What Betting on Himself Means for Lamar Jackson
NFL Week 2 - It's inspiring to imagine a lone Lamar Jackson walking out with a laser sword and facing down the combined forces of the evil empire.
There he is, the unassuming hero, armed not with a lightsaber but merely his prodigious talent, gumption, and a business acumen that makes Warren Buffett look like Uncle Billy from It's a Wonderful Life. The Baltimore Ravens quarterback stands firm in his contract demands, a true Jedi incapable of a single false twitch.
And then: Parry! Thrust! Scramble! Vrrrrm-vrrrm sound effect! Down go the greedy owners! And the agents who kowtow to them! The doubters! The haters! The fusty old NFL strategies! The outdated attitudes that perpetuate them! And down goes Deshaun Watson with his ill-gotten gains, too!
Slash! Flash! Lamar Jackson conquers greed, racism, and sexism, without the need for wide receivers, an agent, or conventional wisdom of any sort. When the smoke clears, Jackson stands all alone, brandishing a Lombardi Trophy, a fully-guaranteed $300-million contract, and a written apology from the NFL establishment.
A gratifying tale, to be sure. And like the scene from The Last Jedi from which the conceit is cribbed, also an illusion.
Jackson and the Ravens called off contract talks last Friday. Jackson is playing out the 2022 season on a one-year, $22-million option. All that is guaranteed to Jackson beyond that is that he has zero real control over the rights to his services: the Ravens can theoretically franchise tag him one year at a time until after the 2025 season.
Jackson spoke to reporters on Wednesday, politely refusing to answer three questions about his contract like Julius Caesar denying the Contract Squabble Emperor crown three times. Good for Jackson: it's not like he has made his negotiation timeline unclear. But there was a ton of talk about his contract situation last week. It's not really going to go away. And too much of that talk sounds more like wishcasting or fanfic than grounded analysis, or even good advice.
Lamar Jackson vs. the Money on the Table
Numerous sources reported last Sunday morning that Jackson turned down a six-year contract with $133 million fully guaranteed at signing: more guaranteed money than Kyler Murray or Russell Wilson got in their recent extensions. Those reports are credible: the Ravens are perhaps the least likely NFL team to leak self-serving bullsnot. Jackson, by all accounts, won't settle for anything less than the $230 million guaranteed over five years that the Cleveland Browns gave Watson.
Jackson then took the field in Week 1 and made it look easy—though not too easy—against a New York Jets team whose offensive game plan was to hope no one noticed them. Jackson ran off tackle on third-and-2 on the third play from scrimmage and took a nasty hit from two defenders. He popped right back up from the hit, something he always does, except for the times he didn't last year, resulting in five missed games.
The overall Ravens game plan was less option-heavy than usual, with Jackson often operating from the pocket. Perhaps the Ravens plan to protect Jackson by making their offense more conventional. Still, with six carries in Sunday's 24-7 Ravens victory, Jackson has now rushed 621 times in his career. Cam Newton rushed 599 times from his rookie year in 2011 through his 2015 MVP season.
We all know what happened to Newton after that. Jackson is smaller than Newton. He has been more reliant on his rushing ability so far than Newton. Every hit is a micro-withdraw from an account that currently has zero dollars in it beyond January.
As you watch Jackson in 2022, thrill to his highlights, root (probably) for his achievements, and (likely) bite your knuckles every time he plunges into the teeth of the defense or takes one of those hits out of bounds that never quite merit a roughness foul, please keep one fact in mind. Jackson is currently $111 million in the red. That's the $133 million guaranteed that the Ravens offered him minus the $22 million he's earning.
Jackson is risking $111 million guaranteed for a theoretical $230 million. He's doing so while incurring the injury risks of a quarterback and a running back. And he's trying to pry that money from a league determined not to turn fully guaranteed contracts into a policy.
That's what "betting on himself" really means for Jackson.
Lamar Jackson vs. Deshaun Watson
The question for Jackson is not whether or not he deserves top-tier quarterback money. The Ravens themselves believe that he does.
The question is whether Jackson deserves Watson money. And here we run into the semantics of the word "deserves," with its somewhat childish connotations.
- Yes, Jackson deserves Watson's guaranteed money, because Jackson is a more accomplished quarterback than Watson and also is not a contemptible human being.
- No, nobody "deserves" anything. This is business, not a trip to Dairy Queen after a tee-ball victory. Just because the Browns made a dubious business decision doesn't require the Ravens or any other team to act against its own best interest in the name of fairness.
Watson's contract did not reset the market: the Murray and Wilson contracts largely ignored it, just as the Josh Allen contract and subsequent quarterback megadeals (including Watson's) had almost nothing in common with Patrick Mahomes' $500-million white elephant.
Watson's deal also widened the rift between Jackson contract negotiation analysis and Jackson contract negotiation fanfic. Jackson is holding firm for $230 million on principle, in contrast to Watson, playing the role of a man without principles. It's easy to cast Jackson as the hero in a tale with a clear villain.
Once the Jackson negotiations become a morality tale, it's a short leap into a fairytale world where quarterbacks never get injured and every NFL coach/GM/owner either loves Jackson as much as we do or is a mustache-twirling Hydra agent who prefers a conventional pocket passer such as Mitch Trubisky. Farewell, messy world where the team that guarantees $45 million in 2026 risks ending up with the Porsche that has long been totaled. Hello, give-Jackson-ALL-the-money, not as a one-liner after a touchdown but as a philosophical stance!
Lamar Jackson vs. The Franchise Tag
Jason Fitzgerald at OverTheCap.com posted a sober, dollars-and-cents-oriented essay on Jackson's contract situation last week, from which Walkthrough has lifted a few numbers and thoughts. You should check it out. Fitzgerald is the best in the cap-analysis business, and his essay was a breath of fresh air last weekend, when the Jackson contract conversation was devolving towards holding your breath until you turn blue is the RIGHT way to get French fries instead of spinach.
Fitzgerald notes that the most likely short-term scenario moving forward is that Jackson enjoys another fine season and the Ravens slap him with an exclusive franchise tag which will cost them about $45 million. Both sides will then be motivated to get back to the table: Jackson in search of long-term guarantees and the Ravens in search of short-term cap relief.
If you are keeping score, the exclusive tag will leave Jackson $133 - $22 - $45 = $66 million in the hole through two seasons, and once again gambling against injuries as his odometer spins higher and higher.
Fitzpatrick doesn't think that the Ravens would risk the lower non-exclusive franchise tag of $33 million, because teams could then outbid the Ravens for the price of two first-round picks. Walkthrough doesn't think that will happen either, though there are damaged-goods scenarios where they might try it.
Fitzpatrick also feels that Jackson's injury risks are overstated, because he can only cite two compensation-devastating quarterback injuries in recent memory: Teddy Bridgewater and Alex Smith. I disagree here. Last I checked, the 33-year-old Newton wasn't playing for a nine-figure contract. Tony Romo retired when he was a year younger than Matt Ryan is now. A quarterback does not need a gruesome injury to lose marketability, especially…
- in a market with increased quarterback fluidity;
- when long-term guarantees are factored into the equation as they now are, unlike when Dak Prescott played Franchise Tag Roulette with the Cowboys; and
- when already coming off one season-ending injury, meaning a second injury would label him (an undersized scrambler) "injury-prone."
Let's say Jackson misses two-and-a-half games this season with a sprained ankle. Let's say his performance also lands somewhere between 2019 and 2020 levels: 2,800 passing yards, 700-plus rushing yards, a winning record as a starter, another playoff loss in which Jackson doesn't quite look like peak Mahomes, Allen, or Wilson.
Does that really sound like a quarterback a team should make a guaranteed five-year commitment to?
After the hypothetical, non-disastrous, in-character season described above, Eric DeCosta and the Ravens might say, "Sorry, that offer from last September is off the table. We're now thinking three years, $140 million or so, $90 million guaranteed, a fourth void year to spread the bonus out. Whattaya say?"
Jackson should say yes, because such a deal would place him at $22 + 90 = $112 million in earned or guaranteed compensation, not far behind the $133 million he left on the table. He could then "gamble on himself" to earn the non-guaranteed dough and/or force another, bigger extension. If he says no to a lowball offer, Jackson is back down to playing on the tag and being $66 million in the hole.
And what happens if the whole process repeats itself after the 2023 season? Maybe the Ravens offer 140/90 again. Jackson is then finally, two full seasons in the future, ahead of the $133 guarantee he left on the table: $22 + $45 on the tag + $90 = $157 million guaranteed. But if he says no—if he's miffed at the size of the deals, if it's Watson-or-bust—the Ravens can just franchise him again with a 20% raise. That would place him at $133 - $22 - $45 - $54 = $12 million behind what he is currently earning, and once again taking on the risk of a one-year commitment.
Even if the Ravens tag Jackson in 2023, then say "Great work Lamar! Let's talk about that $133 million guaranteed again!" Jackson is still behind Watson's $230 guarantee at $22 + $45 + $133 = $200 million earned or guaranteed.
Yes, this gets confusing, which is why folks hire agents.
Meanwhile, somewhere along the way, the Ravens draft a quarterback in the second round. They keep tabs on the mentor-types who might get them through a year. The Ravens aren't Washington, who were too dumb to seek any alternatives while franchising Kirk Cousins, or the Cowboys, who did the same thing with Prescott. If the Jackson negotiations continue to drag out the way they already have, they'll seek alternatives that don't strain all plausibility.
At some point, probably not in 2023 but after, the Ravens might just let Jackson walk. Then Jackson gets his dream. Or a rude non-surprise about how many teams say, "you know, our scheme is built for a traditional pocket passer…"
Do you understand the Ravens' side of the story now? They're not being cheap, evil, whatever. But they have options. And it makes business and football sense for them to exercise those options, whether we like it or not.
Lamar Jackson vs. Justin Herbert, Joe Burrow, and Russell Wilson
I would love to straight-facedly report that Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert will face the same problems that Lamar Jackson faces when they reach the extension market after this season. Oh, to live in the glorious paradise where there is no difference in how Jackson and Burrow/Herbert are perceived!
But seriously: even Burrow and/or Herbert, assuming they replicate/build upon their 2022 success, will probably end up settling for less than $230 million guaranteed. Their agents will play ball with the Chargers and Bengals, allowing for staggered bonuses and workout clauses, doing all the complicated little things that protect their client's interests (lots o' money, reasonable guarantees), the team's interests (less guaranteed cash in escrow, an end-of-contract ripcord if not completely satisfied) and their own (big honking commission, huge bottom-line number for Adam Schefter that secures the next client). They might sign extensions before Jackson, because Tom Condon (Burrow) and Athletes First (Herbert) have experience with this sort of thing.
Jackson, the incorruptible hero of the tale we wish to weave, is above such greasy boardroom wheeling-dealing. Yet even Russell Wilson isn't so pure.
Wilson, you may recall, pioneered the short quarterback contract when he signed for four years and $87 million back in 2015, when seven-year deals were still in vogue. Wilson went on to earn $140 million over four years, then in 2019 leveraged the back end of that extension into a trade and $250 million over five years a few weeks ago. Wilson knows how to "bet on himself."
Those casting Jackson as a financial tactician cleverly waiting out the Ravens are faced with an inconvenient fact: no one has surfed the quarterback contract market as brilliantly as Wilson, but Wilson did not hold out for Watson-level guarantees in his August extension. Wilson and his representation also renegotiated each contract long before any deadlines, because—and this is the part I know most of the Internet has a hard time comprehending for some reason—money now is much better than money later, especially when you are currently undercompensated.
Let's say your services are worth $49 per hour now but you are only making $22 per hour. Someone comes along and offers you $49 per hour starting tomorrow. You turn that offer down for one full year because you are seeking $60 guaranteed in 2026. Well, if your services are really worth $60 per hour in 2026, you should be able to earn it. Or perhaps you will be stuck at $52 per hour on the back end of some agreement. But you are stuck in a far worse situation now! That $49 per hour on the table not only doubles your compensation but arrives immediately so you can put it to work for you.
Ah, but your career is dangerous, you say, and your earning potential could crash by 2026. All the more reason to replace $22 per hour with $49 per hour right away! Especially when that $49 is also guaranteed for a while, if not for as long as you like.
Wilson understood this. So did those representing Allen and Mahomes. So did Watson and his agent, really, with their unique and yucky leverage.
But let's go back to that dream scenario for Jackson. He wins another MVP award and the Super Bowl, beating Offensive Player of the Year Herbert or Burrow and the Chargers/Bengals in the AFC Championship Game. The Ravens are still reluctant to guarantee those future bucks, those fiends. Then Herbert and Burrow each sign for over $200 million in guarantees. The NFL realizes that the gig is up and that all great young quarterbacks are created equal. Jackson gets exactly what he wants, and the Ewoks dance to "Yub Nub."
Something like that really could happen, all snark aside. But some sort of messy compromise is more likely. And until that compromise is made, Jackson incurs all of the risk, this season and in virtual perpetuity.
Lamar Jackson vs. The Bottom Line
There's salary cap analysis and then there's writing an opinion column about what players deserve to get paid: two very separate things. Then there's the blurry situation where one seeps into the other. Lamar Jackson contract discussions get blurry fast. The result is muddled reasoning: yes, the franchise tag is real and his injury risk is higher than many other quarterbacks and his 2020/2021 weren't resounding triumphs, but have you considered the fact that I don't like acknowledging those things, and therefore Jackson is doing the right thing?
Look, I want Jackson to earn untold riches. There's a vicarious element to that. I like to pretend that I would stand on principle for the type of contract everyone in my industry deserves. I also like to pretend, as a fiftysomething man with a math degree, that I could negotiate nine-figure contracts without help in my spare time, even though I can't get three sentences into a student loan document without surrendering in bewilderment.
Lots of us, colleagues and readers and fans, wish we were as courageous as Jackson, just as we wish we were as gifted as Jackson. That makes it gratifying to tell a tale of how his attempt to fight for the little guy stick it to the establishment is 100% Star Wars and 0% Don Quixote or Moby Dick. But those percentages are far from accurate.
There are many more paths toward not getting Watson-level guaranteed money than toward getting it. And many of those paths jeopardize the $133 million he could already be making. A few lead to disaster. And it feels false and lazy to cheer Jackson on as he takes this unnecessary risk, because frankly, I think he made a huge mistake.
If I'm wrong, we get to enjoy Jackson's storybook ending. But that's just not the most likely result.