Unless something changes within the next few days, Russell Wilson will enter this NFL season as one of the most woefully underpaid quarterbacks in the modern history of the league, largely by choice; at the moment, he is the on the verge of rejecting a roughly $20 million raise, part of a fascinating little standoff that, if Wilson eventually winds up winning, could fundamentally alter the nature of professional football contracts.
Here’s the dirty little secret about NFL contracts that you might not have been aware of (I wasn’t fully aware of it until I started reading about Wilson’s negotiations): The numbers mean very little. Most of the money is not guaranteed, except by injury, which means it’s not really guaranteed at all. This is not like baseball, where the bottom-line number is the bottom-line number; as The Washington Post’s Barry Svrluga put it a couple of months back, the notion that Ndamukong Suh signed a $114 million contract with the Miami Dolphins is “economic voodoo,” since only $60 million of that money is guaranteed.
Now you may tell yourself that $60 million is still a good deal of money, and this is true, but it is not baseball money, which is odd, since football is roughly twice as popular as baseball in this country. Some of this, obviously, has to do with the impossible calculus involved in negotiating the NFL salary cap, but it still violates the tenets of common sense. In the offseason, Svrluga points out, J.J. Hardy signed a three-year, $40 million guaranteed contract with the Baltimore Orioles; as I write this, Hardy is currently hitting .239. By comparison, the Seahawks’ Marshawn Lynch will make $12 million next season, with no guarantee of any future money beyond that if Lynch were suddenly to become the running-back equivalent of a .239 hitter and get jettisoned by the Seahawks. Never mind that Lynch’s career is constantly on the verge of extinction; instead of getting rewarded for playing a sport that ravages his body and (potentially) his mind, Lynch is treated like an eminently disposable cog.
What does all this have to do with Russell Wilson? Perhaps nothing, if not for the fact that Wilson was once a baseball prospect, too, which led him to hire an agent, Mark Rodgers, whose expertise lies largely in baseball. According to reports from last weekend, Seattle is offering Wilson – whose current salary is $1.52 million, a remnant of his rookie contract – an extension worth roughly $21 million per year, which would put him in the neighborhood of Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger. This seems fair, given that Wilson has become one of the most reliable and mistake-free passers in a league desperately short on first-tier quarterbacking talent. Some percentage of that money the Seahawks offered was guaranteed, but apparently not enough of it, because it appears Wilson’s agent is holding out for more guaranteed money as a self-imposed deadline of Friday looms.
The conventional wisdom among front-office types like Mike Holmgren is that Wilson should just take the damned deal, that by virtue of simple mathematics he’d eventually wind up short-changing himself if he continues to play under that rookie deal this season. But it’s possible there’s something bigger going on here; it’s possible, as Sports Illustrated‘s Andrew Brandt writes, that Wilson and his agent are seeking to alter the very nature of pro football contracts. In the end, this could become a groundbreaking moment not just for Wilson, but for the league itself; in the end, all of this will hinge, as Brandt writes, on whether Wilson and his agent can “be patient enough to say no.” That’s not an easy thing to do when $20 million is sitting on the table, even if some of that $20 million is illusory. But in this case, the slow play might wind up being the best play of all.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb