Why Sam Darnold's Holdout Was Bigger Than The Jets

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Monday morning, as Sam Darnold’s holdout from Jets training camp was entering its fourth day, the view from two of the country’s top football writers was that a deal simply needed to get done ASAP.


Peter King of NBC Sports:

I don’t care who’s at fault—some silly team policy about offset language, or agent Jimmy Sexton insisting on something that very likely will never come into play over the five-year life of the deal. End it. Get the future in camp today.

Albert Breer of The MMQB:

I know you’re probably enthralled by this legal talk, but what we all can agree on: This should [be] done by now.

Darnold and the Jets agreed to a contract a few hours after those words were published, and he made his camp debut that afternoon. All’s well that ends well, so let’s get to the live tweets about 7-on-7s. That Jets fans would want Darnold and the team to get it done so he’d be on the field is understandable. But for reporters to frame this dispute as an inconvenience, as a petty disagreement about a “silly team policy” and pesky “legal talk” is to miss the importance of what was at stake—and not just for Darnold. A similar battle is still raging between linebacker Roquan Smith and the Bears, the only remaining holdout from this draft class.

King’s and Breer’s attitude is infantilizing, in that it presents the issue as though the overriding concern here is football’s status as a game that exists solely for our enjoyment, and not as the cold-hearted, $14 billion business in which teams routinely assert their control over players by using contract mechanisms like those that delayed Darnold’s willingness to put pen to paper. It’s true that the Jets and Darnold were battling over details that possibly will never matter; the Jets drafted Darnold to be their franchise quarterback, and the league’s salary system mandates that he receive a four-year deal for a fully guaranteed $30.25 million, including a $20 million signing bonus, plus a team option for a fifth year. But all that “silly” “legal talk” at the center of the dispute could matter, and not only to Darnold and the Jets, which is why this was a fight worth having.


As numerous reports have suggested, the Jets and Darnold were initially at odds over offsets. An offset is designed to protect a team after a player with a full guarantee (the top two-thirds or so of all first-round draft picks get all four years fully guaranteed) gets cut and signs with another team. With an offset, the team can deduct from the remaining guarantee whatever payment the player’s new team will give him. Without an offset, the player can double dip.

In the early years of this CBA, teams were more willing to remove offsets from rookie deals for top 10 picks. Now, only the Rams and Jaguars remove them consistently. The Titans and Bears, respectively, compromised on them in past years with Marcus Mariota and Mitch Trubisky—both quarterbacks taken at No. 2. Darnold, drafted at No. 3, lost leverage to get offsets struck when No. 1 pick Baker Mayfield agreed to a deal with offsets last week. But, as I noted the other day, this would have amounted to chump change: If Darnold were to shit the bed badly enough for the Jets to cut him—teams rarely give up so quickly on first-round picks, especially quarterbacks—he’d likely sign somewhere else for the league minimum, as Brandon Weeden did after being cut by the Browns just two years into his rookie deal. In 2020, per the CBA, the league minimum for a player with two credited seasons will only be $660,000—a rounding error in a league in which the cap has risen 14 percent in the last two years as teams have also become adept at managing their cap space.


Jets GM Mike Maccagnan later told reporters he held firm on the offsets so as not to set a precedent. Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News reported that Darnold’s rep, superagent Jimmy Sexton, turned his attention to voidable guarantees only after conceding on the offsets just before the start of camp on Friday.


Why this would be “a red herring” is a bit of a mystery. It’s a standard negotiating tactic—literally one that’s taught to law students—to demand something after making a concession. Also, voidable guarantees are pretty damn important.

Voidable guarantees are triggers that do exactly what they suggest: allow teams to void guaranteed money, typically for non-football injuries related to risky activities like skydiving or riding a motorcycle, and/or suspensions related to personal conduct, PED or drug use, or the catch-all “conduct detrimental.” The Jets are one of a few teams to consistently insert language that includes fines as mechanisms for automatically voiding guarantees. In the end, according to Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio, Darnold got the Jets to blink: They removed the voidable provisions and agreed to make payable his entire $20 million signing bonus within 15 days—a rarity. This was a significant victory.


Like offsets, voidable guarantees would only matter if Darnold were to become a colossal bust. Mehta went so far as to assert on a podcast that the Jets had no intention of voiding Darnold’s guarantee for an infraction such as a suspension related to the helmet rule. Which might be true! But had that provision remained in Darnold’s contract, the Jets would have retained the contractual right, in writing, to void his guarantees for fines. That the Jets had included such language in all of their previous contracts—including for a pair of non-QBs repped by the same agency as Darnold—is precisely what gave Darnold some bargaining room here: Under this CBA, they also hadn’t drafted a QB in the top three, either.

Put it this way: If Darnold were to turn out to be a complete flop, it’s not difficult to imagine the Jets fining him for, say, reporting late to a meeting and then using that as a pretext for canceling his guarantees sometime before his deal is up—no matter what verbal assurances they might have made before the contract was signed. After all, “conduct detrimental,” as defined by Article 42 of the CBA, can have an elastic meaning. To say nothing of the commissioner’s disciplinary powers as laid out in Article 46, which Roger Goodell has weaponized with capricious punishments for any variety of infractions.


Remember: The rookie wage scale already strangled Darnold’s ability to bargain for what he’s worth, in a league in which quality quarterbacks are scarce (read: extremely valuable) commodities. The full guarantees are supposed to be the trade-off. Yet, like they’ve done with the increased use of techniques like injury splits, automatic voids, and per-game roster bonuses, teams keep finding ways to shift more and more of the contractual risk onto the players—to make the guarantees no longer quite so guaranteed. Take it from agent David Canter, in response to a data point reported by NFL Media’s Mike Garafolo:


Dan Graziano summed all of this up perfectly the other day over at ESPN.com:

Every rookie contract includes language that allows teams to void guarantees under certain circumstances, including some egregious ones that would be understandable, such as drug suspensions or legal entanglements off the field. But many teams go too far, inserting language that allows them to void guarantees for far less significant reasons, such as team-imposed fines. Last year, the NFLPA found this practice so widespread that it launched an internal investigation of rookie deals to determine whether teams were violating the CBA with such language, and they sent a letter to agents warning them to be vigilant against it.


In other words, by negotiating hard to strike these voidables, Darnold’s and Smith’s agents are doing exactly what they’re supposed to be doing. And just last night, per the Chicago Tribune, the Bears backed off their insistence on going after Smith’s guarantees if he were to be fined for violating the league’s inscrutable helmet rule. Other issues remain, but it’s still a tangible win—just as Darnold’s was. “As an agent, you always want to protect your client’s downside, but you also want to protect the downside that’s most likely to occur,” former agent and ex-Washington cap analyst J.I. Halsell told me. “And [Darnold’s agent] in this case was able to do that.”

It’s an important distinction. It’s also an important part of a never-ending battle between the NFL’s labor and management. That it involves such minute “legal talk” that might never come up again isn’t “silly”; it’s precisely the point. And it only reinforces management’s longstanding determination to construct deals that allow them to shoulder none of the risks and all of the benefits.