We heard officially about Ndamukong Suh and the $114-million contract with the Miami Dolphins Tuesday afternoon, at the conclusion of something called the “legal tampering period” when the start of something called the “new league year” begins. Suh just turned 28. Chances he is wearing a Dolphins uniform at the end of this six-year deal, when he’s 34? Come on. Chances he’s wearing any uniform? Roll the dice.
This is all economic voodoo, all of it, every one of the NFL free agent contracts we have heard about in these breathless dispatches over the past week. According to reports, Suh is guaranteed $60 million of that $114 million – enough for generations of little Suhs, sure. But this business about it being worth $56 million on top of that: Hogwash. The Dolphins owe him the guaranteed portion, and nothing more.
Albert Haynesworth, you may remember, was a $100-million man in Washington, the total value of the contract the Redskins granted him over seven years. But he played just two punchline-worthy seasons here, collected $41 million guaranteed – and never saw that $59 million that was left over. Was he worth even the $41 million? Of course not. But were the Redskins on the hook for the whole thing? Not even close.
Football’s free agency officially began Tuesday, and baseball’s spring training has kicked into full gear, so it’s worth remembering all this. Why? In baseball, dollars are dollars and contracts are contracts, and it’s generally not necessary to employ a team of actuaries to sort it all out. Less than two months ago, Max Scherzer signed a seven-year, $210-million contract with the Washington Nationals that was, in the world of baseball deals, considered “complicated” because the money will be paid over 14 years. Yet the amount of guaranteed money: $210 million. No mystery whatsoever.
“At some point,” Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo said that day, “it’s like Monopoly money.”
Except in baseball, it’s real, and in football, it’s not. Or most of the time it’s not.
The vagaries of the NFL’s salary structure aren’t for the mathematically disinclined or those with attention deficit disorder. Because there are “cap hits” and “dead money” and other terms for “we’ll never pay this,” teams must employ salary cap specialists to manage it all. The contracts that were expected to be announced Tuesday – five years and $40 million for linebacker Pernell McPhee in San Diego, five years and $47.5 million for safety Devin McCourty in New England, five years and $40 million for running back LeSean McCoy with Buffalo, running back Marshawn Lynch with $24 million of “new money” to stay with Seattle – will be trumpeted as franchise-altering or stabilizing or whatever.
But they’re largely fraudulent. McPhee is reportedly guaranteed $16 million of his deal, McCourty $28.5 million of his, McCoy $26.5 million of his, and Lynch just $12 million of his.
Think about that: Marshawn Lynch, who carried his team into the Super Bowl and was one lousy play call away from winning it for the second straight season – a guy who has led the league in rushing touchdowns each of the past two seasons — isn’t guaranteed anything more than $12 million for 2015. If the year goes awry and the Seahawks find the remainder of his deal unpalatable, off he goes – cut, and owed nothing more.
By comparison, some baseball contracts issued this offseason: Pat Neshek, 34-year-old reliever, $12.5 million for two seasons with Houston; Yovani Gallardo, $13 million for just 2015 with Milwaukee, who then traded him to Texas; Michael Cuddyer, two years and $21 million with the Mets; Jake Peavy, two years and $24 million in San Francisco; Adam LaRoche, two years and $25 million with the White Sox; J.J. Hardy, three years and $40 million with Baltimore.
Casual sports fans are familiar with Lynch, even if he doesn’t conduct normal interviews. Only ardent sports fans have heard of any of those baseball players, even though there are all-stars and batting champs and Gold Glove winners among them.
And yet financially, the winners are clear. Guess how many baseball contracts you have to go through, in total compensation, before you get to the most lucrative in another American team sports. You’ll never get it.
Try 32. Thirty-two! Yep, Kobe Bryant’s seven-year, $136.4-million deal with the Los Angeles Lakers, from 2004-11, is trumped by Johan Santana and David Wright and Carl Crawford and Zack Greinke and Todd Helton and on and on and on from baseball. Detroit wide receiver Calvin Johnson signed the richest long-term deal in NFL history at eight years and $132 million. Of course, all those baseball players will get all the zeroes they signed for. Johnson is guaranteed $60 million of his deal – less than half of the reported total.
There is logical and anecdotal evidence, too, that baseball players have longer careers. Baseball’s players’ union said that such certainties are hard to quantify because of the minor league system, the existence of independent leagues and the opportunity to play in professional leagues abroad (Japan). In the NFL, the number most often cited is three-and-a-half years – though Commissioner Roger Goodell has disputed that, arguing a draft choice who makes the roster out of training camp as a rookie generally lasts an average of six years.
Either way, here are some certainties: Patrick Willis was one of the best defensive players of the past decade, a five-time first-team all-pro who made seven Pro Bowls in his eight years in San Francisco. Maurice Jones-Drew made three Pro Bowls as a running back with Jacksonville, for which he gained more than 8,000 yards in his eight seasons.
Willis is 30. Tuesday, he retired. Jones-Drew is 29. He retired last week.
Find a contrast. David Robertson is a 29-year-old major league reliever coming off his first season as a full-time closer. He has earned more than $11 million to this point – and is guaranteed $46 million over the next four years.
Robertson’s fortune is due to being the closer who took over for Mariano Rivera with the Yankees, then cashing in as a free agent with the White Sox. But look all over the major leagues for examples of rich people doing yeoman’s work. Jeremy Affeldt is an accomplished if little-known left-handed reliever who has toiled in the majors since 2002. He has never been an all-star, never been a full-time closer, has a career record of 41-44 with a 3.89 ERA and 28 saves – total. Yet by the end of this season, in which he is guaranteed to make $6 million, he will have earned more than $42 million in his career – with the likelihood of another contract to come, even though he’ll be 36. (When he retires, he’ll also likely be able to walk and think, too, but the long-term physical and emotional impact of each sport is another issue.)
There are other issues here, too. Baseball’s union, under the leadership of Donald Fehr and then the late Michael Weiner, has been strong for decades. The NFLPA has not. And sure, baseball has a slew of ancillary problems — pace of play and youth involvement and dwindling national television ratings among them.
Still, which sport do you want your kid to play? Maybe when Suh gets to Miami he can make a reservation at a trendy South Beach steakhouse and invite one of the city’s other marquee athletes, Marlins right fielder Giancarlo Stanton. At 25, Stanton is three years younger than Suh, and as just a two-time all-star (Suh has made four Pro Bowls), arguably less accomplished.
But over dinner, they could discuss the details of their negotiations. Stanton would pick up the tab, of course, because his 13-year deal with the Marlins is worth $325 million, a record for professional sports, of which he’ll see every penny. The NFL unquestionably surpassed baseball in overall popularity and resonance years ago. Baseball, though, holds an inarguable edge for the financial well-being of its players, from the stars to the grinders. Keep that in mind as these NFL contracts are rolled out over the next few days. Somewhere, at a spring training camp in Florida or Arizona, there’s a little-known baseball player who is guaranteed more money in his deal than one of these free agents from football over whom we’re all slobbering.
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