"You've got guys in the Hall of Fame that have been franchised in back-to-back years. The franchise tag is worth something to the team, and you can't be afraid to use it." -- Bob McNair, 8/8/14
Whether it was Intentional or unintentional on the part of Bob McNair, if you're looking for a salvo that may have led to the rare contractual candor from J.J. Watt on Tuesday afternoon in Denver, that might be it.
Since about the time Watt was putting the finishing touches on his second season in the league, a football masterpiece that concluded with 20.5 sacks and the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year award, his next contract has figuratively hung over NRG Stadium like an ominous cloud, blanketing more and more of the sky with every pass he defended and every quarterback he dropped for a loss.
When asked about a new contract previously, Watt would smile, defer, spit out a line or two about being "just a football player," and essentially cut the line of questioning off at its knees.
That is, until Tuesday.
The Texans are spending the week in Denver practicing with the Broncos, so it started with a casual solo session of blocking sled obliteration, in which Watt destroyed a machine sitting off to the side that the Broncos had apparently stopped using.
After examining the wreckage he'd caused, Watt quipped about possibly having to pay to replace the device: "I don't have that kind of money, man. Commercials only pay so much."
Here's the footage:
Now, you can take Watt's one-liner about his endorsement portfolio as one of two things -- an innocuous one-liner from someone trying to make a few people around him chuckle, OR a casual revelation of a frustration level over watching fellow 2011 first-round draftmates Patrick Peterson and Tyron Smith ink new long-term contracts, for $48 million and $40 million guaranteed, respectively.
The possession arrow would normally have pointed to the former, except that after practice was complete, Watt met with the media and was asked about an article on Yahoo! Sports that had dropped earlier in the afternoon in which he expressed thinly veiled angst over heading into his fourth year in the league still playing on his rookie deal.
When asked about it, here's what he had to say:
"I think when you look around the league and see a couple other guys from the 2011 draft class get contracts, I think it's just nice to see the appreciation being shown. With the new CBA, I think one of the goals was to make guys earn their pay. No more big paydays upfront. Make guys go out there and play and show that they've earned it. So I think when a team gives a contract after the third year, I think they're saying, 'Listen, we think you've earned this.' I don't know if they feel that way or not, but I sure hope I've put in all the work and I've put in everything I can do to hopefully earn it. I get paid to go after quarterbacks. There are people who get paid to decide how much I get paid to go after quarterbacks. I'll let them all decide that. I can't worry about it out here. All I can do is practice football."
The rookie wage scale Watt refers to was implemented as part of the new CBA in 2011, and was designed to protect the owners from themselves when it came to splurging for first-round picks. Gone would be the days when JaMarcus Russell and Sam Bradford would command $40 million to $50 million guaranteed without having taken a snap.
For the most part, it's been wildly successful for the owners, giving them a nearly foolproof ceiling on rookie salaries for at least three years and leverage to control those same rookies for at least another two years after that, when you throw in the fifth-year option that teams can exercise after year three.
Whereas before 2011, all the first rounders got paid HUGE money and the teams would hope they panned out as players, under the new CBA, all the first rounders get paid relatively modestly, and then the players have to hope the teams take care of them.
That's where J.J. Watt is right now -- hoping the Texans take care of him.
Right now, he is slated to make a little under $2 million in 2014, and a little under $7 million with the already exercised fifth-year team option in 2015. Then, he's staring down the barrel of the franchise tag for two years in 2016 and 2017, which would mean a salary at the average of the top five defensive ends' salaries each season, a gross underpay if Watt's playing even close to the level he's displayed in 2012 and 2013.
While J.J. Watt has made this a front-burner issue with his comments on Tuesday, he refrained from raising specific points about his worth to the team and his worth around the league in the media session. (Not exactly the time and place to bring out a PowerPoint presentation, I suppose.)
So if J.J. won't raise specific points, I will, and the fact of the matter is this -- the Texans have always extended foundational players early, and typically under far more suspect circumstances than the immaculate case for extending J.J. Watt.
Matt Schaub was extended with a year left on his deal while coming off a debilitating foot injury. Brian Cushing was extended a year early while coming off of a season-ending ACL injury. Arian Foster was extended while the team could still control his salary through restricted free agency.
So, Bob, what about Watt?
Here's what McNair told Tania Ganguli of ESPN.com:
"We protected Andre Johnson, given him long-term contracts. Brian Cushing's got a long-term contract. Arian Foster. So certain key players, core players, we've tried not to tie them up for a long period of time. Mario [Williams] is gone; we just couldn't do that."
Funny McNair should bring up Mario Williams.
No, the Texans couldn't extend Williams (or didn't see the same value in him that at least some crazy team in free agency might), so he hit the open market and became the highest-paid defensive player in football after the 2011 season, signing a massive deal with the Buffalo Bills, where he's been exactly what he was in Houston -- a physical freak whose sporadic effort mirrors his inconsistent productivity, with decent sack totals compiled in bunches in games that largely mean nothing.
Here is the overview on the actual dollars Mario Williams will have brought home from 2011 through 2014:
2011 (Texans) Salary: $13,800,000
2012 (Bills) Signing bonus: $19,000,000 Workout bonus: $100,000 Salary: $5,900,000
2013 (Bills) Workout bonus: $500,000 Salary: $6,500,000 Option bonus: $8,000,000 Pro Bowl Incentive: $400,000
2014 (Bills) Workout bonus: $500,000 Salary: $1,900,000 Roster bonus: $10,600,000
Now, consider J.J. Watt's take-home pay from football in those same four years, if he were to play under this contract in 2014:
Signing bonus: $6,672,728
Salary 2011: $375,000 Salary 2012: $885,795 Salary 2013: $1,396,590 Salary 2014: $1,907,385
I understand that Watt's contract is a rookie deal with all sorts of collectively bargained shackles and chains, and that Williams's deal is a product of one silly team bidding against itself in a free market. I get it. I detail the actual salary numbers of Watt versus the highest-paid defensive player in the game to illustrate the ungodly value he's provided the Texans under his rookie deal.
And let's face it, a $56 million delta between Mario Williams and J.J. Watt over a four-year period, even one that's a product of rules that were collectively bargained, is criminal.
But it's a crime that can be rectified, a wrong that can be righted.
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No one is asking the Texans to remunerate Watt for 2011, 2012 and 2013. His being underpaid his first three seasons is the nature of rookie contracts in the new NFL CBA. However, there can be no doubt that if ever there were a 2011 draftee who deserves to have his pay bumped up into the stratosphere of the league's elite players at his (or any) position as soon as the league's collective bargaining agreement legally allows the Texans to do so, it's J.J. Watt.
With every 2011 first-round pick that signs a long-term extension over the coming weeks and months, the drums will beat louder, and the best, most popular defensive player in the Texans' franchise history will be left wondering --
"Why is the same management team that would happily overpay Matt Schaub a year early polishing up their 'franchise tag' rifle and taking dead aim at me?"