- Dan Graziano, ESPN Staff Writer
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Dallas Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said Wednesday the team isn't going to trade disgruntled cornerback Mike Jenkins. We didn't post on it here because we already knew this. Everybody already knew it. Even Jenkins, though he's let it be known he's unhappy with his contract and his new role as the team's No. 3 cornerback and would like to be traded, probably knew it too. He'd have to be blind not to.
Jenkins isn't making so much money that the Cowboys would want to dump him like the Eagles did with Asante Samuel. He's too good for them to trade for a late-round draft pick and not quite good enough to convince a team to offer an early-round pick. The result is that the team, as it tends to in NFL contract situations, holds all of the cards and is required to make no move at all in response to Jenkins' decision to skip offseason workouts. If he wants to stay home, he stays home. If he wants to skip mandatory workouts next month or part of training camp, they can fine him. If he wanted to sit out a whole season, they'd just run Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne and Orlando Scandrick out there and take their chances. They're better with Jenkins in that mix and would like to have him, but they're not desperate enough to even consider granting him his wish.
Jenkins finds himself in NFL contract limbo, and if he's looking for a sympathetic shoulder on which to cry he doesn't even have to look outside his own division. The New York Giants' Osi Umenyiora is basically in the same situation -- he's unhappy with his contract, he isn't thrilled to be the No. 3 defensive end on his team, and he would rather play elsewhere. But he isn't getting traded either, because (stop me if this sounds familiar) he's affordable, he's too good to trade for peanuts, and he isn't going to bring back a first-round or second-round pick in a deal. The Giants are better off keeping an unhappy Umenyiora around than trading him for pennies on the dollar. It's the decision they made when he raised the same fuss a year ago, and they got 12.5 sacks out of him in 13 games (counting postseason) for their patience.
If either Jenkins or Umenyiora really wanted to push this, there are two somewhat extreme ways they could go. The first is that they could sit out the meaningful stuff, like training camp and regular-season games. If they prove that they're willing to do that, then circumstances could, theoretically, improve their leverage. Say Jenkins is sitting at home in late August and Claiborne gets hurt, or Umenyiora is sitting at home Week 2 and Justin Tuck gets hurt. In cases like those, the need for the player may become great enough to warrant a new deal. But that's a big risk to take because injuries are unpredictable, and in the meantime the player has allowed the team the chance to get used to life without him.
The second option in this case is to make a nuisance of yourself -- to show up, but put your contract situation into the spotlight in an annoying and disruptive way. The all-time visual symbol of this may well be Terrell Owens doing pushups in his driveway. Jenkins or Umenyiora could choose to simply continue being a pain, in the hope that the annoyance might prod the team into trading him for less than they think he's worth. But this carries risk, as well -- the basic one being the risk of giving the outside world (and potential future employers) reason to believe you're a jerk.
The Giants don't fear this from Umenyiora, because they trust their coaching staff and their veteran locker room to effectively ignore potential disruptions. And the Cowboys know Jenkins, and I think they're betting on the idea that he's not the pushups-in-the-driveway sort.
What these guys are doing now -- skipping voluntary workouts and letting it be known through third-party sources that they're upset -- is the simplest way to make their particular point. It costs them nothing right now to stand up for themselves, and they should.
If you're unhappy at work and you feel your bosses aren't treating you fairly, it's important to find a proper and effective way to let them know. That goes for you, me, NFL players and everyone else. But in the end, in the cases of Jenkins and Umenyiora, there's not going to be anything either one can do.
This is the nature of their profession, and the working conditions under which NFL players operate. It's not fair, because teams can end contracts on a whim and the risk of injury is incredibly high, but a history of players crossing picket lines and caving in on labor negotiations has constructed a system in which the teams hold all the cards and the player rarely finds himself in the position of strength. Unfortunately for NFL players, this isn't Major League Baseball.
Jenkins and Umenyiora are both eligible to be free agents next year, and I don't think either has to fear the franchise-player designation. The franchise numbers for cornerbacks and defensive ends are over $10 million, and it's unlikely that either the Cowboys or Giants would want to commit so much to their No. 3 player at those positions.
It's too far into the future to predict for certain, but the odds are they won't be in limbo again this time next year. Right now, all these guys can do is decide how much fine money (if any) they're willing to spend to make their point, and once they reach that number, show up, practice, hope they don't get hurt and play well enough to convince some other team to give them big contracts in 2013.
It may not be great. May not be fair. But for Jenkins, Umenyiora and so many others like them in the NFL, they unfortunately don't have much choice.