NFL holdouts a rite of summer for many teams

Steven Jackson has been text messaging his coach, hoping to keep up on developments in the training camp of the St. Louis Rams as he waits for a team that says it will not renegotiate his contract even while he holds out to do just that.

Unfortunately for Jackson, he's not employed by the Chicago Bears, who are so desperate for skilled talent that they quickly ended Devin Hester's holdout by convincing him to come to camp, giving him a reported $15 million in guaranteed bonuses to run back kicks and catch a pass or two.

The Rams aren't that desperate, though they're not likely to go far without their star running back, who has three straight 1,000-yard rushing seasons. They're more than happy to negotiate from a position of strength, which means no negotiations until Jackson reports to training camp.

The Rams can do that because, even as far as players have come in sharing the billions made each year in the NFL, the rules are structured so teams still almost always hold the upper hand when it comes to money. And there's nothing more dispensable in sports than professional football players, who play under contracts that are not fully guaranteed while always keeping a wary eye on the guy who might be groomed to replace them.

That's not to say players can't make a very nice living in the NFL; a lot of them do. The league has made multimillionaires out of many, and no one will be holding benefits for the likes of Tom Brady, Peyton Manning or Terrell Owens in their old age.

But for now, the only way to really cash in under the convoluted rules between the league and the player's association is to either get a big bonus as a first-round draft pick or to be lucky enough to still be healthy and productive at the end of the typical long-term first deal. Then a player can use that leverage for guaranteed bonus money.

Jackson may eventually get that deal, if only because he's far more important to the Rams as an every down running back than Hester is to the Bears as a kick returner and occasional receiver. Jackson missed four games last season with injuries, but still ran the ball 237 times and gained 1,002 yards.

He did it while locked into a contract that seems almost laughable now, four years after he signed it. While fellow back Adrian Peterson got $17 million guaranteed last year from the Minnesota Vikings in a $40.5 million deal as a top draft pick, Jackson will make a total of $7 million over the five years of his contract.

So he's holding out, trying to get some of those guaranteed millions before either injury or the pounding he takes running the football cuts his career short. It's hard to blame him for wanting to get it while he can, because he has already surpassed the average career span of an NFL running back.

Jackson is hardly alone in feeling unappreciated and underpaid as NFL camps stretch into their first week.

The news in Green Bay has been all about Brett Favre, but running back Ryan Grant has a beef with Packers management, too. Grant, an exclusive rights free agent who rushed for 201 yards in the Packers' divisional playoff victory over Seattle, skipped the team's first practice over an offer of a six-year deal with $1.75 million guaranteed that his agent called "insulting."

And in New York, Plaxico Burress reported despite his contract issues. Burress caught the winning touchdown in the Super Bowl, but is unhappy that the $3.25 million he is scheduled to be paid this year is less than half what the top receivers in the league are making.

Burress didn't have to look far for incentive to come to camp. His former teammate, Michael Strahan, didn't accomplish much in his 36-day holdout last year other than to rack up a half million dollars in fines from the team before finally reporting to fulfill his $4 million contract.

Unhappy football players, of course, are a rite of summer. Go to any training camp in the NFL and you'll find half the players who actually have contracts griping about what they're playing for.

It's hard to feel much sympathy for any of them because, for the most part, they are being paid a lot more money than the average Joe makes to play a game they played for free most of their lives. Hester probably didn't make too many fans in the blue collar suburbs of Chicago when he said he couldn't go out and play this year for the mere $445,000 his contract called for.

But in a league where careers are short and teams are flush with cash, there are players who have something to gripe about.


Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlbergap.org.

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