Two cars are racing side-by-side. They are both powerfully built, and can reach speeds few others can. Each driver is accustomed to winning, and has earned that confidence by proving doubters wrong time and again. In the distance, there is a cliff. Both men see it. Neither fears it. For now, it poses no threat. There is still time to consider a variety of options, but eventually both will be faced with a decision: attempt to jump the ravine or stop short and yield to their competitor. Spectators are placing bets. Who will back down? If they jump, who will nail the landing? The dust has started to clear on the negotiations between Russell Wilson and the Seahawks. Fans can see the ravine they are hurtling toward after the 2016 season. The people who assume one side has leverage over the other believe one, or both, of the parties involved fear the jump. Those people are wrong.
True leverage in a negotiation is when one side can reliably force the other to come off their position. There is a myth that great negotiators out-leverage their opponents, but experts will tell you the best negotiators are able to find mutual victory. The concept of leverage in contract negotiations is almost completely based on fear. A team that fears losing a player may pay them more than they want. A player that fears the market will not value him enough or he will be forced to play for a bad team or in an undesirable city might take less money to stay put.
Teams tend to have the most leverage because of the way the CBA works. They can cut players that underperform without paying them the full value of their contract. Those that watch Hard Knocks might remember the scene when then Jets GM Mike Tannenbaum called QB Kellen Clemens into his office and told him they wanted to reduce his salary to the veteran minimum. Clemens asks, “What if I were to say I don’t want to do that?” To which Tannenbaum replied, “Then we’ll cut you.” On it’s face, that sounds like a badass fully leveraged negotiation. If Clemens, however, thought another team would pay him more than Tannenbaum was offering or that he could win a starting role for another team, he would have jumped at the idea of being cut.
Tannenbaum absolutely had authority based on the powers the CBA gives teams, but he only had leverage if Clemens feared being cut. In this case, he chose to stay and have his salary reduced.
If any player in the NFL has leverage, it is the franchise quarterback. They are few in number and perceived to be the key to Super Bowl glory. No position is paid more, and no position commands as much to acquire via trade. A player has leverage over a team when negotiating a contract if the team fears losing the player and lacks confidence in their ability to replace him. The player cannot force the team to raise its offer any more than Tannenbaum could force Clemens to accept the pay cut.
Perception versus reality
Most fans and analysts who think the coverage of the Wilson negotiations is overblown or just plain pointless, feel that way because they assume there is no way Schneider and the Seahawks will allow the unicorn to leave the stable. Multiple people who I respect have said things along the lines of, “there is no way Schneider is stupid enough to let a franchise quarterback go.”
Implicit in that point of view is that Wilson can leverage Schneider into making him pay more than he is wants to for fear of losing his quarterback. Also implicit in that perspective is that Schneider considers Wilson a franchise quarterback. Lastly, there is an implication that Schneider must believe his team needs a franchise quarterback to meet his championship goals.
Nobody doubts that Wilson can get all the money he wants if that is his goal. The question is whether he can get that money from Seattle. If Schneider has a budget number he will not exceed, Wilson has no leverage. If Schneider does not fear the idea of replacing him, Wilson has no leverage.
This brings us back to the car race. Both sides know that there is a ravine in front of them. They will face it sometime after the 2016 season. There is every reason to think Wilson can make that jump successfully and wind up with the contract he wants from someone. Fear will not influence his decision.
Landing the jump would be far harder for Schneider and the Seahawks. They would have to find a viable replacement for Wilson and keep the rest of the team talented enough to reduce pressure on the quarterback position. Most people will look at that and say they would have to be either crazy or stupid to attempt that. Schneider and Pete Carroll are neither. If they are guilty of anything, it may be overconfidence in their philosophy around how to build a roster that is never too reliant on any one player’s performance, and in their ability to find another quarterback they can win a championship with.
People have constantly questioned their approach and often called them crazy, weird, or stupid. Their repeated success in the face of those doubts has only increased their resolve. Fear will not influence their decision.
Nobody involved in this negotiation will be forced to do anything they do not want to do. Wilson can make all the money he wants. Schneider and the Seahawks can keep their cap spend exactly the way they want.
If the two sides are to find common ground it will be because they value staying together enough to sacrifice some of what they want. People expecting fear and leverage to decide the outcome, are miscalculating the men involved.