From safety for the Washington Redskins to assistant executive director of the NFL Players Association to president of the Green Bay Packers, Mark Murphy has seen the game from all sides of the equation.
With those diverse perspectives, he hopes common ground can be found between the owners and players regarding the skyrocketing salaries handed to the top players in the draft.
"Oh, yeah, I think so," Murphy told Packer Report last week, ahead of the NFL owners meetings that begin Tuesday in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. "I worked for the Players Association, and we were very much in favor of limiting rookie salaries. In no other business do you have first-year employees that are the highest paid. The NBA model is a good one. They have a rookie wage scale. I think they come in and they have three- or four-year contracts. The players that are the highest-paid players in the league are veterans that have proven themselves."
The new executive director of the NFLPA is DeMaurice Smith, a Washington, D.C., lawyer who recently replaced the late Gene Upshaw. Smith doesn't quite follow Murphy's viewpoint.
"Where I start on the issues is that for every one of these players on this team, nobody signs their own check. Nobody," Smith told reporters last week after he met with Minnesota Vikings officials. "Nobody decided how much they are going to get paid. Nobody decided where they were going to be slotted in the draft. ... The one thing I never saw in one of those war rooms, I never saw players. I never saw one player from one team going through, ‘Man, should we pick at No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, No. 4 and should it be $22, $23, $18 million?' I never saw one player involved in that process. Why? Because they are not.
"The owners, the general managers, the coaches, the great scouts, those are the guys that decide what guy is right for their team and how much we're going to pay him. So, I really don't understand why for the first time when it comes to an issue of money, why they turn to the players and say, when it comes to rookies (contracts), that's a player's issue. I just don't get it."
Murphy's viewpoint is one shared by most fans. The Lions handed this year's No. 1 pick, quarterback Matthew Stafford, $41.7 million. And that's just the guaranteed part of a six-year deal that could be worth as much as $78 million. For the record, Stafford has thrown 464 fewer touchdown passes than Brett Favre and 333 fewer than Peyton Manning.
"I think it's a real issue," Murphy said. "We do have a percentage of the revenue that goes to the rookies, 4 percent, but the way it's evolved over time is more and more of that is going to first-round picks, and a lot of future money is used to fund those contracts for those first-round players.
"To give you an example, last year, Jake Long, when he signed his contract (with Miami), he became the highest-paid offensive lineman in the history of the game. Matthew Stafford's contract this year was the highest guaranteed contract in the history of the NFL. It doesn't make sense, particularly when you consider that about half of the first-rounders end up being busts. It's not good business sense for us as owners. For the players, I think they'd rather see that money go to proven veterans over rookies."
Then again, it wasn't like Stafford's agents went into negotiations with the Lions with a gun at the head of new general manager Martin Mayhew. Five years ago, the Giants gave quarterback Eli Manning, the No. 1 overall pick in that draft, $20 million guaranteed. During that span, the 2004 salary cap of $80.58 million has risen to $128 million for the upcoming season. So, while the cap has increased 37.0 percent during that period, the guaranteed money given to the No. 1 overall pick has increased 108.5 percent.
The owners and commissioner Roger Goodell argue that the bulk of the money should go to the veteran players who have earned it.
"I just think, though we've had a number of great rookies coming in, not everyone makes that transition as successfully," Goodell said on Sirius NFL Radio recently. "You want to make sure that the system rewards the people who perform, and I think that's what we have to figure out in the next collective bargaining agreement: How do we pay the players fairly? How do we compensate them properly after they've proven themselves on the NFL level?"
Smith argues that there's no guarantee the owners won't just pocket the extra money.
"All I'm saying is the argument about decreasing the amount of money that goes to rookies is predicated on an assumption that the owners would take the remaining money and pay it to the vets," Smith said. "My only observation that I've got now is that nobody does it now, anyway. So, not only is it odd that the first time anybody wants to come to the players to talk about money is with respect to a rookie rate scale; but second, you don't use all the money to pay to the vets now, so what makes us think you would do it then? I'm just asking a question."
The NFL has something resembling a rookie wage scale in place already. Each year, the NFL determines how much a team can spend on its rookies, based on the number of picks and where those picks fall. Altogether, it amounts to 4 percent of the total league cap.
This year, for instance, the Lions have been allocated $8.075 million against this year's cap to pay their 10 draft choices, including picks Nos. 1 and 20 of the first round. The Packers will be allowed to spend $5.443 million on their eight picks, including picks Nos. 9 and 26 of the first round.
But, as the Lions did with Stafford, teams can beat those rules with a variety of bonuses.
So, Smith's view is a valid one: Why should the union help the owners help themselves?
Meanwhile, Murphy said he expects talks to create a new collective bargaining agreement to begin in June. A few conversations with Smith, including lunch in Washington, leave Murphy feeling hopeful that the NFL's partnership forged under Upshaw can continue, especially with 2010 scheduled to be played without a salary cap.
"We'll see," Murphy said. "He's very cordial. I got the sense that he's somebody that we can work with. I'm optimistic."
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Bill also is giving Facebook and Twitter a try. Find him on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook.