A million thoughts ran through my mind last week as I listened to Odell Beckham Jr. being introduced as a member of the Baltimore Ravens.
Beckham was introspective and reflective. He spoke about comebacks, mistakes made, dark days after his second knee surgery, doubts, uncertainty. As Beckham spoke, I thought that with the NFL draft coming next week, his news conference should be mandatory viewing for the new crop of rookies entering the league. The rookies are wide-eyed and understandably proud about fulfilling a childhood dream of playing pro football.
Beckham perfectly encapsulates the sports life cycle: a beginning, middle and end usually occurring within a five- to 10-year window. From Beckham’s remarks, the rookies could also glean some insight into the hardcore business of the NFL. Beckham has been inexorably linked to Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson, currently engaged in fierce contract negotiations with the organization that has opened its arms — and wallet — to accommodate Beckham.
Before suffering the first of two ACL injuries, Beckham was one of the NFL’s biggest stars. He was an explosive, dynamic and controversial wide receiver. He drew penalties for unsportsmanlike conduct after wild touchdown celebrations and frequently engaged in skirmishes with defenders.
His descent began in 2019 after being traded — exiled — from New York’s megamarket to the Cleveland Browns where quarterback Baker Mayfield dominated the headlines. Beckham suffered his first ACL injury in 2020. He came back from that but the tensions with Mayfield continued during the 2021 season. Those tensions came to a head after Beckham’s father expressed outrage on social media about how his son was being used by the Browns. A few days later, Beckham was released.
There was yet another renaissance when Beckham signed a one-year contract with the Los Angeles Rams and became an immediate contributor to the Rams’ Super Bowl run. Beckham was likely on his way to an MVP performance in the Super Bowl when he suffered his second ACL injury. The Rams won the championship but during his news conference in Baltimore, Beckham called the victory “bittersweet champagne.”
He missed the entire 2022 season and watched as a new group of young receivers — Justin Jefferson of the Minnesota Vikings, Ja’Marr Chase of the Cincinnati Bengals and CeeDee Lamb of the Dallas Cowboys — took the league by storm, a lesson for the rookies about how quickly a player can become irrelevant.
Now at age 30, with two knee surgeries behind him, Beckham is chasing relevance with a Ravens team undergoing its own upheaval. The team and the player around whom the offense is constructed are at war.
“I was an underdog all my life,” he said. “I wasn’t the No. 1 receiver in my class. I was a four-star. I didn’t have it easy coming up until I came to New York and then I had some success. I’ve been an underdog all my life. I’m still counted out. That kind of excites me.”
As Beckham spoke, I had to remind myself that while all this was well and good, the only storyline that matters is whether Jackson will be the quarterback of the Baltimore Ravens in September and under what conditions.
Jackson wants a fully guaranteed contract at a certain number, and the Ravens have refused. Reporters mistakenly conflate Beckham’s presence with Jackson’s battle with the Ravens and, by extension, with the NFL’s community of owners.
The two are not related.
A little more than three minutes into Beckham’s news conference, a reporter asked if Jackson had given Beckham assurances that he would be back with Ravens. “Life’s uncertain,” Beckham said. Then, nodding toward Eric DeCosta, the Ravens general manager, and coach John Harbaugh, Beckham said, “I know these two want him to be here.”
Damn right they do. But the only voice that matters wasn’t in the room: Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti.
In March 2022, Bisciotti, made it clear where he stood. Cleveland had set a precedent giving Deshaun Watson a five-year, $230 million fully guaranteed contract. That March at the NFL owners meeting, Biscotti told reporters that he had issues with the Watson contract. His message was that the Ravens would not repeat what he regarded as the Cleveland folly.
“I don’t know that he should’ve been the first guy to get a fully guaranteed contract,” Bisciotti said, referring to Watson. “To me, that’s something that is groundbreaking, and it’ll make negotiations harder with others. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that we have to play that game.”
Here we are more than a year later, and the Ravens are not playing that game. Jackson is for now a lone ranger fighting for fully guaranteed contracts.
Jackson is not only up against Biscotti, he’s also up against an entire NFL ownership community that is dead set against giving players guaranteed contracts.
The Haslam family, which owns the Cleveland Browns, was not thinking about other owners when it went after Watson. They were thinking of the Cleveland Browns and what the Cleveland Browns needed. What the Browns needed was a world-class quarterback, and that was Watson.
The Haslams established a precedent. They have been criticized not only by fellow owners but by their surrogates in the news media who constantly refer to Watson as an outlier. Jackson has increasingly been negatively scrutinized for all of his flaws, whether it’s ending the last two seasons with injuries or questioning his competence as a passer.
The NFL’s resistance to fully guaranteed contracts is similar to the resistance an earlier generation of owners waged 50 years ago against free agency. Back then, they argued that free agency would kill pro sports, that not having players under lock and key would kill parity and hurt the league. That has not happened. Business is better than ever. The Washington Commanders are about to be sold for an amount that could exceed $6 billion. The Denver Broncos were sold for a record $4.65 billion.
Free agency has not killed pro sports and guaranteed contracts won’t kill the NFL. They’ll simply give proper value where it is deserved.
The entire issue gets back to Beckham, Jackson, Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes and the supply of eager, fresh players coming into the NFL next week during the draft.
Players are the backbone of the NFL — players whose bones break, whose knees snap, whose brains are often rattled. Players make the game. Consider what would happen if all the players decided all at once that for a season, across-the-board in lockstep, that they were all not going to play.
Would there still be a viable league?
The owners are confident that this type of unity among football players will never happen, just as the Ravens were confident when they put the non-exclusive franchise tag on Jackson that none of the other owners would break ranks and make a move to get Jackson.
Therein lies the disconnect: Owners argue that they are as much responsible for the game’s success as the people who actually play the games. They build the stadiums and lavish practice facilities and broker deals with networks and streaming services that allow them to pay players handsomely. But if there were no bodies to lease, there would be no game.
The players make it possible for the Steve Biscottis to have a multibillion-dollar franchise. Biscotti and fellow owners make it possible for a select group of players to be well-compensated in exchange for leasing their bodies.
Which brings us back to Beckham. For Beckham, last week’s signing with Baltimore was a godsend. Beckham tried unsuccessfully to ignite a bidding war for his services. He was scheduled to meet with the New York Jets after leaving Baltimore.
The Ravens threw him a lifeline and I suspect the conversation went something like this: “Here’s our offer. If you leave and go to New York, our offer is off the table and good luck with the Jets offering you something better.”
Beckham effectively took the Raven in the hand. But it had nothing to do with Jackson and everything to do with Beckham and it really doesn’t matter who is throwing him passes.
“Lamar is in our plans,” DeCosta said. “We’re hopeful that we’ll get a long-term deal done. He’s the right player for this team.”
NFL executives know in their heart of hearts that Jackson is worth a fully guaranteed contract. The Bengals know quarterback Joe Burrow is worth a fully guaranteed contract. The Philadelphia Eagles feel the same about Jalen Hurts, but will the quarterbacks use their leverage and demand fully guaranteed contracts?
So far, outside of Jackson, the answer has been no.
On Monday, the Eagles made Hurts the highest paid player in NFL history – a five-year, $255 million extension. But the contract was not fully guaranteed. The owners know the quarterbacks’ value but will not give in to fully guaranteed contracts until forced to do so. And who will force them?
That day is coming. While Jackson may not be the beneficiary, he can take credit for setting this ball in motion.
Team owners know that Burrow will be looking at what the Eagles gave Hurts and whatever package the Ravens give and will argue that he should get more. It’s what players deserve.
Did Beckham deserve a $15 million guaranteed contract? Does Hurts deserve his package? Does Jackson deserve what he’s asking for?
This entire drama is yet another lesson for the incoming group of rookies: In the business of football, you don’t get what you deserve. You get what you negotiate.