To Antonio Pierce, the meeting between the Washington Redskins and the New York Giants is about competing values. The Giants properly valued him when the Redskins did not, at least in his estimation.
We're going to learn a lot about the Redskins on Sunday, and one of the things we'll learn is whether they should have let Pierce get away. According to the middle linebacker, it didn't have to happen. Though he was a free agent this past offseason, he had no thoughts of leaving. After all, Coach Joe Gibbs called him a "core guy," and defensive mentor Gregg Williams loved him. And then it happened. The Redskins low-balled him.
"It was about a difference of opinion in value, and loyalty in the front office," Pierce says.
There ought to be a sign in NFL locker rooms that says: "This is your workplace, not your family. Never get the two mixed up."
Modern NFL clubs have the capacity to wound their employees more than most other institutions. Wal-Mart cashiers should know the firm doesn't really have their best interests at heart, compared to corporate interests. But NFL players -- no matter how rich or cynical or experienced -- scream in pain when management doesn't show them the love and loyalty they think they deserve. Why? For one thing, they are young. For another thing, their coaches have encouraged them to think of teams in terms of family.
Pierce, who turned 27 Wednesday, wanted to belong to the Redskins family. After making the Redskins roster in 2001 as an undrafted free agent out of Arizona, he spent four chaotic years under three head coaches and four defensive coordinators. Teammates came and went. Pierce kept his mouth shut and did whatever was asked. He spent two years laboring on special teams. He was bright, talented, selfless. Articulate and thoughtful during the week, he was a shaved-head, cinder-eyed menace on Sundays.
Last season, he became the top tackler on a defense that was third in the league. It was the perfect time to be an unrestricted free agent, but Pierce said he told the Redskins he didn't want to test the market. He wanted to remain a Redskin. He wanted to get his deal done. All he asked was that they pay him the kind of money they had other free agents.
"You see so many people come and go, and you just want to be treated fair," he says. "I was a guy who always did what he was asked."
But what they offered him in return, he says, "was ridiculous."
Pierce was dumbfounded. After all, other players had practically heisted the team. The Redskins had thrown millions at a bunch of bum free agents. And suddenly the wallet was closed?
"It was definitely a star system," he says. "It was a Who's Who. . . . I don't know what they valued more, the hype or the names. That's what made it hard for me. I'd been there four years. You step up to the plate and do your job. And then you don't get rewarded."
Ironically, in dealing with Pierce, the Redskins were affected by the free spending they had done in those years of chaos. In 2004, they spent $49.6 million on bonuses to six new players in just four days. Now Gibbs was trying to restore some stability and sanity to their salary structure.
In the end, they made Pierce a large offer, one that was "close" to what he wanted, he admits. But he said he gave the Redskins a chance to match the Giants' offer, which included a $6.5 million signing bonus, and they declined.
All the time, players talk coolly about how the NFL is a business. But it's only a business when it happens to someone else. When it happens to you, it's "disrespect."
So, when the Giants offered Pierce $26 million over six years, he took it.
Standing in the middle of the Giants' locker room on Wednesday in his gray sweats, Pierce couldn't help commenting, somewhat acidly, on the difference in management style between the Giants and the Redskins. Only a day earlier, the Giants courtly 89-year-old owner, Wellington Mara, had died. One of the things that had swayed him toward the Giants, he said, was that his old friend Jessie Armstead assured him the Giants had "great ownership."
"It's a family atmosphere here," he said.
Mara was an old-school gentleman owner who still believed in the family model. Paternalism, the way Mara practiced it, wasn't a bad thing -- just ask Frank Gifford or Jeremy Shockey or any other player who grew up fatherless and gratefully found a father figure in him. "Mr. Mara treated anyone who had ever been a New York Giant, as a New York Giant," Coach Tom Coughlin says.
Mara was a gentle, unassuming presence who would stay in the same dormitory with the players during camp, rather than a hotel. When a man played hurt, Mara personally thanked him. During practice, he sat unobtrusively on the sidelines.
"He handled his business, and he let us handle ours," Pierce says. "When he was out there, it wasn't a lot of hoopla. He didn't have helicopters flying around and red carpet service. He just went about his business."
The passing of Mara is a symbolic moment for the NFL. As a rule, the modern owner did not work as a ballboy for the team in 1925 and inherit the organization from his father, as Mara did. The league is now full of owners who got wealthy in oil or gas or packaging, who bought the team for its revenue sheet, and who operate under the constraint of a salary cap that undercuts old-fashioned paternalism. If Pierce feels Redskins owner Daniel Snyder didn't demonstrate sufficient loyalty to him, well, that's in part because he couldn't.
The modern NFL is a dichotomy. Perhaps more than any other league, it attempts to foster a fierce loyalty among its employees to a common cause. While at the same time -- at least in part due to the financial mechanisms that have made it wildly successful -- it has developed some of the most ruthless business practices, none more so than the fact that contracts are not guaranteed.
It's easy to empathize with Pierce. Fealty is a pretty fundamental urge, in all of us. Pierce was so emotionally enmeshed with the Redskins he kept his house in Virginia, and he remains close with his teammates and wistful on the subject of Gibbs and Williams. He still talks to his former colleagues on the phone almost weekly.
But ultimately, Pierce is naive. If a team stays loyal and pays players for being "good soldiers" when they're past the point of being productive, ticket buyers snarl and demand to know why the team is under-performing. The fact is, fans don't reward loyalty in the NFL any more than owners do. They reward wins.
The difference between Pierce and the rest of us -- other than about $25 million -- is that he has a chance to get back at his former employers on Sunday in a way the rest of us never could. If the NFL's managers can be ruthless, so can its players. Pierce was passed over in the 2001 draft, a fact he has never forgotten. He still keeps a list of the 30 linebackers who were taken ahead of him and where they are now. More than half are no longer in the league. Pierce, it should be noted, enjoys crossing each name off the list.
Maybe the Redskins undervalued Pierce, or maybe they didn't. He'll let them know Sunday. But one thing is certain: He's not the sort of fellow you want to discard and then wind up facing in your biggest divisional game of the season, staring at you bitterly from across the line.
"You want to prove them wrong," he says. "I want to beat that team. I'm going to be all over the place. With a lot of emotion."