While Williams’s comments provided some clarity to the reasons for his holdout and to what he hopes will happen moving forward, it is less clear what the immediate next steps will be for him and the team.
In theory, they could be relatively simple. Williams could play for the Redskins for the remainder of their season, collect a prorated portion of his salary and end the season closer to reaching unrestricted free agent status. His contract expires after the 2020 season. The Redskins could weigh trade offers for him in the offseason -- as they did ahead of Tuesday’s trade deadline -- and decide whether to send him elsewhere.
But little has been simple for Williams and the Redskins. His noncommittal answers Thursday, combined with the fact that he failed his physical Wednesday as a result of discomfort when putting on his helmet, raised additional questions. Will Williams play for the Redskins this season? What are the team’s options if he doesn’t? And what will it mean for his contract?
Let’s run through some of the possibilities.
What if Williams continues to fail his physical?
An NFL player cannot practice or play in games without passing a physical. For now, the Redskins have been given a two-week roster exemption for Williams, which is typically granted to a team when a player returns from a lengthy holdout. But Williams cannot remain in roster limbo if he can’t pass a physical by the time his roster exemption expires, meaning the Redskins would have to make a roster move with him.
Williams would not be eligible for the injured reserve (IR) list because he never passed a physical, and the physically unable to perform (PUP) list typically is for players with prior football-related injuries.
But the non-football injury (NFI) list could be an option. If the Redskins were to place Williams on the NFI list, they could decide whether to pay him. But they might not be able to toll his contract (and have the remaining portion of his deal cover the 2020 and 2021 seasons instead of 2019 and 2020) while he is on the NFI list, because contract tolling on that list usually only occurs in specific instances with a player in the final season of his contract.
What if Williams plays the rest of the season?
The simple and straightforward scenario, comparatively, is that Williams passes his physical, plays the rest of the season for the Redskins and is credited with a year toward his free agent status. He has a $12.5 million salary for the 2020 season and would be an unrestricted free agent after that.
What could go wrong with that?
Plenty. Williams probably is fine if he is on the Redskins’ active roster for their final eight games of the regular season. An arbitrator ruled that when wide receiver Joey Galloway played eight games for the Seattle Seahawks in 1999 following a holdout, the Seahawks were not allowed to toll his contract and keep him tied to the team for an additional year.
But there are potential issues. What if the Redskins take advantage of their roster exemption for Williams and then argue that he wasn’t on the active roster for long enough and his contract should toll? In that scenario, the Redskins could contend that Williams would be under contract to them through the 2021 season. Williams and the NFL Players Association could challenge that through a grievance.
Is the eight-game standard ironclad?
No. In the Galloway case, the Seahawks attempted to contend that a player’s contract could toll, at the team’s discretion, if he holds out for one or more regular season games. Galloway filed a grievance through the NFLPA and won. But the arbitrator’s ruling did not set a firm standard or stipulate a precise number of games for which a player must be on the active roster to avoid having his team toll his contract.
“We don’t know what the standard is,” Joel Corry, an NFL contracts and salary cap expert who is a former agent, said by phone Wednesday. “We just know that Galloway’s contract didn’t toll, so there seems to be a precedent. But we don’t know the exact number.”
What does Williams’s contract status matter?
Maybe not much, if the Redskins trade him during the offseason. Williams’s new team likely would sign him to a new contract in conjunction with the trade. Meanwhile, Williams and his representatives presumably don’t want him contractually tied to the Redskins any longer than he already is. And the remaining time on Williams’s contract potentially could affect his trade value, if a new contract with another team isn’t completed as part of the transaction.
What if Williams passes his physical but refuses to play?
That would potentially put him in violation of his contract. The standard NFL player contract says that if a player “fails or refuses to perform his services,” his team can toll his contract and withhold pay.
People in and around the sport said Wednesday they could not recall an example of a player saying explicitly that he was refusing to play while healthy and would not expect Williams to do so, even if that’s the approach he takes. They likened it to the recent approach taken by cornerback Jalen Ramsey with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Ramsey, after requesting a trade, cited injuries while missing practices and games until the Jaguars finally traded him to the Los Angeles Rams, for whom Ramsey immediately played.
One person with experience dealing with squabbles between NFL teams and players said he fully expects the situation between Williams and the Redskins to result in a grievance. That person said that if Williams refuses to play and the Redskins believe he is healthy enough to do so, he could envision the Redskins suspending Williams for conduct detrimental to the team. Such a suspension can be for as many as four games without pay.
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