Atogwe's odyssey has happy ending, back where he started

During a time of relatively unprecedented uncertainty regarding the future of the collective bargaining agreement, and in a year unlike any other in the free-agency era, few players have experienced these unique circumstances like O.J. Atogwe.

A year ago, the Rams safety was a franchise player. Then, as a result of the quirks in the system this year, he found himself a restricted free agent, placed with a low tender initially in March. The Rams opted not to raise that tender, retained his rights through the spring, and then, unable to reach a long-term settlement, Atogwe became an unrestricted free agent on June 1. While many of his peers have lamented their plight, refusing to attend workouts and minicamps and sounding off on management, Atogwe ended up signing a five-year extension back with St. Louis.

How about that? A bona fide, feel-good, happy-ending NFL contract story? In this, the summer of our labor discontent? I love it.

Atogwe's situation was the first of its kind in league history, and had numerous twists and turns, what with the various tender deadlines and the delayed unrestricted free agency, but the sides emerged, smiling, with a five-year, $32 million extension. Amid all the bombast, it's great to know deals can still get done and fair-mindedness is still rewarded.

"It speaks to the kind of person O.J. is," said Kevin Demoff, the Rams executive vice president of football operations and a primary negotiator for the club, "and the importance he placed on being one of the key veteran leaders in helping the Rams change direction. It also speaks to the partnership between O.J. and (general manager) Billy (Devaney) and (coach) Steve (Spagnuolo), through all of this uncertainty to be able to keep a strong relationship and keep an open dialogue, and we never got to the point where either side was frustrated or displeased publicly, and I'm impressed with the way all of those people handled it, which allowed ultimately the right deal to come together.

"The spirit of cooperation between Steve and Billy and O.J. is really what drove this deal. And I hope people realize how unique of a person O.J. is to handle the off-the-field contract issues so well over the past two years. And we appreciate his vision for moving this club forward and being a key part of that."

Atogwe is a thoughtful player, mature beyond his 29 years, who valued staying with the only franchise he's ever played for. Despite the lean years -- and it's been very lean in St. Louis -- he followed his instincts, and his heart.

"This is where I'm supposed to be," Atogwe said during a conference call Wednesday. "This is where my work is still to be done. St. Louis has been my home these last five years and my time here was not finished. My purpose of being in St. Louis was not completed, and coming back and being with my teammates meant a lot to me. I've got a lot of good friends on this team and our work together wasn't done, so I'm excited to come back and rejoin them and all the work they've done this offseason to continue to turn this around and head in the right direction to a Super Bowl."

Believe it or not, the negotiation process in this case actually strengthened an already healthy relationship between player and team. Mutual admiration grew. No feelings were bruised despite the various contract tenders.

"There were obviously some unique challenges given where we're at in an uncapped year," Demoff said, "and where he was coming from a year ago as a franchise player. But I don't think there were ever challenges we didn't think we could overcome, and we were honest as an organization and (agent) Ken (Landphere) and O.J. were as well. And we never let the outside viewpoint of what any of this meant dictate the deal. This was always between the Rams and O.J., and finding the proper partnership regardless of the collective bargaining agreement, and we kind of put blinders on to the outside world and figured out how we can make this come together to where both sides are excited."

Atogwe said: "I believe we had a very cordial and respectful negotiation process. One thing that I'll definitely commend the Rams on is that they were very professional. At no time were they disrespectful or condescending or any bad blood in any way. They conducted themselves in a very professional manner, and as did we. I think that's what made coming back to the Rams, knowing that these are the types of individuals who lead in the organization made it all the better. Knowing that these are classy guys running the organization, that meant a lot to me in the entire process and it really spoke volumes of where they're headed. That spoke to me."

Even in this, a most amicable negotiation, however, the overall tenor and culture of labor negotiations was not lost on Atogwe. He could view his situation through a larger prism, and was struck by the disconnects rippling between so many players and teams right now.

Atogwe was asked what was the biggest eye-opener from going through this process, and he responded: "To me it was really the state of the league as I viewed it and viewed it from the perspective of how some of my peers were also being treated or what they were experiencing. Just the state of the league and the impending lockout that's pretty much upon us come 2011, because I believe that shaped a lot of negotiations, a lot of interest in this 2010 free agency period. It's real, and I believe a lot of players now who are looking to get extensions, looking to do long-term deals, are actually feeling the brunt, feeling the impact of that coming. To me, if anything, that was the most eye-opening information that I received."

The Rams should be commended for navigating their way through this. They had a firm grasp on the market, and they were shrewd in not locking into another one-year, $7 million deal, essentially renting a player while they try to rebuild. By keeping Atogwe off the market until June, they greatly limited the market for him. Outside interest was lukewarm, as many teams had already spent the bulk of their budgets, and several teams drafted safeties high in April, taking them out of the market. The Rams also made their interest in retaining Atogwe well known, even after he hit the open market, so other clubs figured St. Louis would match most reasonable offers.

So full credit to Demoff and Devaney. Atogwe is fulfilled -- he got to test the market and doesn't have to wonder about what could have been out there for him -- and a team in need of a talent influx was able to keep one of its few true playmakers. The Rams feel very good about their entire draft class, the addition of veterans like Fred Robbins, the trade for Bobby Carpenter, and now locking up Atogwe.

"Everything is toward building a team that is talented and filled with character," Demoff said. "That is obviously every team's goal, but as we try to move this team forward every decision is made trying to blend youthful, talented players with talented veterans who can show you how to win in the NFL. That's Steve and Billy's vision, and I think we're on the right track.

"It's been unique offseason, having the first-overall pick, having a franchise player like O.J. caught up in some CBA complexities, but at the end of day it's hard to look at the franchise where we sit now and not feel good about the long-term future of the Rams."

The Rams ownership remains in question -- I fully expect Stan Kroenke to be voted in as the next owner at league meetings in August -- there are long-term issues about their stadium situation, and they have won just six games over the last three seasons. If anything can help foster hope, however, it's the arrival of a franchise quarterback.

That's exactly what the Rams expect first overall pick Sam Bradford to be. Getting him signed will be high on Demoff's to-do list before training camp opens, and he's confident that will be the case. There is an ongoing dialogue, but as is normally the case, the thrust of negotiations will take place in July, in the weeks before camp. The Rams are plenty comfortable with that, and that they can complete that deal in the same manner that defined the Atogwe saga.

"Our attention has been there (on Bradford) for a long time, but all deals have their own natural course that they take," Demoff said. "And I believe everybody is excited to get to camp on time, and as long as he's there for the first team practice it's not really a concern to me whether he signs tomorrow or the morning of that practice. It's not when you start talking, it's when you finish."

Extra points

» Spoke to Chad Speck, the agent for free agent defensive lineman Leonard Little, and he believes his client is going to return to the NFL. Little, who had been mulling retirement, is working out very hard and gave Speck the impression he wants to play another season. New Orleans had scheduled a free-agent visit with Little early in free agency, and while the Saints have since signed other linemen, I would not be surprised if someone signs Little before camp begins. ...

» Still nothing cooking at all with free agent linebacker Adalius Thomas. No visits and nothing imminent at this point. Teams I've talked to did not like his film with the Pats the past few years, and then you factor in his clashes with Bill Belichick -- and Belichick's strong ties to other 3-4 teams like Kansas City and Denver -- and it doesn't look good. Despite all of this, I have to think someone signs Thomas before camp, but his chances of making real money are not good right now. ...

» Rave reviews for receiver Josh Morgan out of San Francisco. He's had a great offseason and is clicking well with Alex Smith. Have a good feeling about the 49ers this season. ...

» Despite their signing of Marc Bulger to be Joe Flacco's backup, I'm hearing the Ravens are in no rush to cut either of their young quarterbacks (Troy Smith and John Beck). They don't planning on releasing either right now, and will likely let them battle for that No. 3 spot on the roster. Certainly, they're not going to carry four quarterbacks, but they also have no intentions of handing someone else a developmental quarterback ahead of training camp. ...

» Hope you guys are having a great summer. I'm on vacation the next two weeks and then will be back blogging, chatting and writing this column next month when I get back. Can't wait for training camps to open up. Bring it on.

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