Jason Wood on “Leveraging Dirt”

Eric Weddle is a better safety than you think and Richard knows it. Photo by Jeffery Beall.
Eric Weddle is not the player referenced below, but he is a fine safety.  Photo by Jeffery Beall.

Some NFL GMs will use unflattering information on a player to renegotiate a contract. Where does Jason Wood stand?

The Scenario: Leveraging Dirt

It’s July and you’re the general manager of a young team that has been to the conference championships two of the past three years. The core of this team is your rising star at running back; a great trio of edge rushers—one who can also play inside on passing downs; and a fantastic, ball-hawking free safety that earned his third consecutive trip to the Pro Bowl and he makes your cornerbacks look much better than they are.

This team captain is entering the final year of his contract and his agent has initiated negotiations with you. The player is a Walter Payton Man of The Year winner for his work in the community. He is now featured as a pitch man for a consumer product’s national marketing campaign. The brand he’s hawking has an image that is based heavily on quality, integrity, and trust.

However, you know a couple of things about this player that others don’t.

For starters, this married man is routinely unfaithful to his wife. This year team security caught him having sex with an advertising intern on a road trip. The team fired the intern, but no disciplinary action was imposed on the player.

The safety has also been spotted around town with other women. One of these women is a sideline reporter for a major television network and the place they were spotted did not include a camera crew. They appeared surprised to run into the team employee and it was a bit of an awkward moment for everyone involved.

The second thing you know about your star safety that others don’t is that he has a degenerative shoulder condition. It’s manageable at this point and likely to slip through a team physical if a team isn’t specifically looking for it. However, it’s inevitable that it will be discovered (and problematic) later in his career.

You want to keep the player because he’s a huge reason why your defense has an advantage in this conference. If you let him walk he’ll be hard to replace. However, affording him is tricky matter.

If you can’t get the safety to give your organization a hometown discount then you’ll have difficulty re-signing key veterans on offense and having bargaining power in free agency next year. It’s possible that you’ll have to let him walk.

One potential way to approach this negotiation is to leverage this player’s infidelities and degenerative condition into a deal in your favor. You could inform his agent that you’re expecting a hometown discount because the team has helped the player protect and maintain the image that is generating endorsement income. You could also focus on the injury and tell the player and agent that if other teams knew about the shoulder it’s unlikely the player would earn a big-money, long-term deal.

When you worked for another GM you saw a similar situation play out where the team used this knowledge to aid its negotiation. This GM informed the player and agent together about his knowledge of sensitive information regarding the player. When this tactic didn’t move the needle in the team’s favor the GM threatened to leak the player’s degenerative condition to the media.

The GM got the hometown discount and it helped that team win a Super Bowl because of the players they could also sign due to the savings. However, the negotiation tactic ruined the relationship with the player. By year two, the team had to deal the player. Still, the discount helped make the trade doable.

One of the underlying reasons this tactic worked for this GM in the first place is that another player tried to call that GM’s bluff only to find out it wasn’t one. The player walked from the negotiations only for this GM to leak sensitive information about that player’s injury to the media. Several teams that were interested in negotiating long-term, big-money deals weren’t offering the same contracts after the news broke.

Now it’s your turn. Do you negotiate straight up? Do you leverage that dirt into a discount? Do you use both issues or focus on one? If so, how do you go about it and why? What lengths are you willing to go if the player initially turns you down? Would you retaliate by leaking this news to the media? Explain your thought process.

Jason Wood’s Response

Ricky Williams is a fascination to fans, teammates, and opponents alike.
Ricky Williams’career fits Jason Woods’ Frederick Douglass quote well, don’t you think?

“I prefer to be true to myself, even at the hazard of incurring the ridicule of others, rather than to be false, and to incur my own abhorrence.”

― Frederick Douglass

When I was the player personnel director working under that ‘other’ GM, it was an invaluable experience. Truthfully, the team’s success and his reputation as an effective GM are what led to my getting this job in the first place. Yet, I hated working for that GM every second of my tenure. Not because he wasn’t effective – he was – but because he achieved his success in a Machiavellian manner that ultimately poisoned the well and left the team in need of a complete rebuild from top to bottom just a few short years after climbing the mountaintop to the Super Bowl. I swore that I would do it differently.

So you might be asking yourself, how can I be doing it differently if I’ve known about my safety’s infidelities and done nothing about it? The truth is I can’t control the way others behave. And as much as I would never personally commit infidelity, it’s a sad fixture in our society that permeates any job environment. Just because a player is duplicitous does not give me the right to be duplicitous. It’s literally impossible to build an NFL franchise without being able to disengage from the personal choices your players make; there are cheaters in every locker room (and every board room for that matter).

Building this organization on a foundation of integrity means being honest and upfront. With that in mind, all my players and coaches know that I have no taste for morally corrupt choices, but they also know that as long as they don’t violate the league’s rules, or put the organization in a position of public embarrassment, I’m going to treat them fairly. Our star safety has even apologized to me after a few particularly salacious incidents, and I’ve told him the same thing each time: “It’s not my job to approve of your life choices; it’s my job to make sure you are an asset to this football team. As long as you add value to the locker room and on the field, your personal relationships are none of my business.”

The shoulder injury is a different matter, and one that’s clean cut. I wouldn’t leak medical information about a player because of my own commitment to integrity. However, this decision isn’t even in my hands. HIPAA Privacy laws are now in place (they weren’t at the time my former boss threatened to leak information) and it would be a criminal offense to pass along private medical information. If I’m not willing to play hardball to build a winner, I’m certainly not willing to commit a crime.

So I have no leverage it seems – and you’re wondering if my idealism runs counter to my mandate to build a winning franchise. Luckily for me I’m not out of options. You see, the other thing I learned in my years working up the scouting ranks is that you can never have enough depth. I may not have the leverage that comes from threatening the safety’s privacy, but I have the leverage of two well-timed draft choices over the last two seasons. In 2012 when my safety was coming off an All Pro season, a lot of drank ‘pundits’ like Mel Kiper took me to task for ‘wasting’ a first round pick on another safety. Again in 2013, even though our team was considering young and ascending, it didn’t stop those same draft pundits (particularly those smart alecs on Twitter) to deride my use of a 3rd round pick on another safety. But who’s laughing now?

When I sit down to handle the contract negotiation with our safety I’m very clear about where we stand. I tell him we recognize the value he’s brought to the team and remind him that his level of play has been everything we wanted and needed. I appreciate the enthusiasm and effort he puts in and his willingness to attend every OTA and voluntary mini-camp. I also thank him for being a mentor to our young kids in the secondary. I offer him a contract that doesn’t rob us of our flexibility to retain other young core players, and take advantage of our cap situation this year to front-load enough guaranteed money that his agent can tout his deal as one of the best ever handed to a safety. But I also let him know that since the shoulder issue is degenerative, we’re putting a significant portion of the total value of the contract into playing time incentives.

If the agent and player play hardball, I sit down with my owner and explain to him that our 2nd and 3rd year safeties are ready to take over the reins. Our contract offer is fair and we give our veteran two weeks to consider the offer before we rescind. Worst case he walks and I may take some heat from the media at first, but once those two young bucks battle throughout camp for his job, I’m not looking so dumb anymore. We also use the money we would’ve paid the veteran safety to lock up several of our young pass rushers to cap friendly long-term extensions a season earlier than we otherwise could have.

If the agent and player recognize the fairness of the deal, I’ve retained a key cornerstone without risking an untenable cap hit if his shoulder worsens. Other GMs are desperate for young safety help as the passing era proliferates, and I’m able to flip one of those two young safeties for a conditional pick that can be as high as a 3rd rounder if the youngster plays 65 percent of his new team’s snaps.

Matt’s Notes

I love how Jason took ownership of this scenario. Regardless of the fact that people I know inside the NFL have told me that using dirt to get a bigger “hometown discount” is common among some GMs, there are still organizations in football and the real world where there’s a higher level of moral integrity. Cutthroat industries love to use the hypercompetitve environment as an excuse to build a slippery moral slope. However, the very best at their job don’t cut corners.

The public doesn’t always see it. They’re more apt to recognize the best of the immediate present and the immediate present can be built on deception or fear. The very best also compete with themselves and people who tend to compete with themselves aren’t as concerned about how they appear to others when it comes to fundamental ways of operating in the world. They have a code of conduct and when ti comes to that code they’d rather fail the right way than succeed the wrong way.

Jason also got creative and generated information that I didn’t include to add to the scenario in a way where the team was still in good shape if it lost the team captain to another team. He earns points for that move alone.

As for the realism of this scenario, I have been told there are past instances of players having trysts with employees and/or interns in marketing departments. The office employees were fired while the player did not incur any punishment, but the GM did ask for a discount. Injuries that other teams might not know about is also a viable negotiation point.

And yes, there are some players with great skill on the field who don’t behave congruently with their clean-cut image and the media is often complicit in protecting them.

Jason Wood is a senior writer at Footballguys. He also co-hosts a popular podcast on the world of comics–11 O’Clock Comics. If you’re into comics, I highly recommend checking out his show. 

5 responses to “Jason Wood on “Leveraging Dirt””

  1. I like the integrity part and the thinking around the position.

    How much does the answer change if we don’t have backup young bucks? If we took one of our stud pass rushers in rd 1 (b/c who passes up on that?), and the round 3 pick is a guy the coaching staff tells us has chronic decision making problems that will likely make him a career backup. Obviously we can work with the rd 3 guy, but with that change in scenario our on-field play WILL suffer greatly if we lose our FS.

    Resource constraints are what make these kinds of decisions far more difficult. If the talent dropoff is from Eric Weddle to Rodney McLeod, and the FS’s agent is playing hardball, can we still afford to let him walk? How does this affect our super-bowl window? This team sounds talented enough to be considered to have a super-bowl window, those agglomerations of talent are rare to have at all and near impossible to maintain. The Machiavellian GM in the scenario may well have had to rebuild his team ground-up in a few years anyways.

  2. “Jason also got creative and generated information that I didn’t include to add to the scenario in a way where the team was still in good shape if it lost the team captain to another team. He earns points for that move alone.”

    I personally don’t like this as it is “too convenient” and a total Deus Ex Machina solution that provides an easy way out of the problem.

    I would enter my contract negotiations with the player and his agent with a mention of loyalty. I would state that loyalty is one of our team’s core values and that our organization has gone to great lengths to demonstrate this to the player (a subtle suggestion that we’ve been covering his ass for quite some time). I’d praise the player, acknowledging his contributions to our success and his important place in our future plans as mentor to our younger players and leader of our defense (*cough* you’re good, but getting old *cough*).

    Then I’d go off on a wistful rant about how much fans love seeing their heroes stay with their team. I’d mention players that stayed with the same team their whole career. Next, I’d talk about how it’s such a shame when the team and the player can’t work things out. Then comes the hook: I bring up players who left their team, rattling off a list of names ending with the guy that my former boss sabotaged (a veiled threat).

    After that, I’d express again how much I appreciate what the player has done for us and how excited we are to bring him back. Then we see how negotiations play out. If he signs with another team, I keep quiet and don’t expose his secrets.

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