I understand why Chicago Bears linebacker Lance Briggs feels aggrieved. Really, I do. Especially on this day, when a 4-3 weak-side linebacker who has never made a Pro Bowl signed a five-year contract worth $40 million while the Bears hold steady on the remaining three years and $14 million of Briggs' contract.
That's right. The Minnesota Vikings guaranteed linebacker Chad Greenway $20 million, according to Jeremy Fowler of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, and he will earn an average of $8 million over the life of the deal. Briggs, meanwhile, has asked for a trade because the Bears have refused to renegotiate his deal.
Greenway is a good player and teammate, but I don't know that his production or credentials merit higher pay than Briggs. As Briggs has learned, NFL salaries are as much about timing and strategy as they are about rewarding skills or past production.
Briggs' interview with Chicago-area reporters Monday, his first extensive comments since confirming his trade request, suggests one of two things:
He didn't understand what he was getting into when he signed his six-year deal in 2008.
He was under some kind of assumption that the Bears would re-open the contract at some point.
Otherwise, I'm not sure what Briggs was expecting when he signed a deal that called for about $22 million over the first three years and $14 million over the final three. Asked why he agreed to those terms, Briggs said: "If you understand how the [salary] cap works, you have to structure contracts in certain ways. You have to spread it out over six years so you don't count too much against the cap. You have other players that have to be paid at the time, and they tell you, we have to save some of these dollars to pay some of the other players too. So you sign the deal you have to sign at the time. There are things the owners will not budge on. Going into the [new] CBA, things will not change.
"In the NFL, they aren't any guaranteed contracts. If I underperform, owners will cut me. They have the right to do that anytime. They can cut me right before I'm supposed to get a bonus in March. For a player, we have every right to ask for a renegotiating, to ask for a trade, or to hold out."
Fair or not, that's how contracts have worked in the NFL throughout the salary cap era. The owners have the upper hand. In exchange for guaranteed or otherwise up-front money, players typically must agree to longer-term deals that prevent their return to the open market during the prime of their careers. They have a right to renegotiate at any time, I suppose, but doing so with no leverage is a fruitless exercise. Quite simply, the Bears have Briggs over the proverbial barrel.
If Briggs wanted to avoid this predicament, he could have pursued a shorter-term deal that would have included less guaranteed money but returned him to the free agent market for another potential payday during the prime of his career. He didn't have to spread his cap hit over six years if he was willing to accept a lower salary and bet on his future play.
That's precisely what Green Bay Packers receiver Greg Jennings did in June 2009, agreeing to a four-year deal worth about $27 million that will make him a free agent when he is 30 in 2013. It's a risky but ultimately rewarding strategy if you're confident in your health and continued success.
Sure, it would be nice if the Bears recognized that Briggs remains their best player on an aging defense, and if they understood that a happy Lance Briggs probably means a happy locker room. But unless they made a some kid of verbal pledge in 2008 that we're not aware of, I can't say they've wronged Briggs in this instance.
Greenway's superior contract isn't a reflection of how well the Vikings treat their players or how poorly the Bears take care of theirs. It's the difference of three years in the market. When Briggs was the Bears' franchise player in 2008, his value tag number was $7.2 million. Greenway's was $10.091 million. So it stands to reason his long-term deal would escalate accordingly.
Briggs feels hurt, scorned and obviously is frustrated by the Bears' response. But I don't see a way out of this for him. He would have to make things awfully difficult for the Bears to force an in-season trade. His best bet is to have another Lance Briggs-type season and then turn the screws on the team this winter.