ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Broncos' executive vice president of all things football, John Elway, has often talked about the two sides of life in the NFL.
There’s the football part: The week-in, week-out work of on-field strategy, the games to go with the annual construction of a depth chart built to get a team through all of that with some wins in tow. Then there’s the business side: The contracts, the money and the legal gymnastics conducted across the negotiating table.
And as hard as most teams try to keep the two sides from meeting in the locker room, they can at times, especially if ego gets tied to money and any of the business gets a little messy -- see: Dumervil, Elvis and fax machine.
It’s all going to be at work with Von Miller and the Broncos in the coming weeks. Miller is currently serving a six-game suspension for a violation of the league’s substance-abuse policy, and in a decision that has been simmering for weeks, the Broncos are going to attempt to reclaim $1.25 million of Miller’s original $13.77 million signing bonus because of that career misstep from the Pro Bowl linebacker. From the Broncos' perspective, this is the business of business.
They operate in a multibillion dollar, multi-city operation in which their peers want things to function this way. Signing bonuses are guaranteed, up-front money that’s already been paid to the player and teams want the ability to re-coup some of that money if the player does something that prevents him from performing his vocational duties for the team beyond a game-related injury.
From Miller’s perspective -- and he met with NFLPA officials Friday in Washington, D.C., to discuss this and other matters, according to several sources -- his support team, including his attorneys, doesn't believe the current collective bargaining agreement includes anything about a team’s ability to reclaim signing-bonus money in the event of a suspension like Miller’s.
The Broncos have traveled this path before. Not under the exact circumstances, but during Mike Shanahan’s tenure with the team, the Broncos tried to re-claim part of wide receiver Ashley Lelie’s option bonus after Lelie had held out of training camp in 2006. After a long battle that included a lawsuit, Lelie eventually won the dispute after an arbitrator’s ruling was held up in a federal appeals court.
But Lelie was eventually traded by the Broncos -- to the Falcons -- and things were never the same between him and the team.
By league rules, Miller will not be paid during his suspension -- most players are paid their base salaries over the 17-week cycle of the regular season unless their contracts specify otherwise -- but the Broncos plan on withholding the signing-bonus money once Miller starts the pay cycle in Week 7. Miller’s base salary is $1.478 million this season, so $86,941 per week over 17 weeks. His lost wages for six games amounts to $521,647, so when the Broncos withhold the signing-bonus money, as well, Miller’s total loss would approach $2 million.
But it’s part of a big picture that will bear watching between Miller and the Broncos in the weeks and months to come. He is one of their marquee players, certainly the marquee player under 30 years old, and many personnel evaluators in the league would say he is their most talented, most physically gifted player overall.
He’s also a player who didn’t have any red flags as far as drug testing before the 2011 NFL draft -- maturity issues, yes, but teams say they had no report of failed drug tests -- though he has now tested positive on multiple occasions as an NFL player. So, the Broncos believe his suspension, as well as an ill-timed arrest for an outstanding warrant when Miller attempted to purchase a firearm in the days before his suspension was formally handed down by the league, are essentially a product of his behavior since arriving in Denver.
So, there are some trust issues from the Broncos' executives and even some of Miller’s teammates at the moment, things Miller will try to address as he works through the suspension, which includes how he handles his off-the-field life. Miller was a visible, popular player who maintained his innocence -- “I know I’ve done nothing wrong" was his first response to the news of the potential suspension -- as the story unfolded, an approach followed publicly by Broncos officials and Miller's teammates, with talk of how Miller's suspension would be reduced, or even pushed aside, almost right up until the point the penalty was handed down.
The Broncos face an enormous decision about his future with the team in 2014, the final year of his original contract -- his base salary moves to $3.24 million next season. The Broncos will have to decide how far they want to go on a new deal and what kind of behavior provisions they want to put in while Miller would have to decide what kind of restrictions he would be willing to accept.
Miller is in Stage 3 of the league substance-abuse program now. And according to the policy, he will always be in Stage 3, which means random testing up to 10 times a month for the remainder of his NFL career and the next suspension is, at minimum, for a calendar year.
Those are tough choices on both sides, potentially tough topics to work through without hard feelings on all sides, and the impending dispute over some signing-bonus money will be just the start of what won't always be a smooth ride.