I have spent a lot of time on these pages talking about the need for a rookie wage scale in the NFL draft. As a Browns fan, how could I not be obsessed with it? The only first round pick that seems to be worth the money they have been paid is Joe Thomas and potentially Alex Mack. I am also not the type of guy to make excuses for guys who became instantaneous millionaires after being drafted out of their colleges. At the same time, I wonder if the giant rookie contracts aren’t something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Think of it this way. Would Josh Cribbs be the guy he is today if he had been drafted in the top five and “made it” financially before he played even a down of football?
Some guys have football running through their veins, and I get the feeling that these players only think about their money in the off-season. They love the game and the minute they get a chance to play, they put every single ounce of whatever they have into it. For every one of those guys though, there are probably three that like football, but don’t like all the aches and pains that are associated with it. If guys like that have already made giant amounts of money, is there much incentive for them to outperform their gaudy rookie contracts or are they going to be content to simply ride it out? In business school they would have called this a lack of goal congruence between the NFL team and the rookie players.
As fans, we have been conditioned to play into it too. Take LenDale White for example. The knock on White was always that he was overweight and didn’t work hard. When he took off his shirt at the combine, it has been reported that there was laughing and comments that White hadn’t been doing anything. He tumbled his way down the draft board out of the first round to #45 where the Tennessee Titans finally selected him. This came after he scored three touchdowns in the Rose Bowl. He arguably stole the spotlight from Reggie Bush in that game by outscoring and outgaining him. LenDale White thought he had arrived though, because he heard whispers that he would be taken in the first round of the draft.
After a precipitous fall, White didn’t wake up and change anything at all. Even second round money (artificially elevated by ridiculous first round money) was too much to cause him to bother trying. Well, that is until his first contract year last season when he decided to lose a bunch of weight by reportedly giving up tequila in addition to a tough training schedule. For the first few weeks of the NFL schedule this was a story and some people on TV even sounded a bit impressed. This is what I mean. A guy finally takes some initiative and works on his skills coming into a contract year in his mid twenties. What would LenDale White’s time frame have been had he been working toward getting a substantial NFL contract rather than getting paid solid money as a rookie?
Yet, NFL teams pony up all this money in the draft to bet on guys. Even by making deals heavily incentive-laden, the goals of the teams are not aligned with those of the player. The player finally has big money and the dangers of the game don’t necessarily encourage young players to get out there and risk it all in the name of longevity. Instead of chasing that winning lottery ticket of their first real contract, the rookie contract suffices for some of these guys.
You can’t say this for every Browns draft failure. I don’t believe for a second that Courtney Brown submarined his own career in any way shape or form because he was comfortable. But take Gerard Warren. Instead of working his butt off to truly become the next Warren Sapp, he was getting arrested in Pittsburgh on gun charges with a teammate, Mike Sellers, who happened to have some cocaine on him. Maybe that would have happened even if Gerard Warren hadn’t signed a lucrative rookie deal with Butch Davis’ Cleveland Browns. Then again, if he was still trying to make it rather than thinking he had already arrived, you never truly know.
Bad guys are bad guys are bad guys. That is definitely true. Eventually everybody’s true nature comes to the surface. Still, even bad guys can act like good guys for a time period given the right incentives. I am confident that at least a few of the draft busts could have been avoided with a more realistic wage scale for rookies.