one of the NFL’s best escape acts to get out of Washington and land his fully guaranteed deal tells you a lot about the state of the modern NFL player: It takes a lot to ever see your full value.

Are there fair teams? Sure. But the problem is they don’t do all that much winning. Rick Gosselin wrote two years ago in the Dallas News that Cowboys owner Jerry Jones “has spent lavishly on his players, setting up the Tony Romos, Jason Wittens, Dez Bryants, Sean Lees, Tyron Smiths, and Travis Frederickses for life. So free-spending has he been with his star players that the Cowboys have been annually squeezed by the salary cap with little money left to spend on free agents.” It is a copycat league and I promise you that at the moment, no one is trying to copy the Dallas Cowboys.

NFL teams have 90 players in training camp and 53 during the season, so there are far more players to pay than the NBA’s 15. In football, even those stars with the most leverage can’t get teams to move off their contract structures. Rodgers explored “non-traditional” options during his recent negotiation with the Packers and he couldn’t get them. “Ultimately, I don’t think the NFL is ready for those type of contracts and willing to go in some of those directions,” Rodgers said shortly after he signed. If he cannot get leverage for a paradigm-changing deal, there’s little hope for anyone else.

Thomas flipped off his own team on Sunday. It was the end of a very long struggle, and the beginning of a bigger one for many players like him. “I think that’s the crazy part of our business. If he doesn’t come, then he’s not a team player,” Bobby Wagner told reporters. “If he does come and he gets hurt, then it’s, ‘He shouldn’t have come.’ So it’s a position that we get put in often, and it’s an unfortunate situation.”