LaMarr Woodley(notes) was speaking to the football team at Chicago's Leo Catholic High School on Monday afternoon when one of the teenage players raised his hand and asked a particularly relevant question.
If it's all about the love of the game, why do so many players complain about their contracts?
Woodley, the Pittsburgh Steelers' Pro Bowl outside linebacker, knew this business-related query was quite personal.
"Sometimes," he said, "you've gotta be treated fair."
Later Monday, in his first interview since being told by the Steelers that the team has no intention of negotiating an extension before the final season of his rookie contract, Woodley elaborated upon his frustration. The fourth-year standout, who has 29 sacks despite just 31 career regular-season starts, will make $550,000 in 2010, a figure that is much less than market value.
"It's kind of jacked up," Woodley said. "Everything I've ever done for the Steelers, on and off the field, has been positive. Sometimes you don't get the same thing back in return."
In May I wrote about Woodley's quest for a restructured contract and how the "30 percent rule," a restriction which came into play after the owners opted out of the current collective bargaining agreement, complicated matters for him and other NFL players who had outperformed their rookie deals. I suggested the kind of "Band-Aid" raise the Philadelphia Eagles had given new starting quarterback Kevin Kolb(notes). On a lesser scale Monday, the Titans placated All-Pro halfback Chris Johnson with a one-year upgrade that, by accelerating built-in contract escalators, reportedly will boost his 2010 earnings from $550,000 to somewhere in the neighborhood of $2.5 million.
Earlier this month the Steelers told Woodley's agent, Doug Hendrickson, that no adjustment would immediately be made to his deal. Given the team's policy of not discussing contracts once the season begins, that almost certainly means he won't be able to cash in until after the owners and NFL Players Association reach a deal for a new CBA.
Steelers director of football operations Kevin Colbert wasn't made available for an interview on Monday; communications coordinator Dave Lockett cited the team's policy of not commenting on contract negotiations. Woodley, however, said the franchise's message has been loud and clear.
"I'm not going to lie – I was a little disappointed that they didn't offer anything at all," Woodley said. "I felt that was a little weird. I guess they decided they're going to sit back and wait for the CBA and all that to play out.
"You look around the league and you see different teams getting stuff done with their players in similar situations, and you think, 'What, the Steelers don't care about me?' Stuff like that goes through your mind."
Woodley insisted he'll channel his anger toward having another stellar season and that his dissatisfaction won't affect him on the field. "That's what I love to do, go out and hit somebody," he said. "I don't see anything happening this year but all my numbers increasing."
As for what happens after 2010, Woodley doesn't sound especially committed to Pittsburgh, which may be a moot point. In theory, the Steelers can apply the franchise tag to keep Woodley from becoming an unrestricted free agent. As a hybrid outside linebacker/defensive end, Woodley likely would command a one-year salary in the $12 million range under the current system.
Then again, with the CBA set to expire next March, there's no guarantee that the device still will exist once a new deal is negotiated.
"They're kind of looking at a franchise tag, but it's a pretty risky gamble," Woodley said. "If there is no franchise tag … I guess I can play for 31 [other] teams now. That's what it boils down to. If they'd wanted to keep other teams from getting a crack, they could've tried to do so."
Woodley said he has heard from several players on opposing teams "who say I deserve [a new deal]. They say, 'How come they didn't pay you? You know what? Some other team will pay you. We could use an outside linebacker.' "
He also has stayed in touch with New York Jets inside linebacker and former Michigan teammate David Harris(notes), who has been similarly rebuffed in an attempt to land a new deal with his team. "That defense that Harris is on now, he doesn't need to go anywhere," Woodley said, laughing. "All they need is a rusher to come over, and they're set."
Woodley's frustrations with the Steelers stem from the belief that his contributions to the team's success aren't fully appreciated by management. Last year he tied for the NFL lead with 19 tackles for loss, and he was particularly productive during Pittsburgh's Super Bowl title drive the previous season, recording six postseason sacks.
"You hear a lot of people saying, 'Woodley's asking for too much,' " he said. "You can compare my numbers to outside linebackers around the league, and I think mine stack up with anyone's.
"I wouldn't be making this argument if I didn't produce on the field. But what I do is no joke. I get better every year. I'm not trying to say one man makes a team. But ever since I've been in that [starting role], our defensive stats have improved."
Noting that the Steelers recently signed fourth-year coach Mike Tomlin to a contract extension, Woodley said, "On Twitter somebody wrote, 'Are you serious? Who's more important, LaMarr Woodley or a coach?' I didn't say that. But I thought it was funny."
Woodley is less amused by the juxtaposition between the Steelers and Pennsylvania's other NFL team, the Eagles, who after trading franchise quarterback Donovan McNabb(notes) boosted Kolb's 2010 salary from $550,000 to $12.26 million.
"Kolb's a second-round pick, so that's the best comparison to me," Woodley said. "When you see guys like that get taken care of, it makes you wonder. This guy has barely started a game in the NFL, and he becomes the starting quarterback of the Eagles, and they take care of their guy.
"With me, no conversations even happened. That's the crazy thing – we don't have any communication going on."
It's the kind of situation that can put a man's love of the game to the test. Undoubtedly, the Steelers believe Woodley's is sufficient to override any feelings of frustration.
TRIPPIN' ON E(MAIL)
Good article on Steven Jackson. I've been a Rams fan since I was a kid, when Bob Waterfield was the coach and the Fearsome Foursome were just coming together. It's been painful watching the Rams rockfall over the past few years, but seeing Jackson's positive attitude gives me reason to hope that there might be some glory for the team in the near future, with Jackson in the lead. Thanks for getting us up to date with him.
De nada. I grew up in L.A. as the Fearsome Foursome were clearing out, and the Rams of the '70s caused me much misery. I was a suffering 49ers fan then, thanks to my dad, who didn't have much to cheer about until I turned 16. And now, need I remind you all, I am a fan of no NFL team. I have 32 babies, and I love them equally, though some give me more trouble than others.
Tell me, why did you feel the need to insult this man's team and ability, because he went shark diving? Are you limited in your reporting skills? We know about the Ram's record. I wanted to hear more about his shark experience. I guess some sports writers can't help but be negative.
If you thought I was insulting Jackson's ability by calling him (among other compliments) "the best player on the league's worst team of 2009," perhaps your computer screen was as murky as the shark-infested waters off of Seal Island. As far as my noting that the Rams have lost 42 of their past 48 games, don't think of it as "negative" reporting. Put another way, St. Louis' performance has been positively awful.
"bass drum in a Parliament-Funkadelic concert" – very descriptive. Love it!!
Santa Monica, Calif.
Thanks, Ms. Monica from Santa Monica. And for your listening pleasure, here's a P-Funk flashback.
In the Steven Jackson Story about the sharks: Air tanks, air tanks; not oxygen tanks. I teach divers to be scuba instructors for PADI, the world's largest scuba agency. Sorry, but I get pissed when people say and write the wrong information about scuba tanks. Thank you.
OK, OK, OK – don't get your gills too ruffled over this. I stand corrected.
It is not swimming with sharks when you are in a (expletive) cage. Tell that clown to get a grip.
I've got a better idea – you tell him, in person. At that point, I fear, you might wish you were in a cage.
What no thought/input on Jamarcus Russell(notes) and his Drank of choice? I've been looking for insights from you on this mess since it came out. I'm not looking for piling on, but the Raiders, fat lazy quarterbacks, codeine and Jolly Ranchers? For some reason I saw this story as right in your wheelhouse.
Smithers, British Columbia
Because it occurred during a slow period, I restricted my initial reaction to Mogotxt and Twitter. But don't worry – I'll almost certainly weigh in (so to speak) again on this as we get closer to the season.
Thanks for the great article on Chargers GM AJ Smith. I'm often amazed at how Chargers fans complain about the guy. I think the perception of him is much worse because he's often public with his stance. I'm quite certain there are owners and GMs in the league who are even more difficult, they just happen to be more low key. It couldn't have been easy to let (Rodney) Harrison or (Junior) Seau go, but the team got past it and grew. I remember when Bobby Beathard had to get tough with guys like Natrone Means and Chris Mims. The conservative approach to payroll and building from within has paid off for the Chargers. Aside from the Ryan Leaf disaster, this organization has enjoyed a lot of success and the fans should give some credit where it's due. Take it from a Rams fan … you could do a lot worse.
That's true, but I think Chargers fans have a right to question whether Smith cares more about winning his standoffs with Vincent Jackson(notes) and Marcus McNeill(notes) than he does about fielding the best possible team for 2010. And if I were a Chargers fan, I'd be pretty bummed that the question even is being asked.
Great column about A.J. Smith, Merriman and the Chargers Sir Silver! It was indeed "surreal" reading A.J. rant though. I think he was far more in need of a lot of your fave tequila, or perhaps Prozac than a "Snickers bar." I have an awful feeling it is going to be a long long year for Norv Turner, (Philip) Rivers and all Chargers fans this year if A.J. is going on like a "drama queen" already. The glass is half full A.J. It's not all bad is it, is it? Cheers from China!
What Smith needs is a Super Bowl ring, pure and simple. In the meantime, I give him credit for spending an hour explaining his stance to one of his harshest critics. It definitely increased my understanding of the contract disputes and of the Chargers' approach in general, and I believe San Diego will field another strong team in 2010.
Lets see … AJ takes the high road … principles, ethics, integrity. … Suddenly he's filled with desire to enlighten us … to let us know how hurt he is that the mean ole football players just don't understand him … somewhere, Drew Brees(notes), LT, Junior, Rodney Harrison(notes), Michael Turner(notes), and who knows who else, are laughing their asses off at this sports opera. … while King Smith broods. … Who will tell the Spanos family that the Emperor has no clothes? Good column Mr Silver. …
Thanks – and thanks for making me picture Smith naked, if only for a few uncomfortable seconds.
Does anyone remember John Butler? You know, A.J. Smith's boss? John Butler is the guy who brought Marty (Schottenheimer) to S. D. He also brought L.T., Drew Brees, Donnie Edwards(notes), etc. I truly believe that if Mr. Butler had not lost his battle with cancer the Chargers would have at least one ring and probably more. He was a great equalizer to Smith's Iron Handed tactics. One more question: Does anyone remember Gene Klein, (former) owner of the Chargers? Remember when John Jefferson and Fred Dean were sent packing for basically the same reasons McNeill and Jackson are holding out? Who lost he AFC championship (during the) 1980 and '81 seasons? What do you think would have happened with Fred Dean, Dwayne Board and John Jefferson on the '81 team? Maybe the 49ers would've had to wait a year or two before becoming a dynasty? My point is – think about the team! the city! the fans! before your tired old ego.
I'd forgotten that Jefferson was traded before the '81 season – that certainly didn't help the Chargers' cause. Nor did the minus-59 wind chill at Cincinnati's Riverfront Stadium in the '81 AFC championship game. And the trade that sent Dean to the Niners during the '81 season certainly gave San Francisco an enormous push toward its first Super Bowl title. But … Joe Montana, Joe Montana. Joe Montana. (Have I mentioned I grew up as a huge Niners fan?)
Shirley, not even you are low enough to stoop to an "Airplane" joke. I'm surprised you didn't include the "blow up" automatic pilot scene. LOL.
In fairness, that scene kind of sucked. (Sorry, you threw the hanging curve that didn't curve, and I had no choice but to swing.)
From the hometown of Jeff Tedford: I don't like you, Michael Silver. You have a voice like a 300-pound transvestite and the only thing thicker than your eyebrows is your Cal homerism. Damn you for being so good at your job! Damn you and thank you!
Thank you – and watch out for my kind in Soho.
- LaMarr Woodley