It is called lagniappe, an old Cajun word that roughly translates into "a little bit extra," and a term with which Carolina Panthers quarterback and dyed-in-the-gumbo Louisiana native Jake Delhomme was familiar, long before he agreed Thursday morning to his pricey new five-year contract extension.
Rewarding their emerging star with a contract that reportedly could be worth as much as $38 million, a deal criticized in some NFL precincts because there remains a core group of skeptics anxious to see if Delhomme was just a one-year wonder, certainly represented a heaping helping of lagniappe ladled out by Panthers management. No matter where one sides in the debate, though, the contract inarguably was aimed at providing security for both parties to the extension.
Good news, Carolina management hopes, for a franchise now suddenly resurrected and seeking to sustain newfound success and to create stability. And absolutely great news for an itinerant quarterback whose league resume included just two regular-season starts before 2003.
But bad news -- very bad news, in fact, it says here -- for signal-callers such as Tim Couch, Kurt Warner and Kordell Stewart. How do we draw a correlation between Delhomme's contract and the fortunes of those veteran quarterbacks?
Because players like Couch have recently been forced into a kind of wait-until-next-year mindset, one in which they sign short-term deals in the hopes of finding a far more appealing employment market next March, when they will be free agents and perhaps have a chance to pursue a starting job. And contracts like the one Delhomme signed, in the big picture, mean there aren't going to be as many vacant starting spots in the NFL as some observers suggest there might be.
It is, to be sure, one of the NFL's most notable dichotomies. Everyone focuses closely on the movement of quarterbacks in the league every spring, and this year was no different, as 19 quarterbacks had switched franchises at last count. But in a league where the best-kept secret appears to be the number of teams that have cemented their starters in place over the last few years, many of them with deals of astonishing length, few quarterbacks who changed addresses actually upgraded their status.
Here's a fact-and-fiction proposition: It's a fact that the 32 quarterbacks projected to be starters in 2004 have an average of 4.4 more seasons remaining on their current contracts, meaning they are locked in through 2007. So it is fiction to assume that a slew of No. 1 spots will become available next spring, or even the offseason after that.
The late-blooming Delhomme is the latest beneficiary of a trend in which teams have sought to reverse the quarterback carousel and put a stop to the calliope tune that annually accompanies the game of musical chairs at the position.
Just since the end of last season, there have been 10 quarterbacks who signed new contracts that either make them starters or figure to extend their tenures atop the depth charts. And with Chad Pennington of the New York Jets and Seattle's Matt Hasselbeck entering the final year of their respective deals, there are more megacontracts coming in the not too distant future. Bank on the likelihood that, within the ensuing nine months, Pennington will sign a deal that features the second-largest signing bonus in NFL history, trailing only the $34.5 million the Indianapolis Colts paid Peyton Manning up front.
Even accounting for the "voidable" years in current quarterback contracts, the average NFL starter still has 4.1 seasons left on his current deal. Go one step further and subtract the "dummy" years on contracts, seasons in which the salaries are so inflated that the club will be forced to either restructure the contract or release the quarterback, and the average is still about 3½ remaining seasons.
And chew on these numbers: There are a dozen quarterbacks with at least five seasons remaining on current deals and 11 of them have six or more seasons left on contracts. So while the widespread perception is that the quarterback position is again in flux, one might insist rather convincingly that the future offers a kind of golden age of stability at the game's most critical spot.
Which begs the question of where guys like Couch -- who is just 26 years old and who, we feel, can still be a big-time quarterback if he lands in the right situation -- are going to find their next opportunity to regain their lost starter's status?
Said one prominent agent who recently dealt with a Couch-type situation: "You have to do a little sweet-talking, do some tap-dancing, paint some blue sky. Because, the truth is, while you're telling (your client) it's OK to take a step back in hopes of moving forward again next year, sometimes your guy just gets stuck in neutral. As with everything in the NFL, this is cyclical, but this particular cycle doesn't (bode) well for guys looking to get back in the starter's saddle next year. I mean, take a look around, and try to figure out where the opportunities are going to be."
It certainly doesn't appear there will be many.
Only four current starters are entering the final year of their contracts. Pennington and Hasselbeck will get new deals before 2005 or their teams will use the "franchise" marker to keep them around. Drew Brees of San Diego is in the final season of his original NFL contract but the Chargers, with first-round pick Philip Rivers onboard, already have his successor in line. Arizona's Josh McCown, the final starter with just one year left, will only be eligible for restricted free agency next spring, so the Cardinals can retain him with a qualifying offer.
The smart money says that Brett Favre plays two more seasons in Green Bay. The newly reworked contract that Buffalo's Drew Bledsoe signed this spring probably extends his shelf-life two more years. Even if he wins the starting job for 2004, Warner could be gone from the New York Giants by next spring, but that's only because the Eli Manning era will be set to dawn. Kerry Collins is already in the on-deck circle to succeed Rich Gannon in Oakland, whether it is this season or next. The Pittsburgh Steelers will count on Ben Roethlisberger, the first quarterback the franchise has selected in the first round in a quarter-century, to supplant Tommy Maddox in 2005 or 2006.
And there is a subset of "franchise" quarterbacks -- Peyton Manning, Donovan McNabb, Michael Vick, Byron Leftwich, David Carr, Steve McNair, Daunte Culpepper and more -- who aren't going anywhere for a long time.
So where might a guy like Couch, who signed a one-year, $1.25 million contract with the Packers, locate a potential starting spot in 2005? Maybe Miami, Dallas, San Francisco, Arizona or Tampa Bay, depending on what transpires in those cities this season. But the prospects of a starting opportunity could be surprisingly limited.
That's what long-term deals like the one signed by Delhomme, with teams being very proactive now in locking up quarterbacks once they have identified their guy, have done to the futures market. That is also why the ever-pragmatic Couch has left open the chance he could extend his contract in Green Bay and wait for Favre to decide that it's time to tend to the mowing chores full-time at his Hattiesburg, Miss., home.
Looking down the road at the market, well, there's not much lagniappe out there for former starters who have signed short-term deals on the assumption that things will get better. On the plus side, if you're Couch and you've for sufficient stomach lining, the beer and brats can quickly become an acquired taste.
On the aforementioned Pennington: The guess here is that the Jets quarterback might not have a deal consummated until sometime after the 2004 season, in advance of the February date for teams to declare their "franchise" players. Pennington has been very clear in his discussions with agents Tom Condon and Ken Kremer of IMG Football that he does not want negotiations to be a distraction to him or his teammates. Since there really hasn't been any substantive bargaining yet, and since the money involved in the deal will be very large, this is a contract that could take some time. Lots of players say they won't negotiate once the season begins, but word is that Pennington is one who will adhere to that condition, so there is a somewhat definitive timeframe during which a deal can be struck. That's why, as was the case with Peyton Manning, the odds are that there won't be a Pennington contract until just before "franchise" designation day. Pennington won't get the $34.5 million signing bonus that Manning, a stablemate in the IMG family, received from the Colts. But don't start planning any telethons, since the up front money for the Jets star is apt to be in the $20 million-$25 million range.
So you didn't really think that a lightning-rod coach like Dennis Green was going to take over a franchise that has averaged exactly five victories per year since '99 and not shake up the Arizona Cardinals, did you? Of course not. But what transpired Thursday, when Green announced his starting lineup for training camp following the Cardinals' last organized workout of the offseason, was more along the lines of a seismic event than a mere tweaking. There are a dozen changes, six on each side of the ball, between the camp lineup for Green's first season and the one that opened the 2003 regular campaign. Most startling of Green's revelations -- he lined up his squad, called out individual names, and then informed the cited players of their status atop the depth chart -- was that venerable Emmitt Smith will go to camp as the No. 1 tailback. But there were other shockers, too, like the seemingly permanent move of former right guard Leonard Davis to left tackle, the position he played in college, and a spot once owned by another former Cardinals' first-rounder, L.J. Shelton. A few weeks ago, when Green demoted Shelton, the consensus was that the coach was simply attempting to motivate the five-year veteran. Now, it appears, Shelton could be trade bait. There are two rookies, first-round wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald of Pitt and third-round defensive tackle Darnell Dockett of Florida State, in the lineup. And Green has replaced free safety Dexter Jackson, the most valuable player in Super Bowl XXXVII and arguably the Cards' highest-profile veteran acquisition of 2003, with youngster Quentin Harris, whose NFL resume includes only one start. There are some mitigating circumstances at that position, since Jackson was limited this spring by a back injury, but Green isn't one for excuses. He isn't one to start tinkering, either, with his lineup once he gets to camp. Unlike many coaches, Green places a big emphasis on earning a No. 1 spot in the spring, not in the summer. "This is the staring lineup," he told his team on Thursday morning. "You have to lose your job now." By the way, all of the critics who pointed out that the needy Cardinals have used three choices in the first two rounds of the last two drafts to take wide receivers, take note: All three -- Anquan Boldin, Bryant Johnson and Fitzgerald -- are starters in Arizona's three-wideout base offense.
Head coach Marvin Lewis is offering only hints, and agent Neil Schwartz is vacationing in the Orient with his family, so no one is really addressing head-on what happened with the contract agreement between the Cincinnati Bengals and free agent defensive tackle Daryl Gardener. It certainly appears, however, that Gardener's chronic back problems have scuttled the deal for now, and probably for good. Make no mistake, the two sides had an agreement in principle on a four-year, incentive-laden contract that could have earned Gardener about $9.3 million. Certainly a Bengals defense that ranked No. 25 versus the run in 2003 could have used Gardener, a big, tough, space-eater when he is healthy. But credit Cincinnati for doing its medical due diligence on a back that has affected Gardener for years. If there is one quibble, and it's a small one, with the Bengals, it is this: Perhaps the club should have re-signed veteran Glen Steele, an unrestricted free agent, as an insurance policy. Steele was one of Cincinnati's most productive defenders per snap and ended up signing instead with the New York Giants on a minimum-salary, one-year contract. He might have been worth a $535,000 investment to keep around. The Bengals have some improving youngsters behind the starting defensive tackles tandem of John Thornton and Tony Williams but virtually no experienced depth.
Buffalo general manager Tom Donahoe is taking a first-to-the-table approach in his negotiations with a trio of Bills veterans who can become unrestricted free agents after this season. Donahoe has essentially told the agents and the players as well -- offensive tackle Jonas Jennings, defensive end Aaron Schobel and defensive tackle Pat Williams -- that there is only enough room in the cap to sign one to an extension before the season starts. The Bills recouped about $4 million when quarterback Drew Bledsoe reworked his contract and that's enough wiggle room for one veteran deal and to sign the club's draft picks. Whoever reaches for the dangling carrot first gets the veteran money. Once camp opens on July 31, Donahoe has reiterated, negotiations are off. "It's not something that is going to drag through the summer," he said. "Either they're interested or they're not."
Oakland second-year wide receiver Doug Gabriel, a 2003 fifth-rounder who caught just one pass for 17 yards as a rookie, was touted here five weeks ago and now the buzz about the former Central Florida standout is beginning to escalate. Gabriel is a physical receiver with just modest speed, but runs nice routes, and could be a pretty nifty complement to the speedy Jerry Porter in the offense being installed by Norv Turner. It won't be much of a surprise to the folks who have seen Gabriel and Porter this spring if the two begin the season as the Raiders' starters. That would push Jerry Rice and Tim Brown into backup roles and, since neither graybeard plays special teams, it might be difficult to keep both future Hall of Fame members around, even at their modest salary cap numbers.
During this (much welcomed) lag time in the NFL schedule, any story of even minute significance merits a headline and closer than usual inspection, it seems. So when the New England Patriots signed Tedy Bruschi to a new, three-year, $8.1 million contract extension earlier this week, we scurried for some statistics to pad out the story. Most interesting was that the eight-year veteran linebacker had 16 passes defensed in 2003. If that doesn't seem like a ton of deflections for a linebacker, especially a guy who plays on the inside in a 3-4 scheme, consider this: There were only 14 defensive backs in the NFL who had more passes defensed than did Bruschi last season. Yeah, we know, the "passes defensed" category is one of those esoteric numbers, with the statistic not yet officially recognized by the league, one in which the criteria varies from team to team. But no matter the method used by Pats coaches to determine a pass defensed, Bruschi certainly was an active guy last season. Then again, his 16 pass deflections are still four fewer than Washington Redskins star LaVar Arrington posted in '03. There were just four defensive backs -- Ty Law of New England (23), Houston's Marcus Coleman (23), the Pats' Tyrone Poole (21) and Fred Thomas of New Orleans (21) -- credited with more passes defensed than Arrington had.
Speaking of passes defensed, here's a name to file away for when the '04 season starts: Cornerback Lenny Walls had 20 passes defensed in 2003, one of only eight secondary players in the NFL with that many deflections, and the Denver Broncos two-year veteran played exceedingly well in his first season as a starter. Word is Walls has been terrific this spring and will be the starter opposite Champ Bailey this fall. Ironic that, after the Broncos basically wasted first-round picks on the now-departed Deltha O'Neal (2000) and Willie Middlebrooks (2001), the team would unearth a starter who joined the club as an undrafted college free agent in 2002. In a league desperate for bigger corners, Walls is 6-feet-4 and 192 pounds, runs well and plays aggressively. He could be a real breakout player in 2004 because, with Bailey on the other side of the field, Walls is going to see a lot of balls thrown at him and have the opportunity to make a ton of plays. By the way, the Broncos are paying Walls the third-year veteran minimum salary of $380,000 for '04. Denver better enjoy getting Walls on the cheap while it can, because he recently retained Drew Rosenhaus as his new agent, and that will eventually raise the ante in and of itself.
It might surprise some people to know that Miami Dolphins defensive end Adewale Ogunleye, who has garnered plenty of publicity this spring, isn't the only restricted free agent leaguewide who has yet to sign his qualifying offer. As of Thursday evening there was one other restricted free agent, Tennessee Titans tight end Shad Meier, who hadn't re-upped. The reason: The Titans want Meier to sign a deal that provides them an option year in 2005. The language would be similar to the deal signed last week by Titans wide receiver and restricted free agent Eddie Berlin. In that deal, Berlin agreed to a second year on the contract, at $600,000, and with $300,000 of that guaranteed. Meier, a key player for the Titans, since they use two-tight end formations so frequently and Frank Wycheck has retired, would prefer to sign just the qualifying offer of $628,000 for 2004 and then be eligible for unrestricted free agency, no strings attached, next spring.
The addition of veteran corner Dale Carter has nudged swing man Corey Fuller to safety in Baltimore mini-camps. Fuller won't move back outside unless there is an emergency, or perhaps if "franchise" corner Chris McAlister, the team's "franchise" designee, is not in camp. The Ravens, by the way, have moved former wide receiver Javin Hunter to cornerback in an effort to maybe salvage his career. Hunter showed promise as a wideout in 2002, but then ruptured his Achilles tendon last summer, and missed the entire 2003 season. The transformation to defense is a long shot, but Hunter is such a solid athlete that Baltimore staffers figured it was worth taking a look at him there.
In his first appearance on a field since his 2000 rookie campaign, former Jacksonville Jaguars first-round wide receiver R. Jay Soward, suspended for the past three seasons for repeat violations of the NFL substance abuse policy, authored a 56-yard touchdown catch for the Toronto Argonauts of the CFL on Tuesday night. The former Southern California star has virtually fallen off the face of the NFL universe but is still on the radar screen of NCAA investigators. Seems that even six years after he left college, the NCAA is poking around some West Coast player agents to see which of them might have fronted a $5,000 bank loan that Soward allegedly has not repaid.
A sincere mea culpa to Philadelphia Eagles rookie cornerback and third-round draft choice Matt Ware. Last week in this spot, commenting on the Eagles' very young cornerback corps, we noted that sixth-rounder Dexter Wynn of Colorado State had been the better of the two rookie cover guys. Well, that couldn't help but be the case, since NFL rules had precluded Ware from practicing with the Eagles until his classes at UCLA ended. So, yeah, Wynn was the better of the two, by default. And by our fault, Ware absorbed a hit he shouldn't have taken. One of the few big corners in this year's draft, Ware has a promising future, and we certainly didn't want to suggest otherwise. He will need a crash course, though, given the mini-camp time he missed this spring.
Punts: The Patriots, with no experienced backup behind Tom Brady, recently phoned Neil O'Donnell to see if he might be pried out of retirement. As was the case with an offer from the New York Giants, to serve as Eli Manning's tutor for a year, O'Donnell declined the invitation. Tight end Mikhael Ricks, released by Detroit early this week, has generated solid interest in free agency. Still a very good receiver, and with enough speed even at age 29 to get deep up the middle, Ricks has visited with Green Bay and New York Jets executives. Washington initially indicated some interest but seems to have backed off a bit. After announcing that the 2003 season would be his last hurrah, Raiders right offensive tackle Lincoln Kennedy is having second thoughts about retiring. It's still believed, though, that Big Linc will listen to his injury-wracked body and call it quits. It isn't expected to be a major problem for the Chicago Bears, but they do find themselves in an unusual situation with first-round pick Tommie Harris, and it will take some dialogue to unravel the thing. It seems that, while the Bears were "on the clock" in the first round of the draft, they came to an agreement with Harris' agent, Kennard McGuire, on some elements of a contract for the former Oklahoma star defender. The only problem is, Harris recently switched agents, and is now represented by Eugene Parker. It remains to be seen if Parker complies with the components to which his predecessor agreed on draft day. Tampa Bay defensive lineman Ellis Wyms will enter a pretrial intervention program for an April incident in which he is alleged to have kicked in the door of a limousine he had chartered for the evening. Wyms will pay for damages, about $1,400, and the charges will be expunged from his record.
The last word: "When I see guys huddling up after the game, to pray, that's what scares me about the game. I'm a Baptist, but I'm also a quarterback killer, and I ain't praying with you. But I will give you 30 seconds to ask your Lord and master to keep me from killing you." -- Hall of Fame defensive end "Deacon" Jones on what aspect of the modern game most upsets him.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.