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Wednesday, November 16, 2011
How not to get paid in the NFL

By Jemele Hill
ESPN.com

Before totally condemning Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson for his recent unprofessional behavior, let's examine how professionalism is rewarded in the NFL.

DeSean Jackson
Despite this fine catch two weekends ago, it hasn't been a stellar contract year for DeSean Jackson.

Matt Forte is unquestionably the Chicago Bears' best offensive weapon. (Sorry, Devin Hester.) Forte leads the Bears in rushing and receiving. He's in the final year of his rookie contract, which will pay him $600,000 this season.

By NFL standards, getting that much production from Forte at that price is like going to the grocery store and discovering that a porterhouse steak has been priced the same as chicken wings by mistake.

Forte has voiced his displeasure about his contract situation, but, to his credit, he hasn't become a distraction. He didn't hold out of training camp, and his fine season to date has propelled Chicago to four straight wins. The Bears are in prime position for a wild-card playoff berth and have played well enough to be considered a credible roadblock to the Packers' advance to their second straight Super Bowl. Fans in Chicago have applauded Forte for his professionalism.

But has his attitude impressed Bears management enough to offer him the new contract he apparently was promised when he reported? One that reflects that he's one of the most versatile backs in the league?

Of course not.

Matt Forte
Will the Bears reward Matt Forte for his professionalism? The signs aren't good, especially if they aren't rewarding him for his outstanding performances.

As much as I understand why the Eagles told Jackson to stay home for Sunday's game against the Cardinals after he skipped a special-teams meeting on Saturday -- Jackson claimed he overslept -- the unfortunate reality in the NFL is that being "professional" doesn't always get you paid.

In fact, a lot of times, doing the opposite works better.

It's important to keep in mind that in the NFL, there is no easy way to demand more money once you've outperformed your contract. Forte earns a gold star for doing all the right things, but it's unlikely that will get him a contract similar to the one the Tennessee Titans gave running back Chris Johnson, who signed a four-year, $53 million extension (including $30 million in guaranteed money) to end his training camp holdout in early September.

The Bears apparently will do what, from the franchise's perspective, is technically smart. They'll designate Forte as a franchise player for the 2012 season and pass on giving him a long-term deal.

It saves them from committing big dollars to a position that, fair or not, is considered to be one of the easiest to fill. And since the average career of a running back lasts roughly three years, it's easy to see why teams might want to be financially conservative with any running back unless he's a dynamic talent like Adrian Peterson, who the Vikings signed to a seven-year, $100 million contract at the start of the season.

That's not a knock on Forte. It's just the business.

While there is no excuse for how Jackson behaved -- most of us with reasonably sharp minds have concluded that Jackson's rebellious act was the tipping point rather than an isolated incident -- he might have been better served if he'd continued the 11-day holdout he staged during training camp.

Chris Johnson
Chris Johnson got the money he wants by holding out. But the Titans aren't getting the production they want for giving it to him.

I'm among those who believe that holding out of training camp until 10 days before the season opener has had a lingering negative effect on Johnson, who has rushed for a disappointing 496 yards and two touchdowns through nine games.

But Johnson's tactics made sense. Look at what's happened to Peyton Hillis, who, like Forte, will make $600,000 this season and is in the final year of his rookie deal. Hillis has engaged in some immature sulking that seemingly will cost him a future in Cleveland, and raises questions about a future anywhere else, too. Why would another team invest any significant money in him after he sat out a game with strep throat on his agent's advice? Hillis denies his absence from the Oct. 2 game against the Dolphins was related to his contract issues with the Browns, but you wonder if he'd have played had there been some extra zeroes in his salary.

There is no question that Jackson's numbers this season haven't been as impactful as either he or Philadelphia had hoped: two touchdowns, 503 receiving yards. And since the underachieving Eagles are 3-6 and tied with the lowly Washington Redskins for last place in the NFC East , now isn't the time for Jackson to throw a tantrum over the fact that Jon Dorenbos, the team's long-snapper, earns a bigger base salary than he does.

But in the NFL, sometimes you're damned if you do and even more damned if you don't.

Jemele Hill can be reached at jemeleespn@gmail.com.

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