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Wooing NFL players can be more than a zero-sum proposition

In-demand free agents are getting extra millions in their contracts these days, but elaborate recruiting pitches can help seal the deal too.

March 08, 2009|SAM FARMER

Have you followed these NFL free agents?

What a bunch of zeros!

That's six zeros for Chris Canty, who signed a $42,000,000 deal with the New York Giants. Six more for Bart Scott, who inked a $48,000,000 deal with the New York Jets. And a whopping eight for Albert Haynesworth, whose Washington Redskins contract could be worth as much as $100,000,000 (although, without guaranteed contracts, players seldom realize full value of those staggering numbers). Nevertheless, forget Wheaties. With all these zeros, these guys should be hawking Cheerios.

But sometimes a free agent is looking at more than the bottom line. Sometimes he wants to be wooed.

Consider the case of T.J. Houshmandzadeh, the free-agent receiver from Cincinnati who never felt fully appreciated with the Bengals, even though he's the only NFL player with at least 90 catches each of the last three seasons.

Houshmandzadeh signed with Seattle last week, picking the Seahawks over the Minnesota Vikings. And check out the lengths the Seahawks went -- above and beyond a five-year, $40-million contract -- to convince him he was their guy.

First, they dispatched one of the jets belonging to Seahawks owner Paul Allen, the Microsoft mega-billionaire, to pick up Houshmandzadeh and his wife and kids in Los Angeles and fly them to Seattle. Then, once the family arrived, they hopped on Allen's seaplane for a tour of the city, including a pass over Qwest Field, where the scoreboard was lighted with a shot of the receiver and his career stats.

Also onboard the seaplane were Seahawks Coach Jim Mora, offensive coordinator Greg Knapp and a couple of Seattle defensive backs, who, Mora joked, "didn't want to have to cover T.J. if he went to the Vikings."

After the hourlong tour, the plane swooped down and landed on Lake Washington, directly in front of the Seahawks' massive new training facility, where Houshmandzadeh got a full-court-press sales pitch about how he would be featured in next season's offense.

This type of free-agent visit -- far more elaborate than one for a typical player -- is choreographed to the last detail. For instance, one of the Seahawks' equipment men used to work in Cincinnati, and knew the kind of shoes and gloves that Houshmandzadeh prefers. And there they were, the same brand of shoes and gloves, complete with the lime-green Seahawks detail, positioned just so on a table where Houshmandzadeh couldn't help but notice them.

"It was perfect," Mora said. "T.J. walked right past that table and was like, `Hey! These are the kind I wear!' "

Mora is quick to point out that the Seahawks are a fit for Houshmandzadeh for more meaningful reasons. ("We're a quality, committed organization that's willing to go to any lengths, within reason, to win," he said.) But he also knows that when it comes to recruiting a so-called A-plus free agent, the details matter.

Although not speaking specifically about the Seahawks, longtime NFL agent Jerome Stanley said many teams subscribe to the theory that money spent in recruiting can save them money when it comes to contract offers.

"The goal is to save every dime in the contract," Stanley said. "If they can get you emotionally invested, they think that can give them an advantage in the negotiation of a deal.

"No matter how much they want you, they're not going to give you a checkbook and say, 'Here, fill a number in.' "

Sometimes it feels like it. Consider the case of quarterback Warren Moon, who was essentially a free agent even before the NFL had free agency. He began his pro career with six phenomenally successful seasons in the Canadian Football League, so there was a bidding war when he came to the NFL in 1984.

According to agent Leigh Steinberg, a dozen teams were interested in signing Moon, and -- in those days of no salary cap -- some outlandishly enticing offers were made, including an oil well from one owner, and several floors of a downtown skyscraper from another. Moon wound up signing a record-setting deal with the Houston Oilers that averaged $1.1 million per year.

Fast-forward 25 years, and those leisurely multi-city tours are as outdated as those contract numbers. These days most free-agent deals are methodical, no-frills affairs conducted over the phone and fax lines. Quick visit. Medical tests galore. Sign on the dotted line.

Every so often, however, there's a Houshmandzadeh -- a player a team wants so badly it will jump (and fly) through all sorts of hoops to land him. As NFL coaches and executives know, when one of those players walks into your headquarters, you do everything possible to ensure he doesn't leave until he's signed.

And that was the goal in Seattle, although it wasn't accomplished. Houshmandzadeh had promised to visit the Vikings; he wanted to hear what they were offering. The Seahawks had to let him go.

Mora felt very good about the visit, though, and he trusted that Houshmandzadeh did too. So, when they sat down for the last time, the coach pointed to the player's wristwatch -- a diamond-encrusted Breitling worth more than most cars. Mora asked to take custody of it, just more incentive for Houshmandzadeh to come back.

"I was half-joking," Mora said. "But he slipped it right off and handed it to me. . . . The first thing I did when he came back is I gave it right back to him."

Along with six zeros. And that's not nothing.


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