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The current collective bargaining agreement is slated to expire after the 2020 season. The NFL and NFL Players Association have been holding discussions over the last few months, but no one expects anything to get done in the near future.
And unless NFL players want to continue hearing team owners and management make hypocritical statements like the one Dallas Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones made on Friday during an appearance on local sports radio, they’d better set themselves to banding together and committing to a work stoppage.
On Thursday night after the Cowboys’ final preseason game, Jones told reporters that his comments about holdout running back Ezekiel Elliott were posturing and conjecture - not a surprise for Jones, who loves being a showman and loves the spotlight even more.
But then Friday on 105.3 The Fan, he uttered one sentence that sums up much of what is wrong with how NFL players are treated: “You enter a different world when you don’t honor your agreements.”
That’s not what NFL teams have done with players.
Honoring agreements goes both ways
It is a fact that Elliott has two years remaining on his rookie contract, a deal he had no choice but to agree to, as the amount of money he’s earned to this point in his career was spelled out in the current CBA.
But “honor your agreements,” Jerry?
Did you honor your agreement with Dez Bryant when you cut him in April 2018 with two years remaining on his contract? On Friday, Bryant tweeted his support for Elliott, writing in part, “stand your ground.”
Were you honoring your agreement with DeMarcus Ware in 2014 when you asked him to take a pay cut and then cut him when you couldn’t come to an agreement?
Were you honoring your agreement to Allen Hurns just a few months ago? Hurns suffered a gruesome broken leg playing for your team in the playoffs, then you cut him last month when he wouldn’t take a pay cut.
Honoring agreements goes both ways.
Let me be clear: I think Elliott is a knucklehead. I use that word to mean someone who continues to do dumb things and just can’t get out of their own way. Elliott has a propensity for that. So being put in a position to defend him isn’t something I do with great zeal.
Elliott, however, is a running back. Arguably the best running back in the NFL. Jones clearly believed Elliott was special when he decided to select him with the fourth pick in the 2016 draft, and Elliot has shown that Jones was correct in his assessment.
He led the league in rushing yards as a rookie and again last year, and he would have in 2017 as well had he not been forced to miss six games to a bogus suspension (bogus because unlike in other cases - ahem, Josh Brown - the NFL’s own investigator found no evidence that Elliott had committed domestic violence against a former girlfriend but Roger Goodell ignored the recommendation of that investigator and suspended Elliott anyway).
So kudos, Jerry: you did what a GM is supposed to do and picked the best player on the board.
But unlike quarterbacks, who are protected by officiating rules and can play until they’re well into their 30s if not longer, nearly all running backs are discarded by the time they’re 29 or 30.
Running backs are quickly discarded
The human body just isn’t built to take the pounding that running backs are asked to take. Elliott had a league-high 381 touches in 15 games last season - 381 times he was tackled, shoved out of bounds, dragged to the ground or otherwise took a beating.
Most teams run backs like Elliott into the ground for a few seasons, their bodies start to break down, then they’re discarded for a younger, cheaper version, and the cycle is repeated.
Le’Veon Bell knew what was up. He wasn’t going to let the Pittsburgh Steelers do that to him, not on a security-free franchise tag, so he sat out last year. Elliott saw that, sees what he’s produced for Dallas, sees the history of how backs in particular are tossed aside, and wants more guaranteed money now.
Jones seems to believe that Elliott owes him something after going to bat for him throughout the protracted fight against the league and Goodell over that 2017 suspension.
But let’s be real, Jerry: you weren’t doing that for Elliott. You did it for yourself, because Goodell reportedly lied to you, and you did it for your team, because you know how important Elliott is - you even said on Friday the Cowboys are a better team with him.
So spare us all your theatrical fretting about “honoring agreements” and whether Elliott will hold out again next year or in “three months” if he gets an extension now.
That brings me back to my initial point: Jerry Jones isn’t the only NFL owner who thinks like this. He might be the only one to say it out loud, but he’s certainly not alone.
NFL owners and GMs believe that contracts are a one-way deal, and the system has always allowed it. Players are greedy and selfish when they want to be paid what they’re worth and hold out in an effort to get a new contract, but teams can cut guys at any time for any reason, usually because they think they have a slightly younger, cheaper alternative on the roster than the guy that’s developed into a leader or do-it-all stalwart or Pro Bowler.
Unless players want this to continue, unless they’re fine with teams and fans painting them as the bad guys and siding with the billionaires, they need to band together and make it change.
Yes, it will be hard to get over 1,500 guys on the same page, but nothing will change if they don’t, and we’ll keep hearing owners who cut under-contract players six months after suffering a broken leg in their uniform talk about “honoring agreements” when a player has rightfully earned a raise.
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