Patriots Next Challenge: Contracts

Recent news coming out of Foxboro is not just about minicamp, Tedy Bruschi's health or the "Where's Waldo" sightings of Ty Law. Some of the focus has been on the negative attention the team's veterans are receiving for wanting better compensation before the end of their contract. Patriots Insider takes a look at the latest bout the team is having with contract demands and how some of the players involved are taking the right approach, while others may be wrinkling some feathers.

PHOTO: New England Patriots defensive lineman Richard Seymour speaks reporters at his locker prior to team practice in Foxboro, Mass. Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2004. The Patriots were preparing for Sunday's AFC Division Playoff game against the Indianapolis Colts. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

Patriots Next Challenge: Contracts
By Jon Scott, Patriots Insider

The Patriots are no different from any other team in the league when it comes to the limitations of the salary cap. They just have a methodical approach of addressing those limitations when dealing with player's contracts. On the infrequent occasion a player outplays their contract, the team's front office realizes those methods will be tested.

Such is the case with the Patriots recent success on the field. Winning three of the last four Super Bowls gives players, coaches and the entire organization a sense of accomplishment few others in the world of professional sports are fortunate enough to enjoy. Part of that fortune entails dealing with the expectations of reward.

For some individuals the reward of success is enough. For others, material gain is more important. In both instances, the glory, admiration by one's peers, and the opportunity to be part of something greater than oneself is the overriding link between them.

Patriots cornerback Asante Samuel (22) is congratulated by teammate Rodney Harrison (AP Photo/Winslow Townson)

Recent reports coming out of Foxboro indicate that veterans Rodney Harrison and Richard Seymour are looking for better compensation. In terms of production, both players have outperformed their compensation packages. Does that mean they deserve to have their old deals torn up and new ones given to them?

The team has taken the approach of waiting until the final year of contract to talk about compensation, unless they need the players to restructure their deal to free up cap space. Players understand this and typically abide by those rules. Those who make a public spectacle of their complaint end up receiving their walking papers. Players like Lawyer Milloy and Ty Law are two recent examples.

Fan favorite Troy Brown's release was related to a negotiation strategy where Brown was facing losing a possible $2.5 million in guaranteed money. Brown took the only approach he could and held to his demands. The team released him, avoiding the guaranteed money, then proceeded to work out a lesser deal to bring him back.

Patriots WR/DB Troy Brown (80) celebrates as Philadelphia Eagles TE L.J. Smith reacts Feb 6 2005
(AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

Was Brown pleased? Unlikely. Did he have other suitors? Yes. Ultimately it came down to being a part of something bigger than himself… That, and a side deal with a local bank, helped defray his monetary concerns.

Not all players receive their sentimental or individual worth when they play in New England, that's the nature of the system. Overall value in terms of the environment is the mantra. The team cannot afford to pay one player $6 million per year when they have already allocated $22 of the $26 million they planned on for the unit. If one player demands more, they're taking the funds that would otherwise be allocated to someone else.

The question arises, what about Seymour and Harrison? Don't they deserve more and others less?

An Expert Weighs In

To help us answer those questions and a couple others, PI spoke with an expert on the Patriots style of managing the cap, James Lavin, author of Management Secrets of the New England Patriots. (www.patriotsbook.com )

Here's what Lavin had to say.

PI: What are your thoughts on the team's approach to its veterans like Seymour and Harrison with respect to their compensation?

Lavin: Many fans argue that players should be "paid what they're worth." Harrison and Seymour are "worth" more than they're being paid. So, these people argue, the Patriots should raise their salaries. Fans even fall in love with players and want to overpay players. Many fans complained when the Patriots cut Troy Brown rather than pay him $5 mil. for 2005. The Patriots don't rewrite contracts for many reasons:

  • Most players feel they're underpaid. You can't raise everyone's salary and stay under the salary cap.

  • You can't possibly re-adjust each player's salary every year (or month or week). How do you track a player's value over time? Bonuses for interceptions and sacks don't work because they skew players' incentives away from teamwork. Negotiating with every player every year (or month) is impossible. When a player is on the open market, his value is easy to determine... it's whatever other teams are willing to pay. When he's under contract, how do you decide?

  • If a player has a bad season (or bad month or bad week), do you cut his salary? Or do salaries only go up when players do well?

  • If a player is injured (like Rosevelt Colvin or Ty Law), does he still get paid, even though his value to you is zero while he's injured?

  • You cannot win multiple Super Bowls by paying every player his true worth. The salary cap will not allow that. If you cut players and raise everyone else's salaries, you reduce the team quality. If you pay "fair market" salaries, you'll be an average team. Winning games and winning Super Bowls is "psychic income" for many players. If you pay players more, you cannot field as good a team and players who value winning are less happy. So, indirectly, every Patriot player benefits when everyone is somewhat underpaid. Some players--like Tedy Bruschi--value winning highly. Others--like Ty Law--care mostly about maximizing their income. The Patriots won't keep players who expect 100% of what Detroit or San Francisco or Arizona might pay them.

Bottom line: The Patriots often make somewhat below-market offers that players eager to win championships and play for a great team will accept and money-grubbing players will refuse. Once you sign your contract, the Patriots EXPECT you to play your best. And the Patriots will train you well and put you in positions to perform well. They don't feel they then need to pay you MORE if you play well. They expected you to play well.

PI: What do you think about Seymour's decision to stay away from minicamp? Will it achieve the effect he intends for it to have?

Lavin: As a fan who has enjoyed cheering for Richard Seymour and everything this Patriots organization has accomplished as a team, I'm saddened because Seymour is putting his own wants ahead of his team. He signed a contract and has two years remaining on his contract. I believe he should honor his contract. I am disappointed he walked out on his team and his fans. That's a Terrell Owens thing to do. Good players are always underpaid in their rookie contracts. Teams can't just keep shoveling money to players and be competitive. If Seymour's unhappy that contracts are binding on players but not on teams, he should get together with T.O., Ross Verba (whom our old friend Romeo Crennel just released when Verba demanded the Browns rip up his contract) and other disgruntled players and complain to the Players' Association about the system. The system is the system. Seymour's contract is his contract, and it gives him tens of millions of dollars. His contract was even originally written to reward him more the better he performed, and he has received more.

The bigger issue now, however, is that Seymour has openly revolted and demanded more money from the Patriots. I don't expect the Patriots will respond to such threats, even from one of the best defensive linemen in the league. Seymour has, in effect, said, "My salary is more important than my team and my fans."

I think his best chance at a happy ending was a behind-the-scenes deal. Now, the Patriots are incented to reward almost anyone except Seymour, just to send a message that they don't respond to threats. I suspect Seymour's monetary expectations far exceed the Patriots' willingness to pay for a non-quarterback. I don't envision the Patriots lifting a finger to help Seymour now. I would urge him to climb down off the ledge.

Seymour has a possible way to save face in that neither he nor his agent has been quoted saying he is holding out. He could claim this was blown out of proportion (though I doubt it has been).

PI: Harrison and Seymour are considered among the best at their positions. Do you think the Patriots will pay them accordingly, or will they move on to other players to keep the team's cap number in check?

Lavin: Both Rodney Harrison and Richard Seymour are "underpaid" relative to what they would receive on the open market. But neither is on the open market. Asante Samuel is starting at cornerback and earning under $500,000/year even including bonuses. Deion Branch--the Super Bowl MVP--is earning $666,000/year, including bonuses. Larry Izzo, special teams captain: $721,000/year. Eugene Wilson, starting safety on two Super Bowl teams is making $842,000. David Givens, Jarvis Green and Tedy Bruschi are underpaid. You can't give them all fat raises, so which players do you cut?

Marcus Stroud, who played alongside Seymour at Georgia and was drafted a bit lower than Seymour, recently extended for $31.5 million over five years. Though Seymour must feel he deserves more (because he has helped earn three S.B. rings and has played in three Pro Bowls to Stroud's two), I would be shocked if the Patriots pay as much. You just can't pay everyone $6 mil/year. Jacksonville NEEDS Stroud. New England wants Seymour.

PI: Do you see anyone on the roster who can fit the bill should things go South with negotiations for Seymour?

Lavin: The Patriots beat Indianapolis and Pittsburgh in last year's playoffs without Seymour. In Seymour's early years, he was essential because he could play tackle or end. [The Patriots] are now well stocked at both defensive line positions. At nose, Vince Wilfork is a budding star, and Ethan Kelley has the size and has been learning, learning, learning from our great coaches for several years. They would not have released Keith Traylor had they not felt comfortable. At end, Ty Warren is a high 1st-round pick and playing like it. Jarvis Green is a super talent. Marquise Hill is a 2nd-round pick who, if he had stayed in college longer, would have been a 1st-round pick and now has a year under his belt in the Patriots' system. The Patriots are very high on Rodney Bailey, and the Steelers nearly matched [Bailey's] offer sheet. And Dan Klecko is now working at defensive end. I have absolutely no worries about [the] crop of DLs, unless [they] sustain injuries at the nose position.

PI: Harrison is getting along in years.. with the example of Troy Brown staring him in the face, do you think Harrison has any intention of trying to make something happen in terms of his salary?

Lavin: I don't want to speculate about Harrison.

Miami Dolphins quarterback Jay Fiedler (9) is sacked by New England Patriots defensive lineman Richard Seymour (93) Oct 10, 2004 in Foxboro Mass.

What Does This Mean for Seymour?

Thanks to Lavin's research on the team's management style, which can also be found in his book, we know the Patriots will not change the way they do business. At some point, cap issues become an impediment for teams that do decide to bend the rules.

Seymour continues to avoid commenting to the media about his contract, a good thing according to Lavin and others. Harrison has only said "When you sign a contract, you're supposed to honor your contract and that's just what it is."

For people in the regular world, Harrison's words couldn't be any more poignant. Although that doesn't mean he deserves to be underpaid.

In spite of what Seymour wants, the team works within a system that makes it difficult, if not impossible, to give him what he's expecting. He's going to have to realize where the system boundaries are, and like all good team players, take what's available. The alternative for Seymour, who has two years left on his deal, is to go to work and smooth things over or turn things nasty hoping to be released (See Verba reference).

The team won't release Seymour even if he threatens to sit out, which he's already on record sayign he isn't willing to do. If he did sit out, he would lose out on one year's salary, face fines, and have to return to New England next season with the same deal. That leaves his other option, continue to work on getting a new deal, but one within the parameters allowed. A third option does exist, but is the most improbable of the three... Play out the final two years at his current salary.

Other Contracts On The Horizon

Other players who are on the list for re-doing their deals include Adam Vinatieri who is currently under a 1-year tender offer as a Franchise Tag player. David Givens, Jarvis Green, Tom Ashworth and Stephen Neal signed 1-year tenders as RFAs and will need to work on longer term contracts if the Patriots intend to keep them beyond a year.

As always, we welcome your comments and questions:
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