Delhomme's pact could affect Couch, Warner
New deals like Jake Delhomme's lessen the number of potential opportunities for free agents next offseason.
It is called lagniappe, an old Cajun word that roughly translates into "a little bit extra," and a term with which Carolina Panthers quarterback and dyed-in-the-gumbo Louisiana native Jake Delhomme was familiar, long before he agreed Thursday morning to his pricey new five-year contract extension.
Rewarding their emerging star with a contract that reportedly could be worth as much as $38 million, a deal criticized in some NFL precincts because there remains a core group of skeptics anxious to see if Delhomme was just a one-year wonder, certainly represented a heaping helping of lagniappe ladled out by Panthers management. No matter where one sides in the debate, though, the contract inarguably was aimed at providing security for both parties to the extension.
But bad news -- very bad news, in fact, it says here -- for signal-callers such as Tim Couch, Kurt Warner and Kordell Stewart. How do we draw a correlation between Delhomme's contract and the fortunes of those veteran quarterbacks?
Because players like Couch have recently been forced into a kind of wait-until-next-year mindset, one in which they sign short-term deals in the hopes of finding a far more appealing employment market next March, when they will be free agents and perhaps have a chance to pursue a starting job. And contracts like the one Delhomme signed, in the big picture, mean there aren't going to be as many vacant starting spots in the NFL as some observers suggest there might be.
It is, to be sure, one of the NFL's most notable dichotomies. Everyone focuses closely on the movement of quarterbacks in the league every spring, and this year was no different, as 19 quarterbacks had switched franchises at last count. But in a league where the best-kept secret appears to be the number of teams that have cemented their starters in place over the last few years, many of them with deals of astonishing length, few quarterbacks who changed addresses actually upgraded their status.
Here's a fact-and-fiction proposition: It's a fact that the 32 quarterbacks projected to be starters in 2004 have an average of 4.4 more seasons remaining on their current contracts, meaning they are locked in through 2007. So it is fiction to assume that a slew of No. 1 spots will become available next spring, or even the offseason after that.
The late-blooming Delhomme is the latest beneficiary of a trend in which teams have sought to reverse the quarterback carousel and put a stop to the calliope tune that annually accompanies the game of musical chairs at the position.
Just since the end of last season, there have been 10 quarterbacks who signed new contracts that either make them starters or figure to extend their tenures atop the depth charts. And with Chad Pennington of the New York Jets and Seattle's Matt Hasselbeck entering the final year of their respective deals, there are more megacontracts coming in the not too distant future. Bank on the likelihood that, within the ensuing nine months, Pennington will sign a deal that features the second-largest signing bonus in NFL history, trailing only the $34.5 million the Indianapolis Colts paid Peyton Manning up front.
Even accounting for the "voidable" years in current quarterback contracts, the average NFL starter still has 4.1 seasons left on his current deal. Go one step further and subtract the "dummy" years on contracts, seasons in which the salaries are so inflated that the club will be forced to either restructure the contract or release the quarterback, and the average is still about 3½ remaining seasons.
And chew on these numbers: There are a dozen quarterbacks with at least five seasons remaining on current deals and 11 of them have six or more seasons left on contracts. So while the widespread perception is that the quarterback position is again in flux, one might insist rather convincingly that the future offers a kind of golden age of stability at the game's most critical spot.
Which begs the question of where guys like Couch -- who is just 26 years old and who, we feel, can still be a big-time quarterback if he lands in the right situation -- are going to find their next opportunity to regain their lost starter's status?
Said one prominent agent who recently dealt with a Couch-type situation: "You have to do a little sweet-talking, do some tap-dancing, paint some blue sky. Because, the truth is, while you're telling (your client) it's OK to take a step back in hopes of moving forward again next year, sometimes your guy just gets stuck in neutral. As with everything in the NFL, this is cyclical, but this particular cycle doesn't (bode) well for guys looking to get back in the starter's saddle next year. I mean, take a look around, and try to figure out where the opportunities are going to be."
It certainly doesn't appear there will be many.
Only four current starters are entering the final year of their contracts. Pennington and Hasselbeck will get new deals before 2005 or their teams will use the "franchise" marker to keep them around. Drew Brees of San Diego is in the final season of his original NFL contract but the Chargers, with first-round pick Philip Rivers onboard, already have his successor in line. Arizona's Josh McCown, the final starter with just one year left, will only be eligible for restricted free agency next spring, so the Cardinals can retain him with a qualifying offer.
The smart money says that Brett Favre plays two more seasons in Green Bay. The newly reworked contract that Buffalo's Drew Bledsoe signed this spring probably extends his shelf-life two more years. Even if he wins the starting job for 2004, Warner could be gone from the New York Giants by next spring, but that's only because the Eli Manning era will be set to dawn. Kerry Collins is already in the on-deck circle to succeed Rich Gannon in Oakland, whether it is this season or next. The Pittsburgh Steelers will count on Ben Roethlisberger, the first quarterback the franchise has selected in the first round in a quarter-century, to supplant Tommy Maddox in 2005 or 2006.
And there is a subset of "franchise" quarterbacks -- Peyton Manning, Donovan McNabb, Michael Vick, Byron Leftwich, David Carr, Steve McNair, Daunte Culpepper and more -- who aren't going anywhere for a long time.
That's what long-term deals like the one signed by Delhomme, with teams being very proactive now in locking up quarterbacks once they have identified their guy, have done to the futures market. That is also why the ever-pragmatic Couch has left open the chance he could extend his contract in Green Bay and wait for Favre to decide that it's time to tend to the mowing chores full-time at his Hattiesburg, Miss., home.
Looking down the road at the market, well, there's not much lagniappe out there for former starters who have signed short-term deals on the assumption that things will get better. On the plus side, if you're Couch and you've for sufficient stomach lining, the beer and brats can quickly become an acquired taste.
|New deck of cards|
|Following the conclusion of the last formal offseason workout Thursday morning, new Arizona Cardinals coach Dennis Green announced his starting lineups for when training camp opens on Aug. 1. Here is a look at how the Cardinals' current lineup compares to the one that started in the 2003 regular-season opener:|
|WR||Anquan Boldin||Anquan Boldin|
|WR||Bryan Gilmore||Larry Fitzgerald|
|LT||L.J. Shelton||Leonard Davis|
|LG||Cameron Spikes||Reggie Wells|
|C||Pete Kendall||Pete Kendall|
|RG||Leonard Davis||Cameron Spikes|
|RT||Anthony Clement||Anthony Clement|
|TE||Freddie Jones||Freddie Jones|
|WR||Larry Foster||Bryant Johnson|
|QB||Jeff Blake||Josh McCown|
|RB||Emmitt Smith||Emmitt Smith|
|LE||Fred Wakefield||Fred Wakefield|
|LT||Russell Davis||Russell Davis|
|RT||Wendell Bryant||Darnell Dockett|
|RE||Calvin Pace||Bert Berry|
|SLB||Ray Thompson||Gerald Hayes|
|MLB||Ronald McKinnon||Ronald McKinnon|
|WLB||Levar Fisher||Ray Thompson|
|LCB||Renaldo Hill||Duane Starks|
|SS||Adrian Wilson||Adrian Wilson|
|FS||Dexter Jackson||Quentin Harris|
|RCB||David Barrett||David Macklin|
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.