Little more than a spare part during his first two years in the league, Minnesota Vikings free safety Brian Russell intercepted nine passes in 2003, tying for the NFL lead. He also started all 16 contests and, more amazingly for a player who spent 2001 on the practice squad and 2002 on special teams, Russell was on the field for all 955 defensive snaps.
For the former deed, Russell commanded some notice, but he still wasn't selected to the NFC Pro Bowl squad. For the latter accomplishment, becoming one of only three non-offensive linemen among the 35 players who participated in every snap in '03, Russell will pocket an additional $114,258 and is the biggest beneficiary in the second year of the league's "performance-based pay" program.
Implemented as part of the 2002 extension to the collective bargaining agreement, the purpose of the PBP program was to establish a fund (with the money coming from league revenues) which primarily supplements salaries of players whose playing time is disproportionate to their compensation. And certainly Russell, who earned a minimum base salary of $300,000 in 2003, was a worthy poster child for precisely how the program is supposed to function.
Then again, Russell had a lot of company, as dozens of young players will soon find PBP checks of $40,000 or more in their mail boxes in the next few weeks.
Every franchise had at least three players who qualified for $40,000 or more in terms of PBP money and Denver and Indianapolis had eight each. There was at least one player in the $50,000-plus bracket on every team.
"It's like putting on an old pair of pants, and finding a $20 bill in the pocket, except it's a whole lot better than that even," said New England center Dan Koppen, who started in 15 games as a rookie, won a Super Bowl ring and the $122,500 in playoff money that goes with the title, and now will bank $101,521 in a PBP bonus. "I wasn't even aware of (the program) until somebody told me about it during Super Bowl week. Hey, it's great, man."
It is, indeed, one of the best concepts to emanate from the partnership of the NFL and the NFL Players Association, and from their continuing labor peace. Some purists, who feel that players should be paid solely on production, likely view the program as representing little progress toward that lofty and idealistic goal. Truth be told, the PBP program will not eradicate a system in which first-round draft choices pocket millions of dollars before they ever set foot in their first NFL locker room.
The program is, though, a step in the right direction. And the direction, as evidenced by the payouts for 2003 playing time, is definitely in the "up" position.
In 2002, its first season, the program doled out $472,000 per franchise and three players received bonuses of $40,000 or more. For the '03 season, the payout per team rose to $1 million and there were a whopping 163 players who qualified for checks of $40,000 or more. Eighty-two players will receive checks for $50,000 or more and 20 earned more than $70,000. In addition to Russell and Koppen, linebacker Scott Fujita of the Kansas City Chiefs, will get a bonus of $100,000-plus, with his PBP payment of $113,298.
Those numbers will rise again in 2004 as the PBP fund continues to increase.
The best collective example of how the PBP, in application, is matching its theoretical purpose: All 20 of the men who qualified for $70,000-plus bonuses under the program were minimum-salary players in 2003, earning between $225,000 and $380,000 based on their years of NFL tenure. And all 20, quite obviously, performed at a level far exceeding those minimum base salaries, and deserved to have their compensation augmented.
"It's almost a given that, every year, every team in the league is going to have players who (outplay their contracts)," NFLPA executive director Gene Upshaw acknowledged. "Sometimes those players spend years, maybe even their entire careers, trying to catch up salary-wise. This is a way to reward those players."
Harold Henderson, the league's executive vice president of labor relations, pointed out last year that some players need the PBP checks simply to get through the offseason. At least Thomas, a three-year veteran, can splurge on a week's worth of fast-food dinners.
One of the attractive components of PBP is that it does not increase a player's salary cap charge because the money is deducted from the overall cap pool upfront. The fund was essentially created by slowing annual increases in the minimum salaries and by blunting increases in the rookie pool.
Fujita and Miami tight end Randy McMichael are the only two players who ranked among the top 20 beneficiaries each year, but they certainly mirror the escalation in PBP funds. Fujita, who earned $35,079 for 2002, saw his bonus increase more than threefold. McMichael received $40,580 for 2002 and jumped to $74,352 for the '03 season.
"Keep that 'found money' coming," said McMichael. "Once you know it's out there, and I didn't in the first year of the program, it really is (an incentive). I mean, the better you play, the more your playing time increases, and so does the (PBP) money. You want to be out on the field as much as possible."
Around the league
Since we know next to nothing about labor law, we probably wouldn't understand much of the multi-syllabic verbiage that will be bandied about by the high-priced mouthpieces but, oh, to be a fly on the wall of Monday's hearing on the status of wide receiver Terrell Owens. The hearing figures to be a tough session for the NFL Players Association, which finds itself in the middle of defending the actions of a player who isn't exactly the poster boy they would choose to promote, and an agent who apparently couldn't handle affairs for essentially the only NFL client he represents. If special master Stephen Burbank asks NFLPA attorneys Richard Berthelsen and Jeffrey Kessler if the union informed agent Dave Joseph of the change in date for voiding the final three years of Owens' contract, and they confirm notification was dispatched by fax, the case would seem a slam-dunk in favor of the San Francisco 49ers. After all, NFLPA executive director Gene Upshaw said in an interview this week that, not only was Joseph notified, but that the union possesses a receipt for the fax sent to him. Should Berthelsen or Kessler deny such notification was faxed to Owens' agent, well, that's tantamount to suggesting Upshaw is a liar. Of course, the NFLPA will attempt to argue that Owens fulfilled the void stipulations merely by reaching the performance standards stipulated in his contract which granted him the right to expunge the final three seasons of the deal. But there were other league players with similar conditions in their contracts, and with similar opt-out clauses, who understood that the void date had changed and who met the deadline. So it would appear that the union, which basically is compelled to represent Owens even if it doesn't believe in the strength of his case, is on pretty shaky ground. Then again, one never wants to guess about the rulings of arbitrators or special masters in such circumstances, because they often view the circumstances in a different light. The consensus opinion around the NFL remains, though, that Burbank will uphold the 49ers and rule valid the trade that sent Owens to the Baltimore Ravens.
By the way, Upshaw and commissioner Paul Tagliabue looked like geniuses, compared to Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig and union dictator Donald Fehr at the United State Senate hearings on steroids this week, didn't they? One of the various by-products of the labor peace between the NFL and the NFLPA is the best drug policy in all of professional sports. And the league took another giant step this week with the news that it will partner in developing new testing procedures and research at a Utah clinic. There are a lot of people in the game who feel that Tagliabue and Upshaw, who basically functions as vice-commissioner now, have perhaps grown a tad too cozy in recent years. But on matters like drug and steroid testing, the NFL continues to lead the way, and that's the kind of productive results such closeness has promulgated in some areas. Next to The Commish and Upshaw, baseball's duet looked like Tweedle-dumb and Tweedle-dumber.
Over the past month, there have been changes at the starting quarterback spot by a half-dozen teams, and some league personnel chiefs are wondering how much of an upgrade any of those six teams actually realized at the position. "It isn't as if most of those teams can say, with any degree of certainty, that they definitely will be better at quarterback now than they were before," said one NFC general manager. "There are still question marks about most of the moves that were made." In Arizona, there is no guarantee that young Josh McCown, who replaces enigmatic Jeff Blake, won't struggle at the outset of his tenure as starter. Despite success in three starts last season, Tim Rattay will be hard-pressed to match the production of Jeff Garcia in San Francisco. Just because he was the top overall choice in the '03 draft doesn't mean Cincinnati's Carson Palmer, who steps in for Jon Kitna, will deliver immediate results. There are real doubts as to whether A.J. Feeley, with five career starts, is that much better an option for Miami than Jay Fiedler. Mark Brunell, supplanting the younger Patrick Ramsey in Washington, showed some age in training camp with Jacksonville last summer. The one team that should benefit from a quarterback change is Cleveland, where Garcia replaces Tim Couch. That's not a slam at Couch, but rather a suggestion that his relationship with coach Butch Davis and the Browns organization as a whole might have been counterproductive had he stayed. As for Couch's future, well uncertain is certainly the most appropriate word to describe his status. Every franchise believed to be a potential landing spot for Couch has now publicly refuted rumored interest in the five-year veteran. Because he was the top pick in the 1999 draft, and does possess talent, he'll get the benefit of the doubt and find some club to take him on, although there aren't any guarantees of a starting spot.
Quickie report on the Thursday workout of Eli Manning, the Mississippi star who auditioned for league scouts at the New Orleans Saints complex: A solid workout but not a scintillating one. Manning threw the ball well enough, demonstrated good touch and accuracy, and will still be the first quarterback chosen and still possible the top prospect to go off the board. But two scouts said that J.P Losman of Tulane, who worked out just after Manning, actually threw some routes better. Losman continues to strengthen his stock as a likely second-round pick.
Talk about a marriage made in Hades. Or, more accurately, in The Black Hole. Sources confirmed Thursday night that the Oakland Raiders' pursuit of Cincinnati tailback Corey Dillon is legitimate and that even owner Al Davis, who characteristically eschews deals for running backs, is fanning the flames. If the Raiders can land the eternally disgruntled Dillon for a low middle-round pick, not the second-rounder Cincinnati wants in return, it could be a bargain for them. Yeah, Dillon is a royal pain, a guy who is never happy. But he certainly fits with the Raiders image and, if he is ignobly dumped by a Bengals team that is actually better on paper than are the Raiders, he might feel he's got something to prove at age 30. From the Oakland standpoint, the franchise needs a power back to run the Norv Turner offense. For years, Turner has been miscast by fans as a passing games guru. In truth, he loves to pound the ball, and all one need do is check out the rushing stats of the tailbacks who have played in his offense in the past. Right now, Tyrone Wheatley and Justin Fargas are the primary tailbacks on the roster, and neither is really of starting caliber at the disparate junctures of their respective careers. By the way, Garrison Hearst is the backup plan for the Raiders, if they can't complete a trade for Dillon. The problem is that Hearst, jettisoned by the 49ers, is drawing interest from other teams as well. ESPN.com has learned that Hearst will visit with Detroit officials on Sunday and Monday as the Lions continue to seek at least a short-term answer to their tailback spot. Hearst, of course, played for Lions coach Steve Mariucci in San Francisco.
On the subject of the Raiders and tailbacks: How badly did Tampa Bay want Charlie Garner, who bought his way out of his Oakland contract, and then signed a six-year deal with the Bucs earlier this week? Well, the veteran tailback required arthroscopic surgery to clean up some knee problems and underwent the procedure last Friday morning. And it was a member of the Bucs medical staff, surprise, who performed the surgery. In fact, some league sources contended to ESPN.com that Tampa Bay officials insisted the surgery be done by one of their doctors, so they could get a good look at the knee before committing to invest a signing bonus of $3.5 million-$4 million in Garner.
There have been 16 defensive tackles selected in the first rounds of the last three drafts, an amazing bonanza at a position where it is traditionally impossible to land prospects, but no one should expect the binge to continue next month. That said, keep an eye on Randy Starks of Maryland, one of the most consistent risers on draft boards around the league right now. He might not be quite as active or powerful as another former Terps defensive tackle, Kris Jenkins of the Carolina Panthers, but Starks is a run-stuffer with natural strength and better movement skills than scouts felt he possessed. It appears he will join Tommie Harris (Oklahoma) and Vince Wilfork (Miami) and tackles who will go off the board in the opening stanza.
Want an offensive lineman on the rise? Try Alabama guard Justin Smiley, who ran in the 4.8s at his Thursday campus workout and improved his bench press output to 24 "repetitions," while also doing a 34-inch vertical jump. Yeah, we know, teams don't normally invest first-round choices on guards. But Smiley is getting a lot of notice and certainly is working his way up draft boards.
Carolina offensive line coach Mike Maser is one of the best in the business and, for the Panthers offense to continue to hammer the ball at people in 2004, he might have to be. In case no one noticed, the defending NFC champions will begin '04 with just one offensive line starter from Super Bowl XXXVIII in the same spot. Center Jeff Mitchell, who made the ESPN.com all-pro team for 2003, returns at the hub. But when he swivels his head from side to side, it will be a different landscape than the one he saw in the Super Bowl. Both starting guards are gone, Kevin Donnalley via retirement, and Jeno James in free agency to Miami. The Panthers on Thursday released left tackle Todd Steussie, a move that had been rumored for weeks. That means Jordan Gross, the team's first-round pick in 2003 and a superb performer as a rookie, will move to his more natural left tackle spot. Former Colts starter Adam Meadows, signed last week as a free agent, will become the new starter at right tackle. Maser might try to fill at least one guard spot from within, but look for the Panthers to try to add an interior veteran through free agency.
As for Steussie, there already are rumblings he will bounce down to Tampa Bay, where offensive line coach Bill Muir is hellbent on improving his unit. The Bucs already have signed three free agent linemen -- Derrick Deese (San Francisco), Matt Stinchcomb (Oakland) and Matt O'Dwyer (Cincinnati) -- and aren't done yet. The big plus is that Deese and Stinchcomb can line up just about anywhere so, if Steussie is signed, their flexibility will come in handy.
Nice move by the Jaguars this week in acquiring free agent free safety Deon Grant from Carolina. The four-year veteran was tabbed as "soft" early in his career but has really come on the past two seasons and begun to demonstrate great range. The Jags probably overspent a bit for Grant but he figures to be a nice complement to veteran strong safety Donovin Darius, who this week signed the one-year qualifying offer for a "franchise" player. The addition of Grant also means that second-year veteran Rashean Mathis, a steal in the second round of the 2003 draft, will remain at cornerback. Mathis opened the '03 season at free safety and then moved to the corner for the final 10 games. Given his playmaking ability, and his "ball skills," the outside spot is probably a more natural position for Mathis, who had 91 tackles and two interceptions as a rookie. Jacksonville still has to decide on its other corner but now has plenty of candidates, having signed Dewayne Washington and Lewis Sanders to compete with Jason Craft. The Jaguars' defense improved dramatically in the second half of last season and coach Jack Del Rio certainly has the unit pointed in the right direction.
Belated condolences to the family of former NFL executive and all-around good guy Val Pinchbeck, killed last Saturday night when struck by a taxi near the league offices in New York. "Pinch" was a scheduling genius, a guy who drew up the annual slate without ever using a computer, and one of the people responsible for the incredible popularity of the game on television. He retired several years ago but you couldn't tell it from the pace he maintained and the contributions to the NFL he continued to make. Over the last four years, this scribe covered at least 15 Tampa Bay Bucs games and it seemed Pinchbeck was at every one of them. He would sit in the back of the press box, mingling among the media, and always ready to sit and chat for long stretches. My good friend Pete Prisco, the talented football writer for another website, cited the garish sportcoats that Pinchbeck used to wear. More than that, I'll recall that "Pinch" more often than not showed up for games wearing white loafers, sometimes even in November. A terrific guy and he will certainly be missed.
Punts: Tampa Bay officials have announced they are not pursuing San Diego wide receiver David Boston in a trade -- he'll likely wind up at Miami instead -- but that doesn't mean the Bucs won't bring in another veteran pass-catcher. Don't be surprised if Tampa Bay signs Antonio Freeman to a very modest contract. ... The $10.8 million signing bonus that free agent cornerback Antoine Winfield got from the Minnesota Vikings is actually a roster bonus. That means the $10.8 million all counts on this year's cap, and can't be prorated, as a signing bonus could have been. It also means Winfield will have a staggering 2004 salary cap charge of over $12 million. ... The Packers recently created some cap room by restructuring the contracts of quarterback Brett Favre and defensive tackle Cletidus Hunt. ... Look for the Bengals, who are seeking a run-stuffing defensive tackle, to consider Daryl Gardener after he is released by Denver in early June. The massive but oft-injured Gardener had a superb 2002 season in Washington before moving on to the Broncos in 2003. The defensive coordinator in Washington that year was current Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis.
Stat of the week: How much have league revenues increased in the last decade or so? The spending limit in 1993, the first season in which the NFL imposed a salary cap, was $34.5 million. The signing bonus included in Peyton Manning's new contract with the Indianapolis Colts is $34.5 million.
The last word: "I can't fly commercial anymore." -- cornerback Shawn Springs, after flying to Washington on Redskins owner Dan Snyder's private jet, which features wood-grain toilet seats.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.