An NFL player under contract holding out into the regular season doesn’t happen too often. Lengthy holdouts are beginning to occur with increasing frequency though, as there have been four over the last five years.
Safety Kam Chancellor held out 54 days in 2015 before returning to the Seahawks without any changes to his contract. Left tackle Duane Brown’s holdout from the Texans in 2017 lasted nearly three months. Brown didn’t get a new contract either but was traded to the Seahawks about a week after returning to Houston. Chargers running back Melvin Gordon ended his 64-day holdout last week also without getting the new contract he desired. Redskins left tackle Trent Williams is still a holdout without an apparent end in sight.
I was involved in one of the longest holdouts of player seeking changes to an existing contract during the 21st century. One of the players I helped represent as an agent was wide receiver Keenan McCardell, whose holdout in 2004 ended after 82 days when the Buccaneers dealt him to the Chargers right before the trading deadline for 2005 third- and sixth-round picks.
There’s a common denominator between Williams’ and McCardell’s holdouts; Redskins president Bruce Allen was general manager of the Buccaneers when McCardell was holding out. This factor may help shed some light on why the Redskins and Williams are at a stalemate.
My holdout experience with Bruce Allen
McCardell’s holdout stemmed from him feeling misled by head coach Jon Gruden about renegotiating his contract. Gruden, who was the power broker in the Buccaneers organization, gave McCardell assurances that his contract would be addressed when he approached him following a 2003 season in which the receiver played in the Pro Bowl after catching 84 passes for 1,174 yards.
The four-year, $10 million contract McCardell signed with the Buccaneers in 2002 was compensating him for the No. 2 wide receiver role he was expected to assume when he joined the team. McCardell had become Tampa Bay’s clear-cut primary receiving threat after Keyshawn Johnson was given a paid leave of absence for the final six games of the 2003 season for being a disruptive influence. He felt his salary should be more in line with his expected contributions going forward, especially after Johnson was traded to the Cowboys during the 2004 offseason.
McCardell’s previous experiences with the business of football while on the Jaguars played a part in his thinking. He was released from a more lucrative contract at an inopportune time following a 2001 season where he caught 93 passes for 1,110 yards because of Jacksonville’s mismanagement of the salary cap.
Gruden brought Allen in from the Raiders as his handpicked general manager. The two had been colleagues when Gruden was Oakland’s head coach. With Allen on board, Gruden removed himself from the process and deferred to him on contract matters.
Allen was unwilling to significantly address McCardell’s contract primarily because he didn’t want to establish a precedent of giving into a player’s demands through a holdout, particularly one with two years left on his contract. He took a heavy-handed approach when McCardell missed the June mandatory minicamp. Allen exercised Tampa Bay’s rights to recoup bonus money from McCardell, which was permissible back then for minicamp absences but not anymore, in addition to fining him for his absence. Most teams wouldn’t begin recouping bonuses until a holdout extended into training camp. Allen’s move further alienated McCardell.
There wasn’t much meaningful dialogue about a resolution after a portion of McCardell’s $2.5 million signing bonus and a $500,000 roster bonus was put in jeopardy. I specifically remember a conversation early in the preseason where I asked Allen to trade McCardell if he wasn’t going to do anything about his contract. Allen suggested there was more trade interest in Tampa Bay reserve wide receiver Bill Schroeder than McCardell. When I told Allen I wanted to confirm it myself, he didn’t object.
My first call was to Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome because McCardell played for the Browns before the name change and move to Baltimore. Newsome informed me that Allen had called him to see if there was interest in McCardell during the 2004 NFL Draft months earlier. Allen having a change of heart or getting cold feet prompted Newsome to acquire another wide receiver, Kevin Johnson, from the Jaguars instead. After confronting Allen about Newsome’s interest in McCardell, we were formally given notice that we didn’t have permission to shop for a trade.
We didn’t talk to Allen for long stretches of time during McCardell’s holdout after that. The lack of substantive communication isn’t unusual when both sides are firmly entrenched in their respective positions. Neither side wants to make an overture to break the impasse because the gesture will probably be perceived as a sign of weakness from the other side. Any conversations were centered around other Tampa Bay players we represented.
Tampa Bay’s season started better than we ever could have imagined for our purposes. Or so we thought. The Buccaneers suffered injuries at wide receiver during an 0-4 start. Joey Galloway sustained a groin injury in the season opener that kept him out six weeks. It was the worst game statistically for Gruden’s offense to that point in his tenure. Joe Jurevicius was already sidelined for several more games. An aging Tim Brown, who signed during training camp, was ineffective replacing McCardell. The Buccaneers had trouble scoring points in a couple of losses where McCardell may have made a difference in the outcome of those games. The team was averaging a mere 12.3 points per game a quarter of the way through the season.
The early season misfortune didn’t provide us enough leverage for the Buccaneers to start working on a new deal for McCardell. That’s because a majority of teams attempt to preserve contractual precedents at almost all costs. The concern is that making a concession to one player will open the floodgates for other players to expect similar treatment in the future. In actuality, teams should be able to make distinctions based on each player’s particular circumstances without jeopardizing the integrity of a policy.
We shifted gears from wanting a new contract to a trade early in the regular season once it became apparent that the Buccaneers weren’t going to budge financially. The idea was to become a big enough distraction to force a trade. That’s why we kept McCardell available to media outlets where he became increasingly more critical of Gruden and the Buccaneers organization in his numerous interviews. Our NFL sources indicated to us that a couple of teams were interested in acquiring McCardell early in the season but Allen wasn’t open to moving him at that time. This only deepened the divide between the sides.
Eventually, we found the right button to push. A former colleague of Gruden’s in Oakland told me he hated confrontation. We had McCardell fly to Tampa about a week before the trading deadline for an impromptu meeting with Gruden where he was instructed to be extremely combative, which was out of character for him, because we thought that approach might help spur movement. We wanted Gruden to get a taste of what life might be like if a disgruntled McCardell came back.
Although Allen was adamant that McCardell wouldn’t be traded, this stance was re-evaluated after Tampa Bay fell to 1-5. The Chargers, who were a surprising team that year, lost Reche Caldwell to a season-ending knee injury right before the trading deadline. When the Chargers called prior to acquiring McCardell to tell us that a deal would be contingent on him honoring his existing contract for the remainder of the season, there weren’t any objections on our end because of how badly we wanted a change of scenery. A new contract was negotiated early during the following offseason.
I can’t say for certain but suspect the meeting between McCardell and Gruden prompted the trade. Gruden couldn’t have been looking forward to an unhappy McCardell returning after getting fed up enough with Johnson the year before to send him home for the final few games of that season.
There was still unfinished business with the Buccaneers after the trade. The Buccaneers were successful in recovering $1.5 million in signing and roster bonuses from McCardell through a grievance filed against him because of the holdout. His $185,000 in fines for missing 37 days of training camp were no longer enforceable after the trade because of a 1997 arbitration decision involving Hall of Famer Kevin Greene.
The Trent Williams holdout
Holdouts are typically about money where the player withholding contractually obligated services wants a new deal. Williams’ situation doesn’t appear to be typical. Since Williams and his representatives haven’t spoken publicly, the exact reasons for the holdout haven’t been disclosed. There has been plenty of speculation that distrust between Williams and the Redskins’ medical staff is the biggest factor. Williams hasn’t been happy about how the Redskins’ medical staff handled a growth on his scalp that was surgically removed early in the offseason. According to USA Today’s Mike Jones, Williams asked for a new contract and also for a trade during the offseason.
Williams has two years left on the five-year, $65 million contract extension he signed in 2015 making him the NFL’s highest paid offensive lineman at the time. The offensive tackle market has escalated dramatically since his signing.
Williams’ holdout is a much more expensive proposition than McCardell’s. Skipping offseason workouts triggered a $150,000 base salary de-escalator to reduce Williams’ 2019 base salary from $11.15 million to $11 million. This base salary reduction isn’t new for Williams. It’s also happened the last three years for a lack of participation in the workout program.
Each week of the regular season Williams misses is costing him just under $650,000 in base salary. Williams also has $250,000 in 46-man per-game active roster bonuses. $15,625 isn’t being earned for each game missed. He is scheduled to make an unguaranteed $12.75 million in 2020, which includes $250,000 in per-game roster bonuses.
$1.6 million worth of fines have been racked up by Williams for his 40-day absence from training camp. The Redskins can also recover a portion of Williams’ signing bonus. A maximum of 25 percent of the prorated amount can be recouped for missing all of training camp. Recoupment increases by another 25 percent when a holdout continues into the regular season. It’s an additional 1/17th of the prorated amount of signing bonus for each week a holdout extends beyond the fourth week of the season.
The maximum Washington can recover from Williams’ signing bonus is the entire prorated amount of his 2019 contract year. The annual signing bonus proration was $1.7 million when Williams signed his current contract. Williams’ four game substance abuse suspension in 2016 reduced the 2019 proration under the salary cap to $1,525,800 because of the forfeiture associated with that violation. It’s unclear whether recoupment is based off the $1.7 million or the reduced amount after the suspension.
The Redskins are reportedly intent on fully enforcing their rights with Williams to try to wait him out on his holdout. At 0-4, the Redskins are one of six winless teams in the NFL. The losing record hasn’t seemed to deter the Redskins, just like the Buccaneers’ slow start didn’t change their stance with McCardell. The Redskins have also rebuffed trade inquires about Williams so far. The NFL’s trading deadline is October 29 at 4 p.m. ET.
Williams sitting out the entire season would be definitive proof that the holdout is strictly about principle, as it would be counterproductive contractually. Washington would likely have Williams’ contract tolled for a full year under the extension provisions in paragraph 16 of the standard NFL player contract, which would mean his deal wouldn’t expire until after the 2021 season instead of the 2020 season.
We had a general timetable for McCardell returning to Buccaneers for this reason. An exact date hadn’t been determined but McCardell would have reported to the Buccaneers some time shortly after the trading deadline, which was after the sixth week of the season back then, because of an arbitration decision relating to Joey Galloway’s 101-day holdout in 1999.
Seattle lost a grievance attempting to get Galloway’s contact extended for an additional year under paragraph 16 because he held out for the first nine weeks of the 1999 season. The arbitrator didn’t give a clear standard for how many missed weeks are necessary to trigger tolling. The NFLPA advised us that McCardell should return a little sooner than Galloway did to be on the safe side because teams can ask the commissioner for a roster exemption lasting up to two weeks for a player absence like that of Williams, which could keep him out of action during this time.
It is also the NFLPA’s belief that the deadline for teams to sign their unsigned franchise and transition players, draft picks and restricted free agents, which is the Tuesday following the 10th week of the season, also applies to holdouts. After this date, which is Nov. 12 this year, these players are prohibited from playing for the rest of the season. It remains to be seen whether returning at this deadline would be sufficient to prevent a contract from tolling.