Despite a roster rich in talent, the Detroit Lions will miss the playoffs for the thirteenth time in the past fourteen years. Head Coach Jim Schwartz will likely be fired any day; GM Martin Mayhew is expected to be retained for at least another year.
Since Mayhew took over for Matt Millen in the 2009 offseason, the Lions haven’t had much success. Detroit’s rare 2011 playoff appearance aside (they lost in the Wild Card round in 2011), the Lions went 4-12 last year and currently sit at 7-8—eliminated from playoff contention ahead of today’s meaningless game at Minnesota. If the Lions miss the playoffs again next season, Mayhew will very likely be fired. And he undoubtedly knows this.
Similar to a player being in a “contract year”, Mayhew is entering his own a make or break 2014. And this reality will certainly affect the way he does business this offseason—a crucial offseason for Detroit.
Ndamukong Suh’s Pro Bowl selection triggered a $1 million escalator in his contract, setting his 2014 cap figure at a whopping $22.4 million. The reason for this is that Suh has restructured his contract each of the past two years. This past year he accepted a league minimum base salary, while pushing money owed forward into a signing bonus prorated over the remainder of his deal (not an uncommon league practice).
Mayhew also used this restructure method with Calvin Johnson during the past offseason. When Johnson agreed to take a league minimum base salary for 2013 on the 8-year/$150 million contract he signed in March of 2012, it meant his $8.7 million cap hit for this season would increase to over $13 million next season, $20.5 million in 2015 and over $24 million in 2016.
The present situation in Pittsburgh perfectly exemplifies how making short-sighted decisions, such as constantly restructuring the deals of your highest paid players, can eventually come back to bite you. The short-term relief these decisions provide is often not worth the risk when looking at the franchises best long-term interests. While Suh and Johnson’s 2013 restructures allowed Mayhew the flexibility to lock Matthew Stafford into a long-term extension as well as sign free agent Reggie Bush, they came with a future cost.
When assessing the pros and cons of all personnel decisions, it is supposed to be the job of a GM to look at both the short-term and the long-term. Yet often times, in such a cutthroat industry, the person making these personnel decisions isn’t thinking about the franchises long-term interests. With the NFLs “win or you’re gone” mentality, front office men know that if they fail in the short-term, they won’t be around to bear the consequences of their poor decisions.
The fact of the matter is there are very few coaches or GMs in the NFL who are blessed with job security. Kevin Colbert, the man behind the current salary cap mess in Pittsburgh, is not on the hot seat just yet; that’s what two Super Bowl’s and eight playoff appearances in a 13-year tenure will do for you. The job of Giants GM Jerry Reese, who’s won two Super Bowl’s in just seven years on the job, is ostensibly safe for now as well, even though the Giants have missed the playoffs for the fourth time in five years. But even in the cases of these two men—whose multiple championships symbolize as much success as anyone in today’s NFL—they surely will begin to feel pressure sooner rather than later.
When Jets GM Mike Tannenbaum was fired last offseason, he left the Jets cap situation in disarray. One notable move that Tannenbaum made in the year prior to his discharge was extending Mark Sanchez in March 2012 (note: this was after the Jets failed in their attempts to get Peyton Manning). Did Tannenbaum truly think Sanchez—a guy who had just suffered through three up and down years as a pro—was the future of the Jets franchise? Or did he fear the clock on his term might have been running out?
As the guaranteed portion of Sanchez’s rookie contract was already up after the 2012 season, Sanchez’s contract stipulated an $11.5 million cap hit in 2012 and a $7.5 million cap hit in 2013—a team-friendly deal for a starting caliber quarterback in the NFL. By extending Sanchez, Tannenbaum freed up almost $4 million in cap space for the 2012 offseason. But at the same time, he guaranteed both the 2012 and 2013 salaries (worth over $20 million) of Sanchez.
The move was worth it for Tannenbaum; the freed up cap space was extra spending money that he got to use during the 2012 offseason. As for the “risk” that Sanchez (a guy that he drafted) would turn out to be a starting caliber quarterback—well that’s no longer Tannebaum’s problem. New Jets GM John Idzik is the one cleaning up the Sanchez mess now. Had Tannenbaum decided not to extend Sanchez, he almost surely still would have been fired after Sanchez and the Jets’ disastrous 2012 season. The only difference is he would have had $4 million less to spend on 2012 roster talent.
As it stands currently, the combined 2014 cap hits for Suh, Calvin Johnson and Matthew Stafford is over $51 million. That will undoubtedly change; $51 million is approximately 40% of the projected $126 million 2014 salary cap—far too much for just three players to consume.
With Stafford, Johnson, Suh, Nick Fairley, Reggie Bush and Ziggy Ansah, the Lions have a very talented nucleus of players. However, they do have holes—chiefly in their secondary—and Mayhew will have to get creative in order to fill these holes.
Expect the contract’s of some key Lions to be extended and/or restructured again this offseason. And if things don’t work out for the Lions in 2014, expect there to be a new GM in Detroit after this season.
The new GMs main order of business? It may just be to clean up the mess that Mayhew left behind.
Andrew Cohen @ajcohen03 firstname.lastname@example.org