Why do the Bengals want to take away our NFL?

Looking ahead to this week’s matchup against the Bengals, no on-field issue is more important than the elephant in the room: owner Mike Brown’s refusal to pay a fat man his due.

The Bengals’ first two picks were like the bad-character Bizarro mirror of the Rams’ first two picks: For our “good citizen” tackle Jason Smith, they took “overweight problem child” Andre Smith. For our “baby-kisser, looks like a player” linebacker James Laurinaitis, they took “hard-partying locker room cancer” linebacker Rey Maualuga. Now, I put all those characterizations in quotes because they aren’t worth much more than the fishwrap they’re written on. But it’s worth noting that the Bengals’ approach was to go after players that carried an aura of risk, most likely in hopes of paying them less money.

Now, as most eyes are on the Michael Crabtree stalemate, Andre Smith’s agent is crying for attention from the national media, hoping to put pressure on his player’s relatively reasonable contract demands. Brown’s reported response is to say “the ship has sailed on the NFL’s slotting system,” then offer a contract far below this year’s slot.

So what’s fair in this situation? And what is Mike Brown really up to? The answers after the break.

The catalyst in both this contract fight and in Michael Crabtree’s dispute with the 49ers is the $38 million contract that the Raiders gave 7th-overall pick Darrius Heyward-Bey. It’s been called “roof-raising” and “ridiculous,” but looking at the guaranteed dollars involved, it’s actually neither (for the slot, not for the player).

In NFL contracts, only the guaranteed money is worth looking at. The press releases for contract signings always say as a caveat “could be worth up to”, then usually tout some number that the team has no intention of paying. Of Hey-Bey’s announced $38 million, only 2/3 is hard money. Here’s the relevant slotting, in guaranteed money terms:

2007: Salary Cap – $109 mil

5th pick: Levi Brown (OT): 18.05 mil guaranteed over 5 years
6th pick: LaRon Landry (S): $17.5 mil guaranteed over 5 years
7th pick: Adrian Peterson (RB): $17 mil guaranteed over 6 years, with multiple reachable contract escalators

2008: Salary Cap – $116 mil

5th pick: Glenn Dorsey (DT): $22.5 mil guaranteed over 5 years
6th pick: Vernon Gholston (LB): $21 mil guaranteed over 5 years
7th pick: Sedrick Ellis (DT): $19.5 mil guaranteed over 5 years

2009: Salary Cap – $127 mil

5th pick: Mark Sanchez (QB): $28 mil guaranteed over five years, plus $6 mil in reachable incentives
6th pick: Andre Smith (OT): ???
7th pick: Darrius Heyward-Bey (WR): $23.5 mil guaranteed over 5 years

So you can see, in 2008 as in 2009, the 7th overall pick is getting as much or more guaranteed money than the 5th overall pick of the season before. The DHB contract is not completely slot-busting, it’s just the nature of contracts. It’s also worth noting that the NFL salary cap has increased from $109 mil in 2007 $116 mil in 2008 to $127 mil in 2009. Hey-Bey’s prorated guaranteed salary counts only 3.7% of the Raiders’ cap this year, only a slight increase from the 3.3% that last year’s 7th pick, Sedrick Ellis, counted against his team’s cap.

6th pick Vernon Gholston’s prorated guaranteed salary counted 4.5% of the cap in his signing year, which is actually very high, almost as high as Mark Sanchez’ base salary will count. So a reasonable offer for Andre Smith would hover around 4% of $127 mil, or roughly $5.1 mil per year over, let’s say, five years.

Therefore, a “reasonable offer” from the Bengals to Smith would start at roughly $25.5 mil guaranteed. As far as what kind of inflated numbers are piled on top, that’s just window dressing.

The Rams faced a similar problem in trying to negotiate with Jason Smith, as he was slotted behind the richest rookie contract ever awarded. But they did what they had to do, and got their man into camp without the word “holdout” ever smearing the tabloids. Not so the Bengals.

Smith’s agent, Alvin Keels, has orchestrated holdouts before — notably Larry Johnson’s contract renegotiation in 2007. So it’s not like he’s an angel here, but the more you read into the story, the more it appears that his contract demands are not outrageous. This is not another Michael Crabtree trying to bust the slot … this is, in fact, an owner who wants to bust the slot.

So here’s where the conspiracy theorist in me starts kicking up. Brown’s Bengals are notoriously one of the least professional organizations in sports — arguably the Raiders are worse, but they do pay their players and keep fans coming through the gates. (Arguably the Rams were worse as well, but the major organizational reform has put them back on solid footing.) Brown would like nothing more than to completely reset the rookie contract situation, since his team likely faces many more years of top-ten picks. His team isn’t going to be a contender this season, so why not take one for the ownership group, and go to the mat in this contract dispute?

But his tactics are so transparent, so callous, that it galvanizes the NFLPA against owner collusion and girds them for a major battle, which could lead to a lockout in 2011, and a lot of sad, empty Sundays. (You can’t really say the same of the Michael Crabtree negotiations, but the Yorks wouldn’t be out of character by following Brown’s suit.)

Both Mike Florio and former Bengals’ beat writer Mark Curnette have reported that the current capless season and voiding of the collective bargaining agreement is the handiwork of Brown and Bills owner Ralph Wilson (who wants his team playing half its games in Canada to punish his own fans). So this is not baseless speculation. (source: As I Please)

So ask yourself: why does Mike Brown hate you? Why does he want you to be out raking leaves, fixing your roof, going to (ugh) church and spending quality time with your family on Sundays, when you could be engaged in your weekly bacchanal of NFL football? What is wrong with this man?

Andre Smith doesn’t hate you. He’s just a fat lazy squab who wants to get paid millions and millions of dollars, then pantomime an injury as quickly as possible so he can sit on the couch like the rest of us and watch football. Yes, it’s atrocious, but it’s a part of the game we love, and it’s necessary to look the other way for the greater good.

For the love of all things holy, Bengals, put aside your squabbles and get this deal done. Don’t take away our football.