It has been nine years since Sean Gilbert last played in the NFL, and 15 since his epic standoff with the league, the Washington Redskins and the franchise tag.
Gilbert is still the last player to have sat out an entire season in protest of being slapped with the franchise tag. The former defensive lineman is also, perhaps, the only person who can understand the issues swimming around in the head of New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who has expressed serious discontent with his own franchise tag.
As soon as the topic came up in a 30-minute phone conversation with NFL.com, Gilbert became excited. His emotions regarding Brees' situation -- for any player held hostage by his own greatness -- were evident.
"It's very unfortunate, at this point and time in the game, that a situation like Drew Brees' would even be a topic," said Gilbert, who played for the St. Louis Rams, Redskins, Carolina Panthers and Oakland Raiders during an 11-year career. "He's well overdue, as far as being compensated for what he brings to the table. ... You just have to scratch your head."
Brees, who was hit with a one-year exclusive franchise tag worth $16.371 million in March, hasn't shown up for organized team activities. He might not show up for mandatory minicamp without a deal. The deadline for him and the Saints to hammer out a long-term contract is July 16.
Could Brees sit out the 2012 season? Could he be the first player since Gilbert to take the strongest stance possible? If anyone is a candidate to do so, the union hard-liner is. Gilbert offered advice.
"You have to take a stand for what's right for you and what's right for your future," Gilbert said. "You know your worth, then why aren't you getting your worth? There should be some common ground between him and the management. This is not rocket science. We're not in the basement splitting atoms. We're not trying to figure out how to live on Mars. You're dealing with a guy who's been highly, highly productive. He has turned the franchise completely around. The epitome of the franchise player, he is that."
In a recent interview with WWL-AM radio in New Orleans, Brees discussed the possibility of missing training camp. He called negotiations "extremely frustrating for me." Unlike other players under contract, Brees could actually show up on Friday of Week 1 and not lose a dime. That only increases his leverage.
In the same interview, Brees stated the obvious: He has played the entirety of his six-year Saints contract without complaint, despite lacking long-term security. He wants to be rewarded. Perhaps he would have given New Orleans a discount had the team renegotiated a year or two earlier, but the Saints made him play it out instead.
The Saints, it appears, want it noted that they signed Brees when he was coming off shoulder surgery, when no one else wanted him (even if he signed what was essentially a one-year, $10 million contract with a five-year option).
General manager Mickey Loomis and owner Tom Benson have publicly maintained confidence that a deal will get done. At an event commemorating Benson's induction into the SaintsHall of Fame, the owner said, "I assure you that Drew Brees will be playing here." Loomis was more measured, though, almost calculated.
"We're not done yet," Loomis told reporters. "That's how I would characterize it. Negotiations are hard sometimes. ... It's a common part of our business."
Gilbert certainly knows this. He said Brees should weigh his options, even if one of those is to spend the next year on his couch. In the end, only Brees can decide how much he is willing to give up.
"The decision I made, I was comfortable with it because I didn't do anything wrong," Gilbert said. "I worked my butt off for the opportunity. It's not a negative thing for a man to stand up for what's right and not let an organization tell him that he's worth less than he actually is. There are a lot of players who say, 'This is all I can get.' (Brees') situation is not like that. He's an elite player who has played at a high level, made tickets worth buying.
"My suggestion is, you say, 'If I'm not worth it, then count your sales from the time I got here and how much money you've generated.' It's about 80-something percent of us as players being broke when we're done, and him trying to secure a future for his family. And nobody should tell him that he's made enough money," Gilbert said.
For those who need it, here is a quick history lesson on Gilbert:
After the third overall pick in the 1992 NFL Draft was traded from the St. Louis Rams to the Redskins, Gilbert thrived, and was hit with a franchise tag worth $2.8 million. Gilbert sat out rather than play under the tag, a move that made him a pariah in Washington and led to an all-day court battle. Eventually, the Pro Bowl lineman was traded to the Carolina Panthers for two first-round picks, and wound up signing a seven-year, $46.5 million contract. Gilbert's play ultimately worked out, even though his public image took a serious hit.
"I didn't ask to be the highest paid, but I wasn't going to be the lowest paid," Gilbert said. "Not doing the work of two and a half men. I said, 'I'm a man, and the decision I'm making, I can live with.' And I took the chance to never play again. I was ostracized from that point. But guess what? I was still running down running backs, making plays."
Gilbert has kept a perfunctory interest in Brees' saga, but he was intricately involved in a contract dispute between the New York Jets and his nephew, cornerback Darrelle Revis, two years ago. After a 35-day holdout, Revis, the linchpin of Rex Ryan's defense, negotiated a deal that has paid him $32.5 million over the last two years.
Gilbert sees similarities between the Brees' and Revis' situations.
"I can take Drew Brees out and put Darrelle in and the whole conversation would be the same," Gilbert said. "It would be different if you have a guy who was a problem. But when you get good players ... My goodness! What is the problem? What's wrong today that that's not good? Having a good player is not good? Having a guy that's worth his weight in gold is not good for your business?"
Left almost unsaid is what needs not be said: How essential Brees was for the rebirth of the city of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. How he became a symbol of a broken city embarking on the rewarding journey to right itself. How he crystalized all of that with his performance in Super Bowl XLIV, allowing Saints fans to finally put away the paper bags they had long worn over their heads in shame.
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How does one measure the worth of that?
Gilbert understands the nuances of Brees' situation, and how it will all play out. A person who has never been afraid to speak his mind, Gilbert isn't afraid to call out a few key figures who make it hard on players to earn what they're worth.
With regard to his own situation, Gilbert called out agents who want to maintain favorable relationships with teams rather than serve their clients. He called out beat reporters who disseminate information on behalf of teams. He called out GMs who "sell the hope of winning, which basically sells tickets." And he called out fans who raise questions based on what a player makes, but use their own lives as a barometer.
Gilbert wonders why more of Brees' teammates aren't using the media megaphone to call for a fair deal for their quarterback (though Lance Moore did lend strong support recently). Gilbert said it's "unfortunate" that the union Brees so proudly represented during the lockout in 2011 is simply "sitting back, watching a situation like this unfold." And, of course, he calls out the franchise, saying that making Brees beg doesn't make sense if the Saints are trying to win.
Former players have been more outspoken.
"Half the wins there, they owe to No. 9," said former Saints fullback Heath Evans, now an NFL Network analyst. "Just look at what the guy did. He deserves everything he gets. (Tom) Brady got paid. Peyton (Manning) got paid twice. (Michael) Vick got paid two times. I love Mickey, but they have some extreme circumstances there -- they have to get this done."
Both sides have said that is their goal. The stakes could not be higher for Brees and for the Saints. And, of course, the clock is ticking.
"I'll tell you one thing," Gilbert said. "You take Drew Brees out of the equation, and you're going to a complete rebuilding phase."
NFL Network's Albert Breer contributed to this report.