The NFL is NOT a league that slots its players financially by position

Let’s get something straight.  The NFL is NOT a professional sports league that slots its players financially by position.  There is absolutely NO rule in the Collective Bargaining Agreement between the 32 owners of the National Football League and the NFL Players Association that implicitly states as such either.

One-sided viewpoints

The recent comments by former All-Pro Tight End Tony Gonzalez via his new found media status with CBS implies as much;

For those of you who don’t know, the NFL is the only major professional sport league that slots players’ salaries by position. For example, no matter how many sacks a linebacker puts up he will never be paid like an elite defensive end (example: Terrell Suggs). No matter how big a hole an offensive guard opens up for a 1,000-yard running back or how well he protects the franchise quarterback, he will never get a payday like the one he would get as an offensive tackle (example: Will Shields).

In the NBA, if you average 20 points and 10 rebounds, you will get a blockbuster deal no matter what position you play. In baseball, if you hit .300 or earn a Gold Glove, you’ll be flying private jets for the rest of your life. I can think of a few terms to describe what’s going on in the NFL like “backward,” “lack of common sense” or “behind the times” but the one that makes the most sense is “discrimination.” Salaries should be set based on production and contributions, not positions.

One of the troubling aspects of players jumping center stage as commentators and analysts (post career) is their oft times lack of comprehension of the big picture and intrinsic bias from only a player’s viewpoint.  Networks want opinionated characters to stir the pot, but before anyone starts jumping on the Gonzalez bandwagon they should FULLY understand the misguided one-sidedness of his comments.

Let the SPIN begin

But much like politics, the media quickly jumped all over the words of “Tony the Player” and not “Tony the Analyst”.  Writes Todd Haislop of The Sporting News;

Tony Gonzalez, arguably the best tight end to ever play in the NFL, of course had a massive impact on the league throughout his 17-year career with the Chiefs and Falcons that ended after last season. Wouldn’t it be something if his post-career impact is even greater?

That could happen if the league, or at least the NFLPA, puts legitimate thought into the idea suggested in Gonzalez’s column posted on CBSSports.com — NFL players should be paid based on production, not position.

Citing the recent Jimmy Graham tight end vs. wide receiver saga as his call to action, Gonzalez writes that the NFL is behind the times with its salary system. He accurately notes that it’s the only American sports league that dictates salaries based on positions. The NBA’s system, in which players are paid as a result of on-court performance rather than position, is a good example of what the future Hall of Famer wants. If the NBA used the NFL’s system and, theoretically, centers were valued higher than small forwards, the Heat would be obligated to pay Greg Oden more than LeBron James.

That last sentence is absurd.  There is no obligation in the NFL system to pay one player more than another based solely on position.  Relax, we’ll get to Franchise tags in a second.

So in jumps Mike Florio with an always pointed PFT perspective;

Per a league source, owners have wanted the system to shift for years.  Currently, the market is set by position, with some average players at a position deemed to be critical (like quarterback) paid more than they would get in a pure meritocracy.  And rookies get paid based strictly on when they were drafted.

The old “league source”…interesting this issue didn’t appear to be brought up over the past CBA extension.  The market isn’t set as much by position, but more by positional need (yes, there is a difference).

With regard to rookies, NOTHING says this is a mandate.  Clubs are allocated a rookie pool based upon the aggregate of all the selections they make in the draft.  It’s up to the club how they allocate those cap dollars.  Agents have long negotiated off the preceding year’s contract at the same selection.  Clubs have defensively stood their ground to maintain a modest percentage increase year to year (regardless of position), but not always STRICTLY adhered to it.  But any attempts at a drastic change would be met with a rookie holdout.

Take Bears quarterback Jay Cutler, for example.  Does he really deserve $22.5 million this year?  Or did he benefit from a system that values quarterbacks and forces teams to pay the one they have because it may be too hard to find another as good as the average one they fear losing to another team?

The system here is the game and the game does value the quarterback position.  Try winning in the NFL without one.  Given the dynamics of professional football and the history of finding an elite QB in the draft, there is pressure on the leadership of any organization to maintain stability at the quarterback position, especially if it’s better than anything available through other acquisition avenues.  Agents and players know this and will willingly use it to their advantage.

The fairest system would provide a minimum salary for every player and would create a giant pot of money to be distributed by an independent panel that would consider statistics and film study and other stuff that the league and union would agree upon.

Whatever the system, the teams will find a way to work it to their advantage.  They always do.  And of all the potential systems, one that ensures only the best players will be paid the most money would be the best framework for the league — and possibly for the players.

There’s much more to it

Let’s get back to the basics.  Every club is divvied up their respective piece of the NFL salary cap to compensate for a 53 man roster that competes within a 32 team league in the manner which they see fit.  Of course this overall number (the game within the game) ebbs and flows as a result of how the club chooses to do their business resulting from the ramifications of both current and past decision making processes.  This competitive aspect of professional football has become as important as good blocking and tackling.

There is NO edict that says offensive linemen get X, while defensive backs get Y.  The MARKET for talent dictates those variables.  Players ARE paid at a minimum based upon credited seasons (Active 3 or more games in a season) earned over the course of their careers.

Signing bonuses, roster bonuses, reporting bonuses, option bonuses, workout bonuses, playtime incentives, production incentives, and bonuses for any other honors such as All-Pro or Pro Bowl are negotiable.  But make no mistake, base salary is determined not by the position one plays, but rather by the time one has put in.

TGC Article 26 of the CBA

Florio is correct, NFL owners do want a change.  Why?  Because of the very reason teams are reluctant to risk paying HUGE salaries to free agents; you’re paying for the past, not necessarily for the future.  Many players lose the fire to produce after signing big contracts and you can pick your reasons, they all apply.

Adding some hypotheticals to the equation

Let me give you some my own quick arguments (for sake of example) that would fly in the face of such a “fair” system;

  1. The Falcons hit rock bottom and are sitting 2-10 going into the 4th quarter of the season.  Tony’s reception numbers are good, but could be really great based upon his final 4 games.  Mike Smith and Thomas Dimitroff choose to sit Gonzalez and put in a young rookie instead.  Why pay more for a player over the last month when the season is already tanked?
  2. QB Matt Ryan is on fire the first half of the season and Tony is on his way to another lucrative year.  Week 8 Ryan goes down with a knee injury, a little known backup comes in and can’t hit the broadside of a barn.  Gonzalez’s numbers taper off to only mere percentage points of what they were the first half of the year.
  3. An independent evaluation board, let’s say similar to ProFootballFocus, cranks out its annual evaluations that the NFL/NFLPA uses to determine player compensation.  Gonzalez played 1024 snaps (the most by any TE), but ranked #41 in the PFF overall score for the position in 2013.  Even on his own team he lags behind many non-descript starters and is paid accordingly.  The board knows nothing of the circumstances surrounding the Falcon offense, only the final results seen on tape.
  4. Week 3 sees Gonzalez take a low tackle by an oncoming strong safety (cognizant of not hitting high around the head, lest he be fined/suspended) and Tony suffers a lower leg injury that is debilitating but not catastrophic.  The remainder of the year he plays through the pain, a mere whisper of the athletic presence he’d been in prior seasons and not nearly the receiving threat as a result.  Gonzalez is ineffective in the Falcon offense but demands to coaching staff he play in order to pad his paycheck.
  5. Mike Smith is dealing with a tough situation.  QB Matt Ryan isn’t playing to his normal standards and ALL passing statistics are down for the year.  Not only is Tony Gonzalez not getting his standard number of receptions, but Julio Jones and Roddy White’s production is down as well.  Tension in the locker room continues to mount as these four “superstars” begin to point the finger at each other for a smaller calculated paycheck at the end of the regular season.

I can hear the other end of GM Thomas Dimitroff’s phone line in conversation with the agent already.

The REAL issue here

What Tony Gonzalez is arguing is his perception of the unfair use of the Franchise/Transition tag.  That’s the real crux of the issue.  Yes, this is determined by position.  However early CBA history will tell you that to counter the decimating effects of free agency on a roster, the owners asked for the ability to hold on to a star player (the Franchise) in exchange for a hefty price.  That price would be determined by the average of the Top 5 at the “position” the player predominantly participated at.  This clearly reeks of a Union demand and not a League mandate.

Those that still argue against the Franchise system should read in full Article 10 of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, and specifically Section 2 – Required Tender of Franchised Players.

Football is constantly changing.  The tight end position has become an integral part of the modern offense, while the running back appears to be sliding down just above interior offensive linemen.  That’s driven by market factors and game dynamics, the needs of the individual organizations.  The statement that a linebacker will NEVER be paid like an elite defensive end is just flat WRONG.  There is NOTHING stopping an NFL club from doing so; not the League, not the CBA, and certainly not the NFLPA.

It’s not the system, it’s the implementation

I would agree there are internal factors that skew the system.  Clubs are aware of market tendencies “by position” (as are the agents), and they have an absolute right to be so with only so much room to wiggle under a hard cap.

Where do agents fit in?  Starting with 90 man rosters and 53+ as the season progresses, professional football can’t handle the burden of guaranteed contracts for EVERY player.  Agents therefore look for as much upfront guarantee as they can possibly capture (top of the roster & bottom) to get both themselves and their clients paid NOW.  Minimum salaries and a performance based compensation plan would drastically alter the very construct of the industry, and in my opinion the game on the field as well.

  • Gone is Free Agency – The ability to shop your skills to the highest bidder.
  • Gone is the Club paying the player – Monies would have to be allocated by the League after the season to cover Club personnel expenses.  Contrary to popular belief, not all Clubs are as “cash friendly” as others.  What if a small market owner couldn’t cover the payroll of a high performance roster?
  • Gone are the Agents – No need for player representation with a flat scale and incentives.  What’s to negotiate?
  • Gone is the bloated weekly paycheck – The bulk of a player’s salary would have to be transferred after calculation of season ending performance levels.
  • Gone is the Draft (or at least as we know it) – Why would a rookie in the top 10 be subject to a greater entering salary than the standardized base of a veteran?  No more need for financing Combine training by the agents, a faster 40-yard dash or higher vertical jump won’t land you any greater a paycheck than garnered by your 7th round brethren.

Be careful what you wish for

Pro football isn’t basketball, it’s not baseball, and isn’t hockey.   None of those other sports require the combination of player personnel and salary cap management over the long haul of a a season that pro football does.  Say what you want about the overall management of the NFL, and personally I’ve not always been its biggest fan.  But today’s “business of professional football” has put a lot of money in the hands of the owners and the players.

Gonzalez’s attitude regarding compensation isn’t surprising (at least at this point in his new found career).  But much like the unionization of the already highly compensated Northwestern University players (close to $60,000 per year in tuition), such a push might very well take EVERYONE over a cliff.

I’ve got an even better idea.  Why don’t we pay NFL players like professional golfers and tennis pros, based solely on where they finish?  At 4-12, Atlanta wouldn’t have had much to spread around…sorry Tony.

*Note – Per Spotrac & Pro-Football-Reference

  • Based upon CAREER earnings of ACTIVE NFL players, three Tight Ends would fit into the top 10 at Wide Receiver (Vernon Davis, Antonio Gates, Jason Witten).
  • There were two Tight Ends to rank in the Top 20 in receptions (all positions) in 2013 (Jimmy Graham & Tony Gonzalez).
  • Only one in the Top 20 in receiving yards (all positions – Jimmy Graham).
  • Five Tight Ends were ranked in the Top 20 of receiving TD’s (all positions – Jimmy Graham, Vernon Davis, Julius Thomas, Tony Gonzalez, Jason Witten).  
  • Tony Gonzalez’s $72,741,933 career earnings would rank 5th on the All-Time list at the Wide Receiver position, trailing only Larry Fitzgerald, Terrell Owens, Calvin Johnson, and Andre Johnson.
  • Terrell Suggs’ (OLB) career earnings of $83,110,000 would rank 2nd All-Time at the Defensive End position behind Julius Peppers.  As it stands, Suggs ranks 2nd All-Time at OLB behind Dwight Freeney.
  • Steve Hutchinson’s (OG) career earnings of $65,184,000 would rank 2nd All-Time at the Offensive Tackle position (Right & Left) behind Joe Thomas.  Leonard Davis (#2 OG) would rank 4th among Offensive Tackles (R/L) on the All-Time list.

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