Man, you got to feel for the Houston Astros.
In a metropolitan area where only 40 percent of the city has the television capability to watch their games, and only a minuscule fraction of those people are choosing to do so, the only headline grabbing maneuver they had left (short of one of their players showing up in the iCloud pics with Jennifer Lawrence) was to fire their manager.
So they did that on Monday, firing manager Bo Porter and ruining the planned "slow news" Labor Day off day for editors and baseball reporters everywhere in the process.
And lo and behold, they managed to seize a tenuous grip on the Houston news cycle for about twelve hours. Good for them.
However, it didn't last long.
Because in a city where J.J. Watt could rip a loud fart and the entire city would immediately turn its attention to the Texans, Watt and Bob McNair decided to pull out the "news cycle" nukes instead:
While you were sleeping, J.J. Watt inked a six year contract extension that will make him the highest paid defensive player in all of football, ending several weeks of hand wringing by anxious Texans fans and several hours of relevance for the Houston Astros.
We may eventually learn more about whatever twists and turns may have taken place along the way when both sides meet with the media, however, in the end this one was pretty straight forward.
Earlier this year, the Texans exercised their fifth year option on Watt's 2011 rookie contract, essentially creating a $6.9 million place holder for the 2015 season. Everyone covering the team seemed to concede, at least initially, that Watt would never play 2015 under those terms, until Bob McNair did an interview with Tania Ganguli of ESPN.com back on August 8 in which he dropped the dreaded "F word" -- "franchise tag":
"You've got guys in the Hall of Fame that have been franchised in back-to-back years," McNair told ESPN.com. "The franchise tag is worth something to the team, and you can't be afraid to use it."
Under the very favorable (for the Texans) terms of the franchise tag, which the team would have had available to use to keep Watt in the fold for 2016 and 2017, they could have paid him the average of the top five highest paid defensive ends in all of football in each of those seasons. At an amount that by then would probably be around $10 million per year, it would have been a gross underpay (assuming Watt was still performing at his usual level) and more importantly would be keeping Watt from a long-term pay day.
Perhaps most importantly, though, it would send a message that would contradict the Texans modus operandi since the franchise was conceived in 2002 -- we take care of our foundational players. Short of Andre Johnson (and when it's all said and done, perhaps exceeding Andre Johnson), no other Texans player in history defines "foundational" more than Watt.
On the field, off the field, this team is J.J. Watt's team now.
After what could now only be loosely seen (at least publicly) as a minor hiccup in the negotiations, Watt held court with the media in Denver two weeks ago after the first practice with the Broncos and discussed in very targeted generalities about his 2011 rookie classmates who were getting long-term contract extensions done and about how "appreciative" their employers clearly were of their efforts.
Courtesy of CBS Sportsline:
"With the new (collective bargaining agreement), I think one of the goals was to make guys earn their pay," Watt said. "No more big paydays up front. ... When a team gives a contract after the third year, they're saying, 'We think you've earned this.' And so, I don't know if [the Texans] 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."
(NOTE: Ironically, one of those players was cornerback Patrick Peterson of the Arizona Cardinals, who along with Watt, was the honorary captain for the LSU-WIsconsin game this weekend at NRG Stadium. Peterson inked a $70 million extension with Arizona earlier this summer. I'm assuming that when the two met at midfield, J.J. asked if they could bump iPhones so he could get a PDF copy of Peterson's deal to forward to Rick Smith with a subject header that said "Add $30 million to this and we're good.")
If indeed Watt's rare moment of making his contract business a public topic at that Denver practice was a chess move, then it was a masterful passive-aggressive play as it got fans and media worked up enough to make his pending deal a dominant topic for two or three days.
My contention (many times in this space and dozens of times on my radio show) since the middle of Watt's breakout season in 2012 has been that Mario Williams' contract that he signed with the Buffalo Bills as a free agent in March 2012 -- six years, $96 million, $50 million guaranteed -- would be the starting point for any Watt negotiations.
In the end, it wasn't all that far from the ending point, as Watt got the same six years as Williams, a slight bump up from Mario in new money to $100 million, and a slight bump up in guarantees to $51.876 million.
According to John McClain of the Houston Chronicle and Sports Radio 610, who broke the story on the deal, Watt will receive $10 million to sign, along with base salaries of $907,385 in 2014 and $9.969 million in 2015.
In the end, the timing of the deal is not that surprising, as the Texans have long eschewed doing in-season contract extensions, preferring instead to extend core players a year early before the start of the final year of their deal. Technically, Watt actually had two years left on his deal if you count the 2015 team option.
Foundational players extended a year early in recent years include tackle Duane Brown, running back Arian Foster, quarterback Matt Schaub, and linebacker Brian Cushing. However, previously, the Texans have only extended and increased one player with multiple years still remaining on his deal.
That was Andre Johnson in 2010, in case you're wondering what the Texans think of J.J. Watt.
As if $51.876 million in guaranteed money doesn't already say enough.
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