It finally happened. That’s right, the news that everyone was waiting for with palpable anticipation and anxiety became official last Thursday when it was announced that T.J. Watt, the Steelers all-everything outside linebacker, inked a four-year contract extension worth $112 million, with $80 million fully guaranteed.
It took a long time for this deal to get done, as both parties likely had to give in a little to get a lot.
For Watt, he almost certainly walked away from a few more guaranteed bucks than he probably wanted to when the whole negotiation process ramped up a while ago. But he not only got the Steelers to change in a big way when it came to one of their long-standing financial policies, but he’s also the highest-paid defender in the league. As for the Steelers, they finally got out of their comfort zone and guaranteed much more cash than they ever have for any superstar player who took pen to paper. In doing so, they retained the services of perhaps their most important defensive player since Troy Polamalu’s heyday.
No, it wasn’t always pretty, but that’s why they call them negotiations. And guess what? There were no bad guys. I know there are a few strawmen arguments floating around out there about Watt being treated unfairly by some fans, but, believe me, it was not the vast majority. In fact, Watt was treated extremely well by the fans and media, and most agreed that the man needed to be paid; a deal needed to get done; no way could Pittsburgh let Watt walk away without making him a Steeler for life (or at least until he’s 30).
If anyone was portrayed as the bad guy in this process, it was the Steelers, believe it or not. They were considered to be set in their ways. They were even called “cheap” by some media members and fans. Can you believe that? The Steelers, a team that’s almost always up against the salary cap, had their old “cheap” reputation pulled out of the storage closet and thrown back in their face.
Again, despite public perception, there are rarely bad guys in any contract negotiation.
The last time the Steelers had such a noteworthy negotiation, running back Le’Veon Bell, the man who was trying to reset the market for his grueling position, was firmly placed into the role of “bad guy” by the fans and the media. Funny thing is, Bell was simply doing what Watt was trying to do during his recent contract negotiation: max out his earning potential when he was at the height of his powers.
Bell was a perennial First-Team All-Pro player by the time his rookie deal had expired following the 2016 season. Like most elite players, he wanted to set the financial bar higher than any player at his position ever had. Only the players at the top of the food chain—the ones who often get slapped with the franchise tag—can ask for such financial security.
Unfortunately, Bell and the Steelers could never reach a deal on, you guessed it, guaranteed money—the most important part of any modern football player’s contract negotiation—and Bell was tagged two years in a row.
You might say Bell was made the bad guy because he skipped training camp in 2017 and then held out entirely the following season. There was also the matter of Bell’s supposed promises to his teammates that he’d show up and sign the tag in time for the 2018 regular season, only to do an about-face at the last moment.
Watt, on the other hand, simply did a soft “hold in” during the 2021 training camp, as his contract negotiations dragged on through the summer. Watt showed up and worked; he just didn’t participate in any team drills. Also, Watt was quiet and professional about it.
Only problem with that line of thinking is Watt never got to the stage that Bell did, meaning he never had to decide whether or not to sign his franchise tag and show up to camp or hold out of camp and possibly even the entire regular season.
What if Watt was put in the same position as Bell in both 2017 and 2018? How would he have handled it?
Anyway, that’s enough of that. I now want to talk about the two perspectives both camps—the player and the team—may have as they engage in these often contentious and stressful contract negotiations.
Watt’s point of view
As I mentioned earlier, players in Watt’s position, the truly elite of the NFL, get to ask for the moon when it’s their time to cash in. This usually occurs during their second contract when most haven’t even reached their prime. Sadly for them, the NFL has had a system in place for many years where it effectively makes free agency not so free for the game’s top stars. I’m referring to the aforementioned franchise tag. Sure, when a player gets this tag placed on him and is prevented from becoming a free agent, he is assured a fully guaranteed one-year contract worth lots of money. Unfortunately, it prevents that player from going out on the free-agent market and negotiating the best deal possible from the highest bidder. This is why the player and the team often frantically engage in stressful contract talks as a means to get a deal done before either party is forced to make a very important decision regarding the tag.
To reiterate, the biggest factor in contract talks involving today’s elite NFL players is guaranteed money. Believe me, this is how they keep score. It’s not about security. If it were about security, Watt’s $10 million salary for 2021 would do the trick. No, this is about being the best of the best and setting a new financial standard when you have a chance to do it. A defender of Watt’s accomplishments might enter negotiations thinking, “If Myles Garrett got a certain amount in his new deal, if Joey Bosa got what he got, if Aaron Donald got what he got, well, I want at least that much or more.” I realize the Steelers have always had a reputation for taking care of their star players. No, they don’t guarantee money beyond the first year of a new deal, but gosh golly, they’ll do right by their players. It’s not guaranteed, but it’s guaranteed.
This was the argument folks used against Bell during his contract drama. The Steelers were never going to guarantee Bell the kind of money he was asking for, but no way were they going to up and cut him after a year or so. He would get his money; he would likely get every penny that his rather lucrative offer was worth.
Ah, yes, but there isn’t truly a guarantee until there is a guarantee in writing, is there? Players like Watt may say, “Why should I make this sacrifice and guarantee myself less money just because I was drafted by a certain team who likes to do things a particular way?”
Before I get into the Steelers’ point of view, I’d like to talk about a story former head coach Bill Cowher told in his new book, Heart and Steel. Cowher talked about the time he walked into the late, great Dan Rooney’s office and pleaded with him to re-sign Merril Hoge, a popular running back who had just become a free agent during the 1994 offseason. According to Cowher, Mr. Rooney got up from his desk, walked over and shut his office door, and turned to Cowher and said (I’m paraphrasing a little), “Bill, I’m glad we hired you to be our head coach, but don’t ever tell me how to spend my money.”
That was the end of Cowher’s desire to see Merril Hoge return for the ‘94 campaign.
My point with that story is this: the Steelers have always conducted business in their own, unique way. It’s something that has worked for them more often than not over the past 50 years or so. When you’re making such important financial decisions as negotiating new contracts for mega-superstar players, you can’t give in to emotions. You can’t react to social media. You can’t give in to public pressure or even to your own players using the media to implore you to sign one of their teammates (I wonder how Art II, Dan’s son, felt about Ben Roethlisberger and Cam Heyward pulling a “Cowher” in the most public way possible right before Watt’s deal was announced).
Having said that, the Steelers knew they probably had to change their policy on guaranteed money if they wanted to keep Watt around and make him happy. They were going to have to go out of their comfort zone—and in a big way. You take your time with a decision like that; you don’t rush into it and give Watt whatever he wants. You don’t get a deal like that done by snapping your fingers. There’s a lot to think about when guaranteeing $80 million to a player. If you do that for Watt, you’re going to have to do something similar for other stars, like safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. Some have said that, when it comes to future negotiations, the Steelers should just insist that Watt was the exception as far as non-quarterbacks are concerned. Really? You think Fitzpatrick is going to be content with the Steelers going back to their “no guaranteed money beyond the first year” ways? You honestly believe he’s going to accept that? That’s not how the world works, my friend. No, Fitzpatrick, like Watt, arguably the best player at his position, is going to want to reset the market for safeties when it’s time to negotiate with his bosses. And you better believe he’s going to want a boatload of guaranteed money. What about if and when inside linebacker Devin Bush realizes his full potential and becomes a superstar? Chase Claypool could become a true beast of a receiver. What about Najee Harris? I realize he’s a running back and shouldn’t have feelings about guaranteed money, but that didn’t stop Bell.
In other words, these players, if they reach the very top of their profession, are going to want to be treated like Watt was treated. True, not guaranteeing Watt the money that they did would have prevented the Steelers from signing some future stars, but doing so will likely have the same effect.
That’s life as an NFL owner—salary inflation never stops.
With Watt now counting so much against the cap for the foreseeable future, that’s going to mean sacrifices when it comes to how the Steelers build their roster. I’m not saying the deal with Watt shouldn’t have been done. I’m glad it was done, it’s just a really huge mortgage that they’ll have to budget for over the next half-decade or so.
You can talk about television contracts and the rising cap number, but it wasn’t long ago that $100 million seemed like a lot for a salary cap. However, that didn’t stop teams—including the Steelers—from spending to the limit.
If the Steelers want to remain competitive—and they’ve already shown us that is still their goal even after the loss of their franchise quarterback early in the season—they’ll likely be up against the cap more often than not.
All of the above is what the Steelers were no doubt considering while trying to decide just how far out of their comfort zone they were willing to go to get a deal done with their superstar outside linebacker.
Finally, T.J. Watt may have been thinking about his long-term future, but the Pittsburgh Steelers were doing the same thing.
There are always two sides to every Steelers’ contract negotiation.