My mother often tells me this one story about my behavior as a deviant child. I didn’t want to go to bed one evening, so my strategy evidently was to just keep crying, thinking that children who cry can’t sleep, and since children who cry can’t sleep, I wouldn’t have to go to bed. Therefore, I would win, but it would take an entire night of crying.
After about 15 minutes I was exhausted, and fell asleep.
I wouldn’t publicly shame myself by sharing the writing equivalent of a family photo album if it wasn’t the perfect metaphor for NFL contract negotiations. One side, usually the player, wants and believes he needs more money, and a pay rate that’s more in line with his value. Often he’s crucified by the fans and media for being selfish, but he’s typically justified in his stance. Players deserve market value, and it’s not their fault that the market pays them significantly more than people who, you know, save lives.
So the player cries by his bed, while the team tries to turn out the lights, close the door, and pour a stiff drink. They have a budget to manage, and a tight one against the salary cap. While they can acknowledge a players’ value, paying a fair rate isn’t always possible. The battle of leverage ensues, and usually the player is on the losing side.
In Pittsburgh, the child is Mike Wallace, and the parents are Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert, team president Art Rooney II, head coach Mike Tomlin, and pretty much the entire city.
The gist, to review: Wallace was tendered as a restricted free agent, meaning that any team that could possibly muster the roster room for a receiver who had 1,193 receiving yards last year and eight touchdowns on 74.6 yards per game could have had him for the compensation cost of a first-round pick. Not a bad deal considering Wallace will turn just 26 this summer, so there’s plenty of explosive speed left in his deep threat legs.
But no one was willing to take that plunge, which was partly influenced by teams at the back end of the first round this year choosing to address their wide receiver needs through other much cheaper avenues (the Patriots signed Brandon Lloyd, and San Francisco went with Mario Manningham and Randy Moss). Today is another important date in the Wallace standoff, and it’ll pass with with no action, just like every other day.
If the Steelers wanted to put their baby to sleep using the old vodka in the back of the cupboard (that’s just something I made up, because people don’t really do that…right?), they had until June 15 to reduce Wallace’s RFA tender from $2.72 million to $577,000, which is the NFL equivalent of a teen’s summer lawn cutting money.
My calender says that today is June 15, but Colbert told a Pittsburgh radio station that he never had any intention of throwing down that negotiation hammer and putting Wallace firmly under his heel and lowering the value of the RFA tender.
“That’s never been an intention of ours,” Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert told 105.9 The X’s Mark Madden yesterday. “When we tendered Mike at the amount we did, the compensation through that tender, we really had no issue with that whatsoever because he is deserving of that.”
Translation: I’m still cool with giving this kid my pocket change, but there’s no way in hell he’s getting my credit card.
Wallace reportedly wants somewhere in the neighborhood of $12-16 million annually over about eight years. The high end of that range would put him not too far behind Calvin Johnson’s average yearly pay ($18 million) over his mammoth eight-year deal that gave him enough guaranteed money to earn the title of highest paid player in NFL history. That’s, like, forever.
Wallace is great, and he’s really, really fast, but he’s not in Johnson territory. He’s not in Larry Fitzgerald territory either, the Cardinals wideout who averages $16 million annually over the life of his contract. Wallace’s play and style are more in line with DeSean Jackson, who will get $9 million on average, or Hakeem Nicks, who was directly behind Wallace in the league yardage standings last year, and will be paid only $750,000 in 2012. He’s a speed threat, and a pony who knows only one trick.
The intention here isn’t to downgrade Wallace. Instead, it’s to show the realities of the financial situation, one which indicates that he should adjust his demands to a more manageable and plausible rate. Despite slashing $30 million in salary, the Steelers are projected to be $10 million over the cap next offseason. They simply can’t afford a mega deal that’s on par with what their quarterback makes (Ben Roethlisberger averages $12.5 annually).
That deal won’t happen, and the Wallace Watch will likely reach defcon 19 on July 25th when he isn’t present for training camp. The next step is when he does his best Vincent Jackson imitation and sits out until Week 10 of the regular season, the deadline to earn an accrued year of service, and for Wallace to still become a free agent next March.
So in the end the baby will go to sleep, but it could mean the Steelers will lose their top receiver and one of the league’s most explosive threats for over half of the season.
His absence would be felt, but it won’t be a death blow. There’s always someone waiting to produce equivalent numbers, and make you a memory in the NFL. That’s the nature of the league, and Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown–two other young, talented receivers on Pittsburgh’s depth chart–will pick up their production and strip Wallace of whatever remaining leverage he has as he sits on a comfy sofa, watching games like the rest of us on Sundays this fall.