Arcane restriction delays deal for Woodley

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LaMarr Woodley(notes) had more sacks than all but two NFL players last season, but the latest sublime linebacker to wear a Pittsburgh Steelers uniform doesn't consider himself a mere pass-rushing menace.

"I'm great against the run," Woodley said last Friday. "I do a good job of holding my gap and holding my own against offensive linemen. You run the ball my way, I'm definitely going to pass the test. I don't back down from anybody, and I'm pretty good at everything I do. And if I beat you, I'm going to drill you all the way into the ground."

The Pro Bowl outside linebacker may not be especially modest – but he isn't lying. In his third NFL season, Woodley tied for the NFL lead with 19 tackles for loss, eclipsing his more celebrated teammates, 2008 NFL defensive player of the year James Harrison(notes) and perennial All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu(notes), as the Steel Curtain's top playmaker – and joining a franchise legacy that includes Hall of Famers Jack Lambert and Jack Ham and other retired stars such as Greg Lloyd and Kevin Greene.

Given that Harrison is 32, Polamalu has missed 16 starts in three seasons and recently expressed fears that he was in danger of sustaining a "career-ending" knee injury had he tried to play hurt in '09, and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's(notes) image is in shambles after a sexual-assault investigation and accompanying NFL suspension, Woodley appears to be the organizational emblem of productivity and promise.

Yet thanks to the "30-percent rule," an arcane restriction tied to the final year of the current collective bargaining agreement between NFL owners and players, Woodley feels like he's getting drilled all the way into the ground.

Under normal times, before the owners opted out early from the current CBA and the salary cap was thus scrapped for the 2010 season, Woodley would have been in line to receive a lucrative contract extension. Drafted 46th overall out of Michigan in 2007, Woodley has vastly outperformed his original rookie contract, which expires after the 2010 season. Among other statistical accomplishments, he has 29 sacks in 31 career starts, an impressive figure that doesn't even count the six quarterback takedowns he had during Pittsburgh's Super Bowl-winning postseason run two seasons ago.

The 30-percent rule complicated all of that, as it has this offseason for other young players in similar positions, including Titans halfback Chris Johnson, Panthers halfback DeAngelo Williams(notes), Eagles wideout DeSean Jackson(notes), Vikings wideout Sidney Rice(notes), Giants wideout Steve Smith, Jets center Nick Mangold(notes), Panthers center Ryan Kalil(notes) and Jets linebacker David Harris(notes).

The rule, created as a device to keep wild-spending owners from exploiting a potential uncapped year via enormous base salaries, states that renegotiations and extensions may not increase a player's compensation (which includes base salary, likely to be earned incentives and pro-rated roster and option bonuses, but not signing bonuses) more than 30 percent annually, beginning with the season preceding the reworked deal. It went into effect after the end of the 2009 season – once the cap disappeared.

For a player who was selected near the top of the draft, and who therefore signed a lucrative rookie deal, the 30-percent rule isn't as big an impediment to getting a long-term extension done as it is for someone like Woodley, a second-round selection who had a base salary of $460,000 in 2009. That means that in a renegotiated deal, the Steelers could pay Woodley no more than $598,000 in 2010 and, with annual 30-percent increases, a maximum total of $4.37 million in base salary over the next five years.

For Woodley to achieve anything resembling market value under that scenario, the Steelers would likely have to give him a signing bonus of $40 million or more, something the team understandably considers exorbitant. (Pittsburgh's director of football operations, Kevin Colbert, declined to comment on Woodley's contract situation.)

The Steelers have a recent history of locking up young or still-in-their-prime stars with long-term extensions a year or two before their contracts expire, with Roethlisberger, Polamalu, Harrison, Hines Ward(notes), Alan Faneca(notes), Heath Miller(notes) and Joey Porter(notes) among the examples. In Woodley's case, they've yet to initiate any discussions about a new contract, and the 30-percent rule and accompanying uncertainty over a new CBA appear to be the only logical explanations for the team's passive approach.

"I was disappointed when I got drafted in the second round, but I thought, 'In three more years I'll be up,' " Woodley says. "Coming into this fourth year, it didn't happen because of this new rule. So yeah, I guess you've got to say [it's frustrating]."

That's a shame, because with a little creativity and flexibility Woodley and the Steelers could come up with a feasible solution. Though I wasn't able to talk to Colbert, I did have extensive discussions with high-level front-office executives from two other teams and with several agents, and here are some things I learned about the 30-percent rule:

It can be circumvented. Just ask 49ers middle linebacker Patrick Willis(notes), a fourth-year star who signed a five-year, $50-million extension earlier this month. In fairness, Willis' situation was less problematic than Woodley's: As the 11th overall pick of the '07 draft, he had a much higher "salary" (base and prorated option bonus) number, and the team paid just over $20 million in signing bonuses and the de facto equivalent (more on that shortly). Given that the San Francisco front office considers Willis the team's best player and a high-character locker-room leader, making such a commitment was a no-brainer. But to make it work, a concession was required on the player's part, too. To get around the 30-percent rule, the 49ers gave Willis a total of $11 million in "not likely to be reached incentives," albeit doing everything they could to ensure that he's likely to reach them: At some point during the first five years of the extension, Willis must improve upon his 2009 stats in any one of 12 statistical categories (i.e. sacks, interception return yards, fumble recoveries) to "unlock" the $11 million over the final two years of the pact. This is the same principle teams routinely employ when negotiating with highly drafted players, as a means of skirting the CBA's rookie-pool restrictions. Further, the 49ers used a loophole called the "superseding signing bonus" – effectively, the team agreed to tear up Willis' existing deal next March, execute a new contract with identical terms for years two through seven and give him a $4.8 million bonus for signing the re-worked deal.

Players and their agents hate the 30-percent rule – and a lot of team executives don't like it, either. In retrospect, the NFL Players Association probably should have balked at agreeing to the device before signing the 1993 CBA – at the very least, it should have argued that the management friendly rule (based on the premise that free-spending owners like the Cowboys' Jerry Jones would give out obscenely rich contracts were there ever to be an uncapped year) would be unnecessary in the event that the owners were the ones who opted out of the CBA early, triggering the uncapped year. One front-office executive to whom I spoke referred to the 30-percent rule as a "necessary evil," and the other called it an "agitation" and an "irritant to both sides."

For some owners, however, the 30-percent rule is a godsend. "Basically," said one league source, "if a team has a young player who has outperformed his contract but the team is hesitant about making a long-term commitment, it's an excuse for not getting an extension done." In other words, if the Titans don't engage in any serious extension talks with Johnson, who last year became the sixth NFL player to rush for 2,000 yards in a season, the back wouldn't be wrong to conclude that they're just not that into (paying) him. The same logic arguably applies to Woodley and the Steelers, which brings us to our final lesson.

Ware is one of the league's highest-paid defenders.
(Donna McWilliam/AP Photo)

Sometimes, the best solution is to live in the moment. When the Eagles traded longtime quarterback Donovan McNabb(notes) to the Redskins, clearing the way for Kevin Kolb(notes) to become the team's starter, a contract extension for the fourth-year player was logical. But like Woodley, Kolb has a relatively low base salary ($550,000 for 2010), and the 30-percent rule complicated the situation. So the team and agent Jeff Nalley came up with a workable solution: a one-year, $12.26-million extension through 2011 that served as sort of a Band-Aid until a new CBA is negotiated. A similar approach, in my opinion, would be the best way for the Steelers and Woodley to approach their quandary. Woodley is clearly underpaid, and the 30-percent rule makes a long-term extension problematic on the team's end. No one knows what will happen with a new CBA – it's possible the "franchise tag," which teams routinely use to keep a highly desirable unrestricted free agent from leaving, might not exist in a new deal; for all we know, there may not even be a salary cap. That could subject the Steelers to the distasteful possibility of losing Woodley to a higher bidder after the 2010 season, or paying him market value – and he'd undoubtedly make the case that the six-year, $78-million deal that Cowboys outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware(notes) signed last October is a viable starting point for negotiations. Conversely, if the season ended and the pre-opt-out rules were hypothetically applied – and the Steelers chose to franchise Woodley – he'd be looking at a likely one-year salary of about $13 million (the average salary of the five highest-paid players of his position) in 2011. So here's a thought: Take that $13 million and add it to this year's franchise figure (roughly $11 million) for outside linebackers and offer Woodley a two-year, $24 million extension with a signing bonus in excess of $22 million. That satisfies the 30-percent rule, puts Woodley in the pay grade in which he belongs and gives the two sides until the spring of 2012 (and the benefit of waiting for the new CBA) to get a longer deal done. Voila. Everybody wins.

If the Steelers and Woodley follow my advice, the emerging star may gain more than professional peace of mind and financial security. The notoriety that has thus far eluded him may finally arrive as well.

"I was thinking about this the other day – the guys that are usually the under-the-radar types are usually players that don't have the big contracts," he says. "You look at DeMarcus Ware, James Harrison, Dwight Freeney(notes), Jared Allen(notes) – those are the guys that get talked about a lot, and they all got paid."

With a little creativity and flexibility, Woodley can and should join the club.


Like many professional athletes, Marshawn Lynch(notes) doesn't seem to get it. If the story is to be believed, his homeowner's association doesn't have a problem with residents owning dogs. They have a problem with pit bulls on the premises. To hear Marshawn tell it, he's just another victim. … Oh, brother.

Travis Anderson
Rochester, N.Y.

Similarly, if Lynch's story about being pulled over for playing his music too loudly is to be believed, police officers at Ralph Wilson Stadium don't have a problem with drivers blasting music. They have a problem with drivers blasting hip-hop. Yes, I'm being a smartass here. The more pertinent issue is that, in Lynch's eyes, he's being negatively profiled by certain authority figures in Western New York. His feelings about the association's reaction to his dogs – whether or not a breed-specific rule in fact exists – should be viewed through that prism.

Marshawn is a criminal and an overrated player. Fans here in Western New York are fed up with him. Thank goodness for Fred Jackson(notes) and C.J. Spiller(notes). Go back to Berkeley and get your degree, Marshawn.

Kevin Caton
Pittsford, N.Y.

Not unpredictably, this Cal alum has some better advice: Go back to Berkeley, petition for a fourth year of eligibility and take the Golden Bears to the Rose Bowl. OK, back to reality. Sorry …

This is all well and good. Drafting Spiller shouldn't hurt Marshawn Lynch one bit. Spiller is closer to Fred Jackson. It would be a huge mistake if the Bills trade him, but teams in all sports are too prone to knee-jerk reaction. Take Roethlisberger. Pittsburgh and Rooney might want to trade him, but it should never happen. Even if he was suspended 8 games, Roethlisberger makes the playoffs still reachable with his talent. Buffalo has a goal-line weakness. Lynch is much more likely to fix it than Jackson or Spiller. Defenses will be looking to defend screen passes or end-around runs. Buffalo can't get more than a few yards up the middle without Lynch. Hey, I am a Fish fan, I should care, right?

Wes Webster
Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.

More love from Dolphins fans than from Bills fans … welcome to Lynch's world.

So I legitimately have to ask because I am curious: is Marshawn Lynch that well-spoken or is that your contribution? I have read his blog and heard interviews with him and he wasn't. As a Seahawks fan I was hoping we would have brought him to town in the later rounds of the draft after the Bills took Spiller. He has a lot of good years ahead of him.

James Stevens
Gresham, Ore.

And love from Seahawks fans, too. While it is common practice for journalists to clean up grammar (i.e. double negatives) and intonation (i.e. "going to" instead of "gonna"), the overall answer is: Of course Lynch, when he wants to be, is that well-spoken – he's a Bear! And, for what it's worth, he always uses spell-check).

Michael, as a longtime reader I just wanted to send you a note of encouragement. In this deeply partisan world that we live in, you not only unabashedly share your views, but you also air the comments and hate mail of those who disagree with your views or criticize you personally. Furthermore, you take the time to respond directly to them individually. Now, I don't know what your selection process is like, but it seems to me that you don't just pick the easy ones (unless they're hilarious, and they often are). I just wanted to say that I find this incredibly refreshing. You have my respect for keeping a level head and always rising above the hate. Thanks. P.S. Here's hoping for a lot of positive stories about the Detroit Lions on their way to an improbable playoff run (yeah, right) spurred by a pair of breakout performances from Cal's own Jahvid Best(notes) and Zack Follett(notes). We can dream, can't we? The Kool-Aid is delicious this time of year here in Michigan.

Matt Walters
Kalamazoo, Mich.

If it makes you feel any better, I'll be happy to send you some of that blue-and-gold Rose Bowl Kool-Aid I drink before every football season. It's delicious, in a delusional kind of way. That said, I do believe that the Cal contingent (and don't forget punter Nick Harris(notes)) has a chance to be an integral part of a much-improved Lions team in 2010. As for the email selection process, it's a lot like the BCS, only less fair.

Just wanted to quickly give you props on the way you handled the emails you received on the Gerhart topic. Particularly the ones from Carlo "Galactic Obtuseness" (should have realized he was referring to himself) and Jazzy Rick "Solar Max 24," huh? I mean … man … those guys are total whackos! I realize that race relations are a hot-button issue that will be with us for a long time to come, but I guess that I lose sight at times of the wing-nuts in the world (Tea Party Movement not withstanding). There are some crazy [expletives] out there, and those emails scared the crap out of me bro! Keep up the good work. I'm gonna go hide somewhere. …

Chapel Hill, N.C.

I can see why these people bother you. The selection committee LOVES them, though.

Mr. Silver, Thank you for your response to Judge (5/4 Trippin' Tuesday). You combined a simple lesson on logic, a concise illumination of the journalistic process and a tutorial on how to evaluate information sources into a well-crafted 300-word paragraph that should be studied by journalism students. A lesser columnist would have branded him a B- list B-hole and moved on. Much has been written about this incident, including: Rick Reilly at suggested, "The question isn't, 'Why did Miami Dolphins GM Jeff Ireland ask Oklahoma State wide receiver Dez Bryant(notes) if his mom was a prostitute?' The question is: 'Why should it matter?' "; and Matt Mosley at NFLNation's response: "… Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland once again comes off looking like the villain. As I've explained over the past few days, I don't think it's that cut and dry." Those responses, along with Jim Trotter's "… logical follow-up question … " defense of the Dolphins miss the point entirely. I feel bad for Mr. Trotter because of his assertion later in the same article that: "Teams spend hundreds of thousands of dollars each year on background checks on prospective draft choices, particularly those who could go high in the first round." He doesn't seem to notice the spotlight that shines on exactly how unnecessary the question was in the first place. They will pay experts to learn the facts of Mr. Bryant's family history, so why ask the "demeaning, offensive and possibly actionable" question at all? Thank you for being a principled journalist who happens to write about sports, instead of just another sports groupie blowhard who picks their side in an argument based on how it will affect his access to the locker room. If you find yourself in Buffalo this year (to check out if Brett Johnson(notes) can help the Bills' secondary) drop me a line. I'd like to shake your hand. Keep up the good work.

Dale Stoyer
Cheektowaga, N.Y.

On it, and I appreciate the kind words. If I do make it to Buffalo this year, perhaps you, Mr. Lynch and I can have a beer-can-dodging contest in the parking lot at The Ralph.

Dude, you're a piece of (expletive)! You're nothing but an opportunist who exploited this Jeff Ireland/Dez Bryant non-story for all its worth. Good luck with making a name for yourself – hope your "Exposing" of Jeff Ireland wins you that Pulitzer you've always dreamed of (good luck when you work for frickin' Yahoo Sports). Even if you do get a real job with a real media outlet, you'll always be a piece of (expletive) in one reader's eyes. Have a nice day.

Anthony M.

Some would argue that, during my 13 years at Sports Illustrated, I had a real job with a real media outlet. Then, in '07, I was fortunate enough to leave SI for an even cooler job with a media outlet that will soon be dominating EVERYONE. It's a Y! Sports world, Bubs). Get used to it.

Give it a break already. Was the draft that bad that there is no other news? We need to get this patsy journalistic crap out of here. Report about football players! This thin-skinned liberal garbage that we are reading about is more offensive to most of us than Ireland asking if someone's junky mother was a prostitute. Move on and and leave this garbage for Oprah and Dr. Phil.

Jim Vaughn
Vero Beach, Fla.

Oh, come here, you thin-skinned right-wing rabble-rouser, and give Daddy a big hug. Feel better? Yeah, so do I.

If people are no longer able to ask questions that might hurt some poor little future millionaire's feelings, what other doors does that open up? It certainly is disrespectful to force these honorable athletes to submit to drug testing! They would never, ever do steroids, how could you dare to ask!? If I am going to pay you money for anything, I have the right and freedom to ask you any question I wish. If you do not like the questions, you do have the freedom of turning down my money and refusing to run around on a little green square grabbing other men in spandex.

Buffalo, N.Y.

That's a really good argument – except that it's fallacious. For example, according to federal employment law (and many state employment statutes as well), you can't ask me, say, how old I am, or whether I'd like to kiss you, or (Toby Gerhart-style) if I feel entitled because I'm a white running back. And if you think the fact that I've accepted your money enables you to degrade me in any way you see fit, and I accept that premise, perhaps I'm the prostitute.

Michael, I find it interesting that most people who support Ireland's line of questioning use the excuse of the amount of money involved in paying draft picks. This shows the underlying reason for the whole episode is the fact that a majority of humans base their morality on money and not on whether the behavior is appropriate or not. People should be treated as human beings whether they are employed as dishwashers or wide receivers (and there shouldn't be such a discrepancy in pay).

Roger Drummer
Bowling Green, Ohio


Interestingly, the guy who asked about your mom is named after the Filipino word for circumcise (Toli).

Ted Makati

Thank you, language gods. I love it when that happens.