Archimedes knew that if you wanted to get things done, you needed more than will power. You needed some serious leverage. The news that Reggie Wayne is skipping the mandatory mini-camp has us all a tizzy these days, largely because there is a serious lack of real NFL news to occupy us. The real issue isn't even that Wayne is on hold-out watch, but that Bethea and Mathis will be missing the mini-camp as well. All three situations are different, but they share a common cause. The CBA is wheezing its last gasps and everyone is preparing for a work stoppage. I know nothing about the personal finances of the three players involved, but I do know that most NFL players are living nearly paycheck to paycheck. Before I break down the specifics of each case (and they are quite different), let me make one thing clear:
Each player is doing the right thing. Every one of you would do the exact same thing in their shoes.
First, let's not whine about the sanctity of a contract. NFL teams can void those contracts at any moment. I see no reason why fans should demand that the players 'play out' their existing contracts while celebrating the fact that the Colts could cut Corey Simon for a bout of Jabba the Hutt Syndrome.
Imagine for a second that you had a job that you loved. Imagine that in a year, you knew your boss was going to force you take unpaid leave. Now, also imagine that you were really important to the company, your boss couldn't fire you, and there would be little consequence to going and asking for a raise in advance of your forced leave.
I'm sorry, but every one of you would go to your boss and ask for the money. If you were important enough to the company to have your job secured, you might even skip a mandatory road trip to that boring conference everyone hates. Maybe you call in sick before some meeting with corporate. You aren't exactly bringing the company to its knees or anything, but it's enough to irritate your boss and let him know that you are serious about wanting that raise.
Most of us don't behave that way because we lack the kind of job security that would let us get away with it. But keep in mind that in this fantasy scenario, ownership is the one posturing to force you take unpaid leave, during which you won't really be able to take another job, but you won't get paid either. In the meantime, you'll have to stay on top of all the latest journals and literature about your job, so you are ready when they finally let you go back to work.
You'd be bitter, frustrated, and do whatever you could to try and take care of your family. That's what Wayne, Mathis, and Bethea are all doing in slightly different ways.
We've been blessed in Colts' country not to witness a serious hold out in almost 20 years. I've been racking my brain to come up with a non-draft related holdout (Bob Sanders, Edge James, and even Peyton had holdouts after the draft). There was the mysterious case of the misplaced Corey Simon (do yourself a favor and follow that classic link. Remember when I had a brother? Yeah, me neither), but I'm not sure that really counted. Marshall Faulk threatened to hold out following the '98 season and Bill Polian quickly sent him packing. That set the tone for future Colts' camps. After deeply acrimonious holdouts by Eric Dickerson and Jeff George (insert plug for Blue Blood here. See kids? Knowing your history helps!), the team has shown precious little patience with such nonsense.
What really worries us as fans is the "Disease of Me". Let's face it, deep down, we don't really care if Bethea, Wayne or Mathis gets paid. We root for them. It's all good. However, the fear is that this kind acrimony distracts the team and the younger players from a single minded focus on winning. Are all the oars really pulling in the same direction if guys are worrying about their contracts and not the 2010 season. Personally, I think the deteriorating CBA situation provides some cover here. Everyone knows this isn't happening in a vacuum. These guys aren't randomly deciding it's time to get paid. Everyone understands what is at stake, and the players want to see their teammates get as much green as possible (as I've explained before).
In truth, all three players are making similar plays for very different reasons. First, let's consider Bethea. He ought to be an unrestricted free agent. He would have already scored a big deal or gotten tagged for way more money than the team is offering him now. He's an elite level player at a position where most guys are done by 29. Bethea has been offered a tender. He would be insane to sign it at this point. He doesn't have to sign it yet, and technically is not doing anything wrong by missing mini-camp. He is not under contract and doesn't have to show. He should hold out as long as the rules allow him to.
Ultimately, he has little choice. Eventually, he'll have to sign and play for peanuts or not play. The only leverage he has is to not sign and try to force the team to negotiate. The popular choice for fans these days is to call for Bethea to get a long term contract. Frankly, I see no reason why the team should. Safety is an important position, but the shelf life for NFL safeties is short. Bethea has to play a game of chicken with the Colts because he knows that if doesn't get big money this year, he may NEVER get it. He's about to turn 26. He'll be 27 for the 2011 season. If that season never comes, he could be 28 before finally getting to free agency. He's inching toward that magic age. His holdout is the most understandable. He's never made the big money. He didn't have a big rookie deal. He's already been screwed by the whole 'capless year' deal which took away his free agency. He's scratching and clawing for a long term deal, but I'm not sure it's coming. The team has no incentive to give him one.
Now, let's look at Reggie Wayne. Reggie is doing the smart thing by holding out, for all the good it will do him. He has two years left on a reasonably priced deal. At the end of it, he'll be 33 years old. Do you think he's going to get another big pay day? He certainly won't from the Colts who are stocked neck deep in young wideouts. His only chance to score one more big payday is to hold out right now in an uncapped year. It is his ONLY option. It's easy to blame him for the Super Bowl loss and tell him to just play out his deal, but this is his last chance and he knows it. He has to provide for his family first. He's only being smart by grabbing whatever he can get while he can get it.
Unfortunately, he's screwed. The team knows that if he holds out, he only hurts himself. The Colts NEED more reps for the younger guys anyway. You think they are losing sleep over the thought of what will happen if Manning doesn't get to work with him for a couple of weeks? They've only hooked up like a thousand times. I really don't think anyone is fretting over a few weeks without Wayne. Reggie is making the smart play by keeping it civil, but again...he has no leverage at all. The club will win this one. Reggie won't be able to afford the fines he'll ring up by missing training camp.
Finally, Robert Mathis comes into play. Mathis has the worst case from my perspective. He got a CRAZY generous contract (at the time), which was front loaded and still has two more years. He's still pretty young and plays a position that he can keep playing effectively deep into his 30s. On top of everything else, he doesn't have leverage either. The Colts just spent a first round pick on a guy who plays his position and is his clone. Does anyone think the defense will be confused if Mathis misses some camp time? What does he really have to do on every play, anyway? "Hey, Rob...go get the quarterback. Just run really fast and tackle him." I think he'll be fine even if he misses a few workouts. Of course, we don't know for sure he isn't showing up for camp, but no one will be surprised if he skips out Ironically, though Mathis has the worst case for a new deal, he's probably the only one of the three who the team might want to think about locking up. He still has a lot of good years in front of him.
The best case for the Colts is that all three guys voice their displeasure, swallow their pride, and show up on time for training camp ready to work. The worst case is basically just like the best case, only the guys eventually come back with sour attitudes and poison their teammates. I see no reason to expect that to happen. The tenor of Wayne's statement was respectful, and all three men are well respected. None of this is really about the 'disease of me'. It's about the insanity of the owners' posturing for labor war.
Right now, the team has all the leverage. Eventually, the players will have to move.