The worst part for the Chiefs is that they didn’t even get a playoff appearance from Justin Houston’s historic season. Just a bill. A big, fat, fortune of a bill.
Because if they had something other than rising rates and roster headaches to show for it, they could look back on Houston’s franchise-record 22 sacks last season more as a monumental achievement than a monumental negotiating point.
Instead, Houston’s breakout season is a giant billboard, in flashing and neon letters — TOLD YOU SO! — reminding the Chiefs of their biggest mistake of general manager John Dorsey’s and coach Andy Reid’s two years in charge.
The symbol of that mistake came Monday, when the Chiefs officially put the franchise tag on Houston, meaning they will pay him $13.2 million with a corresponding salary-cap hit. There is also a small chance another team could sign him to an offer sheet, giving the Chiefs a chance to match or receive two first-round picks. This is not generally considered a realistic possibility among league sources.
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A year ago, the Chiefs could have saved themselves a lot of time, trouble and money by signing Houston to a contract based on Tamba Hali’s five-year, $35 million guaranteed deal, which was signed before the 2011 season. Do that back then, and the Chiefs today have more cap space, longer control over a premier pass rusher and more flexibility and focus to fill some obvious needs in hopes of ending a 21-year drought of playoff wins.
But the Chiefs didn’t budge enough last year, so Houston bet on himself, and he won in an enormous way. Now, Houston and his representatives have all the leverage. It is part of the job description of agents to ask for more money than is realistic, and to yoga-stretch for comparables to make their client look good, but the Chiefs’ mistake here means that Houston can use all sorts of negotiating tricks to maximize what he knows is likely to be the biggest contract of his life.
One industry source made the point that Houston is in such a rare spot — just 26 years old, motivated to get paid after playing on a third-round rookie deal, and coming within a half-sack of the all-time NFL single-season record — that he could start to break the traditional context of position comparisons.
He is an outside linebacker — he’s very unlikely to win an appeal to be classified as a defensive end — but now has the credibility to compare himself to premier defensive players at any position. Darrelle Revis signed a six-year, $96 million contract, for instance.
Or, perhaps more notably, Houston might even have the leverage and credibility to bring up J.J. Watt’s contract – six years, with a $51.8 million guarantee, the highest in NFL history for a defensive player.
Watt is a better player than Houston, but the comparison isn’t as much of a stretch as it might seem on the surface.
“You ask for it,” says Joel Corry, a cap analyst and former agent. “The thing is, J.J. Watt did that deal with two years left. He wasn’t even remotely close to being a free agent. We’re talking about this deal now (with Houston) as he’s headed toward free agency. So, yeah, that’s legitimate.”
Scott Pioli made a lot of boneheaded mistakes during his tenure as the Chiefs’ general manager and is the single biggest reason 2012 was the most embarrassing year in franchise history. But one thing he did terrifically was understand and exploit leverage. Long-term deals with Jamaal Charles, Brandon Flowers and Hali were done mostly on the team’s time and terms.
Dorsey and the Chiefs missed their best window with Houston a year ago, when he was coming off a strong but unhistoric 11-sack season.
Now, they will pay a procrastination tax that means more money for less certainty.
A long-term deal would be better for both sides. Houston gets more money, and the Chiefs get more immediate cap space. But now, Corry guesses the bidding starts around $15 million per year with a $50 million guarantee. Even then, the deal would probably need to be structured in the right way for Houston to sign it.
The tangible impact on the Chiefs’ failure to sign Houston last year will probably be hard to see. Any talk of him sitting out games rather than playing under the franchise tag is silly posturing. Houston has not made what NFL people often refer to as “real money,” and would be giving up more than $800,000 for every game he missed.
Also, if Houston maintains anything close to his production the last three years — 43 sacks in 43 games – the Chiefs control him for what would likely be around $30 million over the next two seasons.
But these are the kinds of decisions that teams have to get right to win in the parity-obsessed NFL, especially teams without Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady playing quarterback. The Chiefs got this one wrong and are now paying for it in literal terms. This should have been done for less money while maintaining more cap space for other moves.
Instead, the Chiefs are negotiating from a point of weakness. A long-term deal should still be the goal for both sides, but the Chiefs missed their chance at the best deal and the best opportunity to strengthen the rest of the team.