Negotiations between the Los Angeles Rams and receiver Tavon Austin were nearly complete last summer when the real fun began. The sides had agreed to a four-year contract extension worth between $10 million and $11 million annually. Now it was time for Tony Pastoors, the Rams' senior assistant and lead contract negotiator, to work some magic.
When it was over, Austin's deal averaged exactly $10,555,501 per year.
Look at that number carefully.
If you recognized it as a palindrome -- a sequence that reads the same forward or backward -- you win a prize.
The numbers were no accident. In recent years, the Rams have used palindromes as one of several ways to lighten up the otherwise gray world of NFL finance. Their bag of tricks includes submitting contract proposals via haiku and personalizing the titles of incentive clauses.
This quirky habit, one that earned mention in ESPN's roundup of 10 unusual contract clauses, originated with executive vice president/chief operating officer Kevin Demoff. The idea, Pastoors said in an interview last week, is to send players a simple message of humanity during a stressful and contentious moment.
"It's also just a fun thing to do," Pastoors said. "Football is supposed to be fun. It should be fun if you work in the NFL, and if you can't have fun, you're doing something wrong. This lets the players know that we put some thought into it rather than doing a basic minimum deal. It's a pretty simple way of having players think, 'Hey, someone thought of me as a person.'"
There are other examples of similar creativity across the NFL landscape. In 2015, for example, the New York Jets worked out an average salary of $14,024,212 in cornerback Darrelle Revis' new deal. As noted in the book "Crunching Numbers," by Jason Fitzgerald and Vijay Natarajan, the "24" stood for Revis' jersey number and the "212" for his area code in New York City.
The Rams, however, take it to a more intense level. Pastoors, who joined the franchise in 2010, estimated that about half of the approximately 1,000 contracts he's worked on include at least one element of personalization.
Defensive end Robert Quinn received a signing bonus of $4,776,774 as part of his new deal in 2014. Center John Sullivan's one-year contract this year is worth $999,999, including a base of $900,000 plus a roster bonus of $99,999. When cornerback Trumaine Johnson signed his rookie deal in 2012, his bonus was $671,176.
Often the goal can be achieved by manipulating base salary numbers. Austin's base was $1,111,111 in 2016. (His jersey number: 11.) The Rams made the math work with two randomly assembled base salaries in the final two years of the contract. Austin would earn $9,561,773 in 2020 and $9,222,024 in 2021. To complete their shenanigans for rookie deals, the Rams occasionally exceed the projected slot, Pastoors said -- but always in favor of the player.
"It'll cost us maybe $13 more," Pastoors said. "That $13 over four years is worth it to us."
As their reputation has grown, the Rams have found agents playing along and sending numeric suggestions of their own. Occasionally players themselves have offered possibilities.
In Los Angeles, of course, palindromes are only part of the fun. In naming incentive clauses, the Rams will dip into franchise history. Their contracts have included Vince Ferragamo or Norm Van Brocklin incentives. Punter Johnny Hekker wound up with a Johnny Kickball incentive, a play on Johnny Manziel's "Johnny Football" nickname, a review of the contract by ESPN sources revealed.
Some player names do the work for them. A player like tight end Jared Cook, who signed with the Rams in 2013 and remained through 2015, might get "He went to Jared" for one of his incentives, a reference to the jewelry store's advertising slogan.
I know. I get it. By now, you're hammering at the Rams for focusing more on cute incentive titles and math tricks than winning. Indeed, the Rams haven't made the playoffs since 2004 -- the NFL's third-longest active drought -- and haven't had a winning season in 14 years.
If you're inclined to connect contract tomfoolery with winning percentage, my suggestion is to lighten up. The two exist independent of each other. It's OK to have a little fun now and then. We should all try it sometime.