The Washington Redskins added to their free agent haul in their frenetic offseason when an arbitrator yesterday awarded them kick returner Chad Morton, a restricted free agent from the New York Jets.
Arbitrator Richard Bloch made Morton, who ranked second in the AFC in kickoff returns last season, a member of the Redskins by upholding the NFL Players Association's claim that the Jets improperly matched a five-year, nearly $8 million contract offer sheet to him last month.
"We're sure excited to have a player the caliber of Chad Morton, and we look forward to having him in burgundy and gold," Redskins owner Daniel Snyder said. "We've always dealt straight with our player contracts, and we're happy that the arbitrator agreed. I want to see how the Jets spin this one now.''
The Redskins must give their fifth-round draft choice to the Jets as compensation for Morton.
The Jets, after consulting with the NFL's management council, did not match a provision in the Redskins' offer to void the final two seasons of the contract. Bloch sided with the union, which argued during a hearing on Thursday in front of the Washington-based arbitrator that the voidable-years clause was a principle term of the contract that the Jets had to match to keep Morton. The provision creates a $1 million salary cap hit for Morton's team after three seasons and was designed by the Redskins to dissuade the Jets from matching the offer.
"This is a 100 percent victory for the player,'' said Richard Berthelsen, the union's general counsel. "Getting a ruling that the Jets had to match the void clause would have been a victory. Getting him to the team he wanted to be with is the ultimate victory.''
On March 13, the Jets announced that they would keep Morton by matching the Redskins' offer. Under the NFL's rules for restricted free agency, the Jets had one week to decide whether to match the Redskins' offer, which is worth $7.945 million and includes a signing bonus of $2.5 million.
Morton, on the advice of agent Leigh Steinberg, did not sign the Jets' version of the contract, which the club sent to Steinberg minus the voidable-years provision. The union filed a grievance on Morton's behalf. The union maintained that, if Bloch decided the voidable-years clause was a principle term, the Jets should not be given another chance to match the Redskins' offer because their one-week window to match had long since expired. Bloch agreed.
"By forwarding a copy of its proposed player contract, sans the voidability option, [New York] manifested its intention not to be bound by that very meaningful element of the Offer Sheet,'' Bloch wrote. "However willing the [Jets] may have been to subsequently abide by the voidability clause if so required, the unavoidable conclusion is that, at that critical juncture of the carefully documented contract formation stage, there was no match. . . . The New York Jets do not have a binding agreement with the player. The finding is that the binding agreement is with [the Redskins]."
According to sources, the Jets likely would have prevailed in the arbitration if they'd sent Steinberg and Morton a side letter along with their version of the contract, stating that they intended to match anything in the deal deemed a principle term. The Jets, perhaps realizing they were about to lose Morton, attempted to settle the dispute in recent days by negotiating a new contract with Morton, sources said.
Jets General Manager Terry Bradway said in a written statement released by the team: "We are disappointed in the arbitrator's decision. Based on the NFL management council's opinion that so-called voidable years are not principle terms and need not be matched by a player's former team, we allowed the process to run its course."
Dennis Curran, the general counsel for the management council, said in a statement that "Bloch clearly exceeded his authority under the" league's collective bargaining agreement.
The Redskins plan for Morton to join the team and participate in a Redskins Park news conference on Wednesday. He becomes the third restricted free agent added by the Redskins this offseason, following wide receiver Laveranues Coles and safety Matt Bowen. The club surrendered its first-round pick for Coles and its sixth-round selection for Bowen and is left with four choices in this month's draft -- one selection each in the second and third rounds and a pair of seventh-round picks. The Redskins traded their fourth-round choice to the St. Louis Rams in February for tailback Trung Canidate.
Last offseason, only one restricted free agent changed teams in the entire league. "I used to describe it [restricted free agency] to our players as a defect in the collective bargaining agreement,'' Steinberg said. "No one ever gets to go anywhere.''
In all, the Redskins have acquired 13 players since the NFL's trading and free agent signing period began on Feb. 28. The team has signed nine unrestricted free agents and three restricted free agents in addition to trading for Canidate. Morton becomes the fourth free agent defection from the Jets to the Redskins, joining Coles and a pair of unrestricted free agents, guard Randy Thomas and place kicker John Hall. The teams are scheduled to meet in the season opener on Sept. 4 at FedEx Field.
Morton, who turned 26 on Friday, averaged 26 yards per kickoff return last season. He returned two kicks for touchdowns in a season-opening win at Buffalo, including the game-winner in overtime. He likely will serve as the Redskins' punt returner as well.
The running back played little on offense in two seasons with the Jets after catching 30 passes out of the backfield for the New Orleans Saints as a rookie in 2000. He and Steinberg stressed during their deliberations with Snyder, Coach Steve Spurrier and other Redskins officials that Morton would like to play more on offense. Morton played tailback and wide receiver in college at USC while Hue Jackson, now the Redskins' offensive coordinator, was the school's offensive coordinator.