ALSO: Get the perspective from Seattle in our Insider Blog. Was a contract dispute with Cribbs inevitable from the moment Holmgren came to town?
In more ways than one, the timing was impeccable on Wednesday.
On just the second full day of Mike Holmgren's tenure as Browns president, and on the same day that the team's top star, Joshua Cribbs, was named AFC Special Teams Player of the Month for December, contract negotiations between the club and the two-time Pro Bowl returner hit a rough patch.
Cribbs has three years remaining on a three-year, $6.7 million contract he signed in 2006, but he has wanted since midway through the 2008 season to get the deal re-done. After much talk and no action, the Browns finally came through with some concrete terms, an offer of $1.4 million per year, which Peter Schaffer, Cribbs' agent along with J.R. Rickert, called "insulting."
Schaffer said Cribbs will never play another down for the Browns unless they treat him fairly, and the returner agrees, saying he doesn't want to leave the team but may be forced to do so. In training camp last summer, when talk of wanting his contract re-done really heated up, Cribbs said he might hold out at the start of the season, but gradually backed off the threat and played all year anyway and set records and went to the Pro Bowl after a one-year absence..
Now it appears, though, that he and his representation have drawn a line in the sand from which they won't back down easily. And if that's indeed the case, then the Cribbs camp could be in for a long, difficult fight with the Browns, for Holmgren's history as general manager of the Seattle Seahawks from 1999-2002 indicates he's no shrinking violet when it comes to contract negotiations. He comes off as being this big man who's a warm lovable fuzzball, but he can dig in himself and be tough when he wants to do so.
Holmgren exhibited a bit of that when he touched on the subject during his introductory press conference on Tuesday. When asked if he was working on a new contract for Cribbs and how soon that could be accomplished, he said, "Well that's the question. We've been in contact with his representatives even when I was in Arizona (where he has a home and was staying immediately before coming to the Browns).
"I believe players should be rewarded for what they do. I have no problems with that at all. What happens, though, on occasion is our view of how much that should be and the agent's view of how much that should be differs.
"We have made an effort. We will continue to make an effort to handle Josh's situation. I want Josh here.
"Now, he has three years left on his existing contract, so it's a little unprecedented to start doing things this early in a contract like that. Having said that, a player should get what he deserves in my opinion, and he's been a fine player. It's just that business part of it that we're going through now.
"We're trying, and I hope how we do that is good enough."
During that initial four-year stretch in Seattle, when he served as GM along with being head coach, sometimes what Holmgren did was good enough to keep a player, and sometimes it wasn't.
Almost immediately upon coming to the Seahawks, contract disputes with Saginaw Valley (Mich.) defensive end Lamar King, the Seahawks' first-round choice in Holmgren's initial NFL Draft with the team, and veteran wide receiver Joey Galloway from Bellaire (Ohio) High School and Ohio State, ensued and caused both to miss the start of training camp that year.
Galloway wanted a five-year, $25 million deal with a $10 million signing bonus, and Holmgren countered with a seven-year, $35 offer with a $7 million signing bonus.
When things got testy and no progress was being made, contract talks with Galloway were called off three weeks after camp began. Early in the following offseason, Galloway was traded to the Dallas Cowboys for first-round draft choices in 2000 and '01, the first of which landed Alabama running back Shaun Alexander, who turned out to be a superstar with the Seahawks. Wide receiver Koren Robinson, a total bust, was taken with the 2001 pick.
Amidst all the Galloway controversy, back in the early portion of the 1999 training camp, the Seahawks gave three-time Pro Bowl defensive end Michael Sinclair a $6 million signing bonus as part of a seven-year, $35 million extension. However, that really wasn't Holmgren's doing, since team president Bob Whitsitt had promised Sinclair a long-term deal long before Holmgren was hired.
On the same day that Galloway was traded, Feb. 12, 2000, defensive end Phillip Daniels, probably Seattle's best defensive lineman overall, was allowed to leave in free agency, signing a lucrative contract with the Chicago Bears. Holmgren later referred to allowing Daniels to get away as "a rookie mistake," but whatever the case, the move hurt the line for at least two years, according to close observers of the Seahawks.
Nine days later, the Seahawks did spend the money, signing safety Reggie Tongue away from the Kansas City Chiefs in free agency and giving him a $3.5 million bonus. After a rough start in which he was benched, Tongue became a good player for Seattle.
A month after that, on March 17, 2000, the Seahawks signed free-agent center Robbie Tobeck to what was described as "a salary cap-friendly deal." He ended up missing all of that season with a knee injury but, like Tongue, recovered to be a key player for the team.
On tax day 2000, Holmgren let another top defensive lineman get away in free agency when massive nose tackle Sam Adams was allowed to sign with Baltimore. Holmgren wasn't enamored at all with Adams, who went on to play a significant role with the Ravens on their improbable march to a Super Bowl championship that year.
However, when he thought it was worth it, Holmgren spent money on the defensive line in free agency, signing Minnesota Vikings tackle John Randle to a five-year, $25 million contract in March 2001 that was called risky by some. It was a good move, though, for Randle continued to play at a high level.
Holmgren dished out the cash in other areas in other areas to help the defense. He signed Chad Eaton to a cap-friendly deal at about that same time, and the tackle performed well. Eaton got some help behind him exactly a month later, in April 2001, when the Seahawks lured linebacker Lavon Kirkland away from the Pittsburgh Steelers, signing him to a three-year deal. Kirkland had good performances as well. However, in 2002, he was cut in training camp after failing to lose weight, per an agreement, then went to Philadelphia and starred.
Seattle designated Pro Bowl left tackle Walter Jones as their franchise player in February 2002 after failing to reach a contract agreement with him. However, Jones refused to sign the one-year, $4.92 million offer and followed that up by skipping minicamps and training camp. Contract talks broke off in September of that year, then shortly later, Jones signed a one-year offer and rejoined the Seahawks for the third game.
Holmgren's salary negotiations ended when he resigned as GM and executive vice president on Dec. 31, 2002, but he remained as head coach while also firing his entire defensive coaching staff.
"I think the biggest title you can have is Super Bowl champion," Holmgren said at the time. "When I thought long and hard about that and what's important to me, (wife) Kathy, this football team and this organization, the titles take a back seat. They really do.
"It's about coming together, winning, having fun doing it and getting to the Super Bowl."
The Seahawks finally got to the Super Bowl following the 2005 season, losing to the Steelers. Now Holmgren is with another team in the Browns that, like Seattle when he arrived, has never been to a Super Bowl.
Holmgren got the Seahawks to the Super Bowl without Joey Galloway. It appears the Browns will never make it to the big game in the near future without the contributions of Joshua Cribbs.
So how will these negotiations turn out? Who knows? But with both sides determined and committed, it should be interesting to watch.