Precedent, precedent, precedent. There may be countless takeaways from the Cleveland Browns’ newest QB hire, but the salary contingencies they’ve set up for Deshaun Watson are sure to set a league-wide standard that will have a significant impact on future quarterback contracts.
When the Haslams offered Watson — a quarterback who has not played a down in over a year, who is facing down 22 civil lawsuits, and may be looking at a league suspension after multiple accusations of sexual misconduct — a record-setting guaranteed $230 million, they may have screwed over the entire NFL. Watson is a talented QB, to be sure, but there are a lot of talented QBs who don’t have every possible circumstance going against them. And with the precedent set, quarterbacks throughout the league, at the advice of their agents, will now be going into negotiations with the expectation that their contract money will be guaranteed — why wouldn’t they?
Watson doesn’t have the highest annual salary in the league — that honor rests with Aaron Rodgers, who negotiated a new contract with the Packers to the tune of $50 million a year — but he does take home the title for the highest amount of guaranteed money by an $80 million margin over the next-highest.
Contract guarantees require the team owners to place any promised money into escrow, which means that nearly $200 million is sitting in an untouchable fund. CBS Sports’ Jason La Canfora writes that the reason that the escrow rule is a major reason why long-term guaranteed contracts (anything more than a year or two) are uncommon in the league outside of first-round draft picks — it’s just too expensive. But with this new expectation being forcibly thrust upon owners throughout the league as a result of the Haslams’ questionable decision-making, the escrow rule may need to be looked at, as the smaller-market teams may not have the financial viability to simply put away a couple hundred mil at the drop of a helmet.
Former Eagles president Joe Banner told CBS Sports that he thinks that the league may step in to do something about this new precedent, as it has a real potential to throw off the purported competitive balance of the league, saying, “they won’t want to leave it in a situation where the Cincinnatis and Baltimores of the world may be at a competitive disadvantage because of the structure of this deal.”
The guaranteed structure isn’t the only piece of Watson’s contract the NFL may want to look into. That nice little first-year cop-out salary of $1 million that will minimize Watson’s losses if he does end up facing league suspension may not fly with Roger Goodell, even if it is, as GM Andrew Berry told the press, a fairly common occurrence in the Browns franchise.
The obvious loophole exploitation of that part of the contract flies in the face of the league’s power, and if there’s one thing the NFL cares about more than pushing sexism and racism under the rug, it’s reminding the players who’s really in charge here (see: Calvin Ridley). While they won’t be able to adjust his salary, they may get creative with their consequences if their investigation leads there. But then again, we have to consider what Watson is accused of — since when has the NFL really given a shit about women?