Halfway through the weightlifting segment of the Washington State pro day workouts on Wednesday, in a small area of the football complex filled with sweaty draft prospects laboring to impress the NFL scouts, the near-silence was suddenly shattered by a scream.
The only other noises in the room were the grunts of guys straining to hoist the standard 225-pound weight in the bench press drill, the clang of metal on metal and the mumbles of league talent evaluators as they noted the number of repetitions for each player, and so the gleeful squeal was certainly incongruous. Then again, given the news that elicited it, the joyful outburst was understandable.
New York Jets free safety Erik Coleman, fresh off a terrific rookie season and back on campus to finish his degree work and to visit with his former Cougars teammates, had dropped by to watch the workout. And he had just received notification of an unexpected financial windfall. Coleman could barely hear agent Doug Hendrickson on his cell phone and so he asked him to repeat the message.
Sure enough, when the numbers Hendrickson read to him didn't change the second time, Coleman couldn't help himself.
"Yeah, I screamed so loud, everyone turned and looked at me," said Coleman. "It was a little bit embarrassing. And then honestly, I almost cried, I was so happy."
The source of all this emotion: Coleman is the big winner for the 2004 season (to the tune of $227,625) in the NFL's "performance based pay" program.
Coleman started all 16 games and registered 100 tackles, four interceptions, nine passes defensed and two sacks. He played 77.8 percent of the Jets' defensive snaps, far more than he had ever anticipated when he reported to his first training camp. And because of that performance, and the PBP program, he raised his total compensation for the season by nearly 60 percent.
"My first agent [Ian Greengross] had actually told me about this program when I signed my first contract," said Coleman, who inked a five-year deal that included a signing bonus of $165,000 and standard rookie minimum base salary of $230,000. "So I kind of knew, as the season went on, and I was playing so much, that I had some money coming to me. But I was thinking, like, well, more in the area of $60,000. Maybe $70,000 at the most. So when [Hendrickson] told me how much it really was, I freaked out. He said, like, 'Hey, can I get a loan?' And I said, 'What do you mean?' Then he told me that I was getting that much money, and, wow, I just exploded."
What really exploded this season is the size of the payments the PBP program is making to players leaguewide.
In its first season, 2002, the PBP doled out $472,000 per franchise. That number rose to $1 million in 2003 and then to $1.784 million for the 2004 campaign. Not surprisingly, the size of the payments to players has skyrocketed exponentially as well.
For 2002, there were three players who received bonuses of $40,000 or more. In the '03 season, 82 players received checks for $50,000 or more, and 20 of them earned more than $70,000, with three players topping the $100,000 mark. For 2004, though, 56 players will get bonuses of $100,000 or more, 15 earned more than $130,000, and Coleman became the first $200,000 recipient under the program.
All but three franchises in 2004 had at least one player qualify for a PBP supplement of $100,000 or more and the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers had four each. Only one team did not have a player earn a PBP payment of at least $70,000. Certainly the money went precisely where it was supposed to, as nearly all of the 56 players who got $100,000 bonuses were players earning minimum salaries, but who started in more than half the regular-season games and performed in a manner exceeding those minimum base salaries.
Every player in the league who participates in at least one snap receives something from the PBP pool, which does not increase a player's salary cap charge. The pool to fund the PBP supplements is deducted from the overall leaguewide salary cap funds and it was essentially created by slowing the annual increases in base salaries and by blunting the increases in the annual rookie allocation pool.
NFL Players Association executive director Gene Upshaw pointed out last year, in explaining the PBP program, that every team in virtually every season has at least one or two youngsters who out-perform their contracts. And the PBP is a mechanism by which those disparities can be addressed.
"Sometimes those players spend years, maybe their entire careers, trying to catch up salary-wise," Upshaw said. "This is a way to reward those players."
The PBP program is certainly one of the best concepts to come from the partnership of the NFL and the NFLPA. While it won't ever eradicate a compensation system in the NFL that often rewards players with lucrative contracts before they ever step onto the field, and is based on playing time and not statistical comparisons, it is very effective. And the overall PBP pool, and, thus the size of the payouts, will continue to increase.
"It's a little like getting the special Christmas gift you hoped for but knew in your heart that your parents couldn't afford," said New England cornerback Randall Gay, who not only made the Patriots roster as an undrafted college free agent, but ended up starting in nine regular-season games and three postseason contests, including Super Bowl XXXIX. "For a guy just starting his career, and making the minimum [base salary], it can be a big boost and allow you to do some things."
Gay earned a PBP supplement of $145,000. Along with his playoff payments, it meant he actually banked more in add-ons than in regular-season compensation.
For the gleeful Coleman, who had to explain his yelp of joy to his former teammates following the wrap-up of pro day, the record $227,625 payment probably translates into the new home for which he has been saving.
"I'm not too [frivolous] with my money," Coleman said. "I'm more a saver. Even when I got my signing bonus, I went out and bought a used truck instead of a new one. Maybe I'll treat myself to something small with this, but I'm not going to just [squander] it. This is like found money and I want to put it to use. I've been wanting a house pretty bad, back here in this [Seattle] area, and this means I'll get it a little sooner than expected."
Which would be sufficient reason, it seems, for anyone to squeal.
Around the league
• On Wednesday, the Indianapolis Colts conceded to agent Drew Rosenhaus, and to ESPN.com as well, that they will now consider trading star tailback Edgerrin James for a package that does not include a first-round draft pick. A day later, the Seattle Seahawks all but acknowledged the same thing about their version of James, tailback Shaun Alexander. So, two backs who have rushed for a combined 13,657 yards, and who each has posted four 1,000-yard seasons, are on the block. Two guys, with a combined 133 touchdowns and seemingly at the peak of their respective careers, are shuttled to the bargain section (relatively speaking) of the NFL department store. So what gives? Here's what: In any year, running backs, even Pro Bowl caliber ones, tend to be a bit devalued. It's a function of the position they play, the perils inherent to it, and the financial risk every franchise assumes in investing heavily for a tailback. The NFL Players Association study of average career spans, which shows that running backs have the shortest shelf life of players at any position, is now several years old and needs to be updated. Still, both empirically and anecdotally, running backs tend to be short-term performers. But that isn't the lone factor fueling the potential fire sales in both Indianapolis and Seattle. With no extension to the collective bargaining agreement, and the potential of an uncapped year looming, it becomes even more dicey to put big money into tailbacks.
Plus this is a draft class deep at the position, even beyond the Big Three (Ronnie Brown and "Cadillac" Williams, both of Auburn, and Texas' Cedric Benson), going into the second and third rounds, where teams historically have been able to unearth productive runners. All of that has made for a depressed market for tailbacks a term that Rosenhaus used and with which Colts president/general manager Bill Polian didn't quibble, in discussing James and his possible fate and pushed the value at the position down even further. Even with the markdowns on James and Alexander, don't expect teams to run to the phone to call the Colts and the Seahawks. That's because, while compensating those teams with draft choices has now become easier, compensating the two running backs with fat contracts is the more difficult element to the equation. James and Alexander are certain to use as a model the blockbuster contract the Washington Redskins awarded Clinton Portis last year after acquiring him in a trade from the Denver Broncos. But the Portis deal was pretty much an aberration, a by-product of having free-spending Redskins owner Dan Snyder in the mix. The NFL, as the first two weeks of free agency have again reinforced, isn't exactly the most fiscally responsible league around. But most NFL owners aren't going to spend $6 million-$7 million per year on a tailback, a position where one ill-fated twist of the knee can either end a career or send a player into quick decline. Running the ball will always be paramount to success. But it has become a thrower's league, a game of pitch and catch, an environment in which less-talented backs can still rush for 1,000 yards because they are hitting wider creases created by the threat of the pass. So while it was somewhat surprising that the Colts and Seahawks would open up the bidding for their premier rushers at a discount price, it wasn't altogether shocking.
• So who might consider dealing for James? Don't rule out the Arizona Cardinals, whose coach, Dennis Green, would love a big-time tailback to add to what figures to be a potent passing attack with Kurt Warner as the new starting quarterback. The consensus around the NFL is that the Cardinals will invest the eighth overall choice in the draft on one of the Big Three tailbacks. If they don't, remember this name as a second-round possibility: University of California tailback J.J. Arrington, who very quietly led the nation in rushing in 2004. But the book on Green is that he likes slashing-type backs and James might fill the bill in that regard. In fact, in a recent discussion, Green actually used James as an example of the kind of back he prefers. Yeah, it's a long shot, for sure. But the Cardinals have the cap room and have been very aggressive shoppers in the early stages of the free agency period. Plus, it won't take much of an upgrade, especially in the watered-down NFC West, for the Cardinals to possibly contend for a division crown.
• With premier backs such as James and Alexander now available at reduced prices, how are some of the other teams dangling tailbacks as trade bait likely to fare? Uh, probably not too well. The Buffalo Bills still haven't gotten a viable offer for two-time 1,000-yard rusher Travis Henry. The efforts by Denver and Cleveland to trade Reuben Droughns and William Green, respectively, appear dead in the water. Even in free agency, the market for unrestricted players such as Anthony Thomas, a onetime offensive rookie of the year, has been sluggish. As noted last week, the Bills aren't just going to give Henry away. But general manager Tom Donahoe, who had hoped to squeeze a second-round pick out of a team trying to upgrade at tailback, might have to either lower his expectations or get creative. One possibility is swapping Henry for a conditional fourth-round pick that would improve to a second-rounder if he rushed for 1,000 yards.
• In discussing the James situation with ESPN.com earlier this week, Colts general manager Bill Polian was both candid and insightful. And he left very little doubt that the possibility James won't be back in Indianapolis for 2005 is very real. "There is the best of all worlds and there is the worst of all worlds," Polian said. "But where most of us live is somewhere in between those two." Translation: In most circumstances, you've got to make the best of the situation, and that is what the Colts are trying to do with James. Polian also noted the need for the Colts to make progress on the defensive side of the ball. He pointed out that, when owner Jim Irsay publicly stated his desire to retain James and sign him to the long-term contract the Colts now acknowledge they cannot afford, the comments were made before the team's season-ending personnel meetings, at which it was concluded that Indianapolis has to address defensive deficiencies. And, of course, circumstances are always in flux once the free agency period begins.
It is not known whether the Colts would seek another top-flight back if James is traded, or try to play with Dominic Rhodes, who recently re-signed with the team rather than test the free agency market. There have been some rumblings in NFL circles that the Colts might try to pry restricted free agent tailback Brian Westbrook away from the Philadelphia Eagles. Even if those rumors were true, such a move would be difficult, since the Eagles have enough cap room to match virtually any offer sheet Indianapolis could make to the man who has become an offensive centerpiece. Westbrook certainly, though, has the diverse skills to be a big hit in an Indianapolis-style offense. But here's the bottom line for both the Colts and for James: If Indianapolis feels it can just plug any tailback into its offense, and that the high-octane passing game will make that runner instantly successful, it is probably wrong. And if James thinks he can simply change uniforms and post the same numbers he did in Indianapolis with a new team, well, he's mistaken as well. Part of James' success in Indianapolis was that offensive coordinator Tom Moore used him wisely. Sure, he averaged 335.4 carries in the five seasons in which he was healthy, but one never got the impression it was the Colts' intent to run him into the ground. That might not be the case with another team.
• Despite the statement released by coach Nick Saban this week that the Miami Dolphins neither plan to trade Jason Taylor nor move him to linebacker, don't pencil the veteran defensive end into the Dolphins' opening day lineup just yet. Sources within the organization contend that the Dolphins might listen if the right offer for Taylor came along. One reason: Some staffers feel that Taylor is an undisciplined defender at times, a player who freelances in search of the sack, a guy who doesn't take on blockers very well. They love his upfield speed but are wary, they say, of Taylor's alleged habit of getting out of position. We always felt that Taylor, despite his lack of bulk, played the run pretty well. Then again, our opinion really doesn't count, does it? And remember this: Before owner Wayne Huizenga hired Saban, the typically low-key Taylor was one of the players who publicly questioned the wisdom of hiring the former LSU coach. In any case, don't close the door on a possible trade of Taylor just yet.
• One defensive end who almost certainly will be traded is Darren Howard of the New Orleans Saints. Howard this week signed the qualifying offer of $7.8 million the Saints made him as a franchise player. And while that guarantees that money, and precludes New Orleans from rescinding the franchise marker, it doesn't negate trade possibilities. The Seahawks and Dallas Cowboys have inquired about Howard who, despite having to play inside at tackle in nickel situations in 2004, still collected 11 sacks, tying his career best. Seattle appears, at this point, to be the most ardent suitor, but don't rule out the Cowboys, who need a bigger defensive end if they are to transition to a 3-4 front in 2005. We've already extolled the virtues of Howard as a productive two-way defender in this space, so to further dwell on them would be redundant. But, clearly, he would upgrade the situations in either Dallas or Seattle. And, with former first-round choices Charles Grant and Will Smith on hand and slated to be the starters, the Saints see Howard as a bit extraneous, particularly with a salary cap charge approaching $8 million.
• We're not about to interject ourselves into the Mike Tice mess. Except for this message to the embattled Minnesota Vikings head coach: When your attorney and other close counselors tell you to shut your trap, heed their advice, because that's precisely what you are paying them for. Tice continues to speak to media people about the ticket-scalping allegations for which he is under investigation. His public admissions certainly are not helping him. In fact, they may raise the level of possible league sanctions. And while on the subject of people who talk too much, how silly is Jacksonville strong safety Donovin Darius, who last week e-mailed two newspapers suggesting his desire to be traded to either the Dolphins or Vikings? Start doing that stuff and it just makes you look desperate and, in the long run, makes a trade more difficult to consummate. Darius, like Tice, has paid no heed to his advisors. One confidant has termed the Jags safety "off the reservation."
• The trade of unhappy wide receivers Santana Moss and Laveranues Coles, which had taken on a life of its own over a stop-and-start 10-day stretch, was finally completed on Wednesday when the latter successfully completed his physical exam with the New York Jets. But while Coles passed muster with the Jets medical staff, there are some personnel men and pro scouts in the league who feel the injury to his right big toe, which nagged him through the better portion of the past two seasons, remains a problem. Certainly the numbers at least hint that the damaged toe, on which Coles has steadfastly declined to have surgery, has been a bit of a deterrent to the wideout's authoring big plays. From his arrival in the league in 2000 through the third game of the 2003 season, the outing in which he suffered the toe injury, Coles averaged 15.0 yards per reception and scored a touchdown every 13.8 catches. In the 29 games since the injury, Coles has averaged 11.8 yards per reception and has scored a touchdown every 24.8 catches.
Coles is wary of going under the knife, he has hinted, because similar toe surgery prematurely ended the career of former NFL wide receiver O.J. McDuffie. That onetime Miami starter remains in litigation, having brought charges against the surgeon who performed his operation. In terms of the contract Coles signed with the Jets as part of the trade, it provided him even more security. There were still five seasons, totaling $21 million, remaining of the seven-year, $35 million deal Coles signed in Washington in 2002. By reworking the contract, Coles raised the five-year take to $25 million and received $8 million in guarantees. That included a $5 million signing bonus and three guaranteed roster bonuses of $1 million apiece. So, just since March of 2003, when he pocketed a $13 million signing bonus from the Redskins, the five-year veteran wideout has banked $21 million in guarantees. In his two seasons in Washington, he earned a total of $14 million, counting his signing bonus and base salaries. If he plays the entire five-year contract with the Jets, he will have earned a whopping $40 million in seven years, making him one of the highest paid wide receivers in history. The base salaries for his deal with the Jets are $1 million (2005), $2 million (2006), $4 million (2007), $5 million (2008) and $6 million (2009).
• Lost in the shuffle of free agency is the fact that, by adding former Seattle starter Ken Lucas (albeit for a very steep price that included a $13 million signing bonus), Carolina suddenly has one of the deepest cornerbacks corps in the league. Lucas likely will pair with 2004 first-round draft choice Chris Gamble, a player many teams didn't like in the draft last year, but who snatched six interceptions as a rookie. That means former starter Ricky Manning Jr., one of the stars of the Panthers' incredible postseason run in 2003, will become the nickel corner. Not many teams can field a threesome with that kind of quality. It's a nice job of rebuilding the position by general manager Marty Hurney. With those kinds of corners, coach John Fox, one of the NFL's best defensive minds, is going to have a lot of fun scheming up coverages.
• Punts: Pittsburgh fans shouldn't start envisioning former New England cornerback Ty Law playing in black and gold in 2005 just yet. The Thursday visit to Steelers officials was initiated by Law, not Pittsburgh management. Law resides in nearby Aliquippa, Pa., and, as he continues to recover from foot surgery, is trying to make sure teams don't forget about him in free agency. Ravens officials have denied they are shopping linebacker Peter Boulware in trade talks. But there are some Baltimore staffers who feel that the veteran 'backer, coming off a 2004 season he missed because of injuries, is not a very good fit now that the club is returning to a 4-3 defense. The San Francisco 49ers are interested in wide receiver David Boston, released by Miami this week and still not able to pass a physical exam because of the knee injury that sidelined him all last season. The rationale of the 49ers is that Boston had his best seasons in Arizona under Jerry Sullivan, the new San Francisco receivers coach. The Dolphins thought that, too, but the knee injury suffered in training camp rendered the matter moot. Floyd "Pork Chop" Womack played mostly at right tackle in Seattle but several teams, including Buffalo and Green Bay, are considering the unrestricted free agent as a guard. One sleeper in the hunt for Womack is Pittsburgh, which lost starting right tackle Oliver Ross to Arizona in free agency. Falcons defensive coordinator Ed Donatell, who coached Darren Sharper in Green Bay, would probably like to have the safety in his Atlanta secondary. But Sharper, released by the Packers on Thursday, is probably asking for more money than Atlanta can afford. The Falcons are quietly in the chase for Baltimore inside linebacker Ed Hartwell, but his price probably is too steep, too.
• The last word: "I've been super consistent, and then they ask me to block, too. I mean, I've got to help protect the god of the NFL. You trust me to do that? You put all this money in your quarterback, and run six-man protections, and you trust me to protect your quarterback? I must be all right. You put me on a defensive end and you've got Peyton Manning sitting right here? C'mon. Let's be for real. You gave him $34 million. You're going to put [someone] back there who don't deserve no money to protect him?" Edgerrin James, explaining his contract demands.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.