Kudos to the Arizona Cardinals.
Bet you never thought you'd hear such a positive compliment, right? Certainly not before last season, when the team won its first division title since 1975 and advanced to Super Bowl XLIII.
Well, get in line, folks, because we thought we'd never type those five words, either. At least not in that particular sequence.
But in refusing to acquiesce to the contract demands of wide receiver Anquan Boldin and defensive tackle Darnell Dockett, each of whom has requested a new and more pricey deal, the Cardinals' organization is demonstrating the kind of gumption that was once anathema to the franchise.
So, maybe the suddenly resurrected Cardinals are becoming NFL trendsetters, huh? Nah. After all, not all that long ago, about the only trend Arizona set was for incredible incompetence. Its Super Bowl appearance notwithstanding, this is hardly a model franchise. But in toeing the renegotiation line on Boldin and Dockett, at least for now, the Cardinals are practicing a contract philosophy some other NFL teams might do well to adopt.
The 98-pound weakling is actually flexing his muscles.
We should note here that we have generally been pro-player in the matter of management versus the rank-and-file. But as you get older, and become increasingly proprietary, you become a little more conservative, too, in your views. And so, although I once would have championed the causes of Dockett and Boldin, it's difficult now to cheer even quietly for the unhappy Cardinals players.
Well, Boldin has two seasons left on the five-year, $22.67 million extension he signed in 2005. Dockett has three years remaining on a five-year extension, worth about $22 million, to which he agreed in 2006.
Under his extension, Boldin pocketed $13.25 million in 2005 and 2006 instead of the $830,000 he would have made under his original contract.
In 2006, Dockett was scheduled to earn the minimum salary under the terms of the three-year contract he signed as a third-round pick in the 2004 draft. With the extension, consummated in October of his third season in the league, Dockett essentially got a $7 million signing bonus, although it was split into two parts.
Nobody needs to plan a telethon, or pass the hat, for either of the former Florida State stars. Then again, the same could be said for most players in the NFL, where the minimum-base salary for 2009 is $310,000, and the average salary leaguewide is seven figures.
There is no denying Boldin and Dockett are brilliant performers. Boldin has averaged more than 80 receptions per year and is a three-time Pro Bowler. Dockett not only plays the run well, but provides the Arizona defense rare interior push on the pocket, and he was undoubtedly the unit's best player during the 2008 postseason.
So, have Boldin and Dockett outperformed their respective contract extensions? Probably so, given their dynamic performances and the comparable numbers of other players around the league, and the salaries of those players. Did anyone hold a gun to the head of either Dockett or Boldin and force them to sign the extensions in 2005 and 2006, respectively? Nope, they were thrilled to get them.
Particularly when they got them.
Boldin still had two years remaining on the original deal he signed as a rookie in 2003, and one of the things often emphasized in the deal was that it was believed to be the first extension ever for a player with two years left on his rookie contract. Dockett was in the third and final season of his rookie deal when he signed his five-year, $22.1 million extension. He still has three years remaining on the contract that resulted from that long-term extension.
It's pretty common in the NFL to award a player an extension when he is in the final year of his contract, or has just one season remaining on it, and faces the prospect of free agency. It's quite another, however, to complete a contract extension in cases where the team so clearly owns the edge.
In dealing with the cases of Dockett and Boldin, the Cards hold a pretty impressive hand.
The club could have played hardball and forced Boldin to play the final two years of his contract under the terms negotiated when he was a rookie. With Dockett, the Cardinals could have made him play out his contract, offered a one-year tender the following spring, and retained a right of first refusal when he was a restricted free agent. For both players, the Cardinals did the right thing, rewarding them for their productivity and agreeing that they were underpaid on their original rookie contracts.
General manager Rod Graves might not be so generous this time around.
First off, Graves must cut a deal with franchise linebacker Karlos Dansby and hammer out an extension for standout strong safety Adrian Wilson, who is entering the final season of his contract. But more important, Boldin has two years left on his deal, and Dockett has three, so there is no real urgency to upgrade their contracts now.
Oh, sure, the two veterans could stay away from team activities in the spring and training camp this summer as a protest. (In fairness, it should be noted that both attended a recent minicamp, although each claimed to have a hamstring strain that kept them off the field.) But to boycott mandatory activities while under contract would make both players subject to fines. If the holdout went into the regular season, they would be docked a paycheck for every game missed.
Contracts in the NFL certainly aren't worth the paper on which they're typed. Teams summarily terminate contracts, especially in the latter years of a back-loaded deal, to avoid paying some players big money. The typical lament of players and their agents is that the only guarantee a guy receives in the NFL is his signing bonus. That's a fair argument, and the owners have long taken advantage of their leverage.
For argument's sake, however, let's just say that Arizona management holds Boldin and Dockett to their current contracts, fines them for every missed practice or game, and actually stands behind those fines. Yeah, it's the sort of distraction no team desires, especially one coming off a surprising Super Bowl appearance. It's not unusual, though, for players on a suddenly resurgent team to attach their organization's success to the size of their paycheck. But it might be time for some club to take a stand, and maybe Arizona is that team.
I can vividly recall the summer day in 2005 when agent Drew Rosenhaus called my cell phone as I was arriving at the Cincinnati Bengals' training camp in Georgetown, Ken., to apprise me of Boldin's extension. I was equally shocked and awed by the call. Shocked, because few NFL teams, but especially the penurious Cardinals, even entertain contract extension negotiations when a player has two seasons left on his deal. Awed because, no matter how long the odds, Rosenhaus can never be underestimated. The extension talks for Boldin were particularly stealthy, but the lack of fanfare seemingly didn't matter, because Rosenhaus is such a masterful negotiator.
The league has watched Rosenhaus yank a lot of rabbits out of a lot of hats. But in the cases of Boldin and Dockett, he might require Houdini-esque sleight-of-hand skills to force the Cardinals to reward his clients with new contracts.
In dealing with the two unhappy players, it seems that right now, at least, Arizona holds most of the trump cards.
Len Pasquarelli, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.