Curtis Martin changed two franchises
Hall of Famer did what great players are supposed to -- make everyone better
The phone call that changed two franchises occurred on Friday the 13th -- Feb. 13, 1998, the first day of the NFL free-agency period.
Agent Eugene Parker contacted the New York Jets to see whether they'd be interested in signing his newest client, Curtis Martin, a restricted free agent. Mike Tannenbaum, who managed the salary cap, told Parker he'd check with his boss, Bill Parcells. In his gut, Tannenbaum didn't think the idea had a chance.
"On paper," he thought to himself, "it makes no sense to make this move."
Tannenbaum referred to his notes from the end-of-season personnel meeting, noticing that running back was No. 8 on the list of team needs. He walked into Parcells' office, mentioned the call from Parker and expected to move on to another item.
"I'll tell him, 'Thanks, but no thanks,'" the young executive told Parcells.
The old coach raised his hand, halting the conversation right there.
"No," he said. "This is Curtis Martin. We have to talk about this one."
That's how it started.
After clandestine negotiations, the Jets staged one of the biggest coups in league history, signing Martin to a clever and complex offer sheet that, to this day, still chafes the New England Patriots. The price was steep, and Parcells was widely criticized. What team gives a $36 million contract and surrenders first- and third-round picks for a running back?
The ultimate validation comes Saturday in Canton, Ohio, where Parcells, Tannenbaum and Parker will be seated in the audience at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, watching with pride as Martin is enshrined -- 14 years after they all joined hands and took a crazy leap.
The Jets and Patriots have been feuding for years, fighting over everything from coaches to players to Spygate. The animosity runs deep, but they can agree on one thing and perhaps one thing only.
An affinity for Martin.
He transcends the vitriol of the rivalry, which is remarkable when you consider the stunning and controversial manner in which he jumped teams. Basically, he picked up and left in the middle of the night, crossing the Jets-Patriots border, but he emerged unscathed -- the Teflon running back.
Not even the Patriots, who lost a prized possession to their biggest rival, have anything bad to say about him. Didn't then, don't now. That, perhaps more than the impressive numbers on his football résumé, is Martin's greatest legacy. He's beloved by everyone, including the enemy.
"The key to life is having quality people with you, and Curtis is right at the top of the heap as a quality individual, both the way he conducts himself personally and the way he played," Patriots owner Robert Kraft told ESPNNewYork.com. "I will forever have a warm spot in my heart for him. The Jets made a very wise decision by getting him. I just wish he were entering the Hall of Fame as 100 percent Patriot."
Kraft was immediately taken by Martin, whose quiet, unassuming demeanor was different than what he had seen in the Patriots' other running backs. They drafted him in 1995, when Parcells was the coach, and he became an instant star.
Martin and Kraft developed a close relationship. One time, Martin asked Kraft for a tour of the paper mill he owned in Connecticut. They made the 90-minute drive and spent another 90 minutes in the plant, the millionaire owner explaining to the 22-year-old survivor of Pittsburgh's meanest streets how they used recycled water from a sewage-treatment plant.
"We talked about life, family and business. Just a classy guy," said Kraft, recalling the drive from Foxborough, Mass. "His personality, he just sort of has a sunshine air about him."
Kraft invited Martin to his home for a Passover seder -- Martin still raves about Myra Kraft's chicken soup -- and he was deeply touched when Martin showed up in July 2011 for Myra's funeral. He never wanted to lose Martin.
All these years later, you can still hear the hurt in Kraft's voice.
"Probably my one regret is he got away from us," he said.
Martin would have been content to spend the rest of his career with the Patriots, but his contract expired after the 1997 season and he rejected their six-year, $21 million offer. Even so, they never thought he'd leave. They had the right to match any offer, and besides, who'd be crazy enough to surrender two premium picks?
"They didn't care at the time," Parker said of the Patriots. "My guess is they assumed he wasn't going anywhere. I don't think they were overly concerned."
Down in New York, Parcells, one year removed from his bitter divorce with the Patriots, had no intention of pursuing a running back. He was happy with Adrian Murrell. His No. 1 objective was to find a quarterback to replace Neil O'Donnell. He figured he'd be facing Martin for many years on opposite sides in the AFC East.
Then came the cold call from Parker, and everything changed.
Martin never wanted to play for the Jets. To him, they were a joke.
"In my mind, they were the worst team ever," he said. "I looked at the Jets as the bottom of the barrel."
He also was cognizant of the Jets-Patriots rivalry, and the last thing he wanted to do was pull a Benedict Arnold. But the Jets had something the Patriots didn't -- Parcells, with whom he had formed an instant bond.
From day one in Martin's rookie year, Parcells called him "Boy Wonder." At first, he was mocking Martin, but the sarcasm turned to affection and the nickname stuck.
When Martin gave Parcells his '99 team MVP trophy as a show of gratitude, he signed the accompanying note, "Love, Boy Wonder." To this day, when they talk on the phone, Parcells calls him by the nickname.
So in February 1998, when Martin hit free agency, Parker's first call was to the Jets.
Parcells was all ears. He was trying to change the culture in the locker room, and he felt a player with Martin's intangibles would accomplish that. Initially, Tannenbaum, the numbers guy, didn't see the value. From an economic standpoint, it didn't add up.
"I thought it was dead in the water," he said.
But you can't put a price on heart and determination and leadership. That lesson still resonates with Tannenbaum.
"One of the things I've learned about building a team, it's an art, not a science," the Jets' current GM said. "What Bill said was, 'Our best player will be our best worker, and he's going to make everyone on the team better because they're going to see the ultimate professional.'
"It was like, wow, I never heard Bill talk about a player in such a special way. He had been around Phil Simms, Lawrence Taylor, Chris Slade, Willie McGinest, and he's talking about this guy in such rare air. I was like, 'Wow, this guy must really have special attributes.'"
Parcells left it up to Tannenbaum and Parker to devise the offer sheet, but he demanded two things: secrecy and exclusivity.
Ever the control freak, Parcells didn't want the Patriots to get wind of the negotiations, so he told Parker to keep them in the dark. He also didn't want the potential deal leaked to the media. Tannenbaum took the edict so seriously that he didn't even tell his parents, who live in the Boston area.
The deal took weeks to construct. Tannenbaum estimated he and Parker negotiated for 60 hours, including a trip to the agent's office in Fort Wayne, Ind. Together, they cooked up an offer sheet that rocked the NFL.
It was a five-year, $28 million contract with a club option for a sixth year that would bring the total to $36 million, but what made it unusual was Martin's ability to void the deal after one year. It also included a clause that prohibited the team from using the franchise tag, meaning he could be unrestricted after one year.
It was too risky for the Patriots to match because they faced the prospect of losing him after a year (perhaps to the Jets) and receiving nothing -- no draft picks. The Jets leveraged that insecurity. It was a classic poison pill.
The Patriots complained to the NFL management council, insisting the offer sheet violated the collective bargaining agreement. Eventually, the league sided with the Jets.
To this day, Kraft believes it was an underhanded move.
"That was what I call borderline attorney ... you know, ambulance-chaser, attorney kind of stuff," he said. "It was something where they took advantage. ... It was not the intent of the deal. It was clever lawyer stuff. It's not in the spirit of what the whole agreement was, and that loophole was plugged."
The following year, the league banned the poison pill. Too late for the Patriots.
"That's now how we do business," Kraft said. "It was unfortunate. We probably should've found a way to get him signed before that. We didn't. It's one of our many mistakes."
By rule, the Patriots had one week to make a decision. They contacted Martin to feel him out, telling him they'd probably decline to match unless he promised to stay long term. His response: No promises, do what you have to do, according to Parker.
They had to let him go.
It was a genius move by the Jets -- or diabolical, depending on your vantage point.
"Diabolical would mean something was wrong, but it was 100 percent according to the rules," Parker said. "I don't know if I'd call it genius, either, but we didn't circumvent any rules."
Fourteen years later, Tannenbaum was reluctant to discuss it. It's still a sensitive issue, and the last thing he wanted to do was antagonize the team the Jets are chasing in the AFC East.
Parcells didn't want to be quoted -- he preferred to save all Martin-related comments for the Hall of Fame weekend -- but he shared his opinion in his book "The Final Season," released in 2000.
"They think I pulled a fast one on them. ... I don't think I pulled anything," Parcells wrote. "When we got [Martin] as a free agent, we did it by working out a contract we didn't think the Patriots would match. By the rules, they had the chance to match and keep him. But the league didn't like it. They hadn't seen a contract like it before. But they had to approve it because it was all done within the rules of the CBA."
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Martin was in Hawaii when he heard about the Jets deal. He landed in the airport and turned on his phone, and it rang almost immediately. It was Parker, who asked him to take the next flight to New York. He did, grabbing his luggage and proceeding directly to the departure gate.
"When he called and told me it was the Jets, totally, it blew my mind," Martin said, insisting he had no idea they were interested.
The next day, a jet-lagged Martin walked into Parcells' office.
"I always told you I'd take care of you if I got the opportunity," the coach said.
Parcells told him he'd be the highest-paid running back in the league.
"Is that OK with you?"
"Sounds good, Coach."
Martin signed the offer sheet. The four of them -- Martin, Parcells, Tannenbaum and Parker -- headed to a steak house near the Jets' facility in Hempstead, Long Island. It was the Parcells and Martin show, the coach and his Boy Wonder telling stories and reminiscing, hoping they'd be reunited.
Five days later, the Patriots announced their decision not to match.
Martin will go down as one of the most celebrated free-agent signings in history. Consider the impact of his team switch:
Martin helped elevate the Jets, adding consistency and professionalism to a franchise that had been known for upheaval. In Martin's seven full seasons, the Jets suffered only one losing year. Said Tannenbaum: "He gave us legitimacy and a foundation."
Martin changed the rivalry, tilting it toward the Jets from 1998 to 2000. It stayed that way "until the Patriots got the Jets' guys, [Bill] Belichick and [Scott] Pioli," said Parker, referring to the coach and personnel guru. And a quarterback named Tom Brady might have had something to do with it as well.
Martin caused the Patriots to play running back roulette. In the 14 years since Martin's departure, they've had eight leading rushers and only three individual 1,000-yard seasons.
Martin prompted the league to change its free-agent rules, eliminating poison pills.
Martin provided a lesson for Kraft, who cleaned house two years later. "I look at situations like that as very painful but something that helps you in the future. You try to learn from that and you try to minimize it. Except for the death of my wife, everything else is a learning experience," Kraft said.
Martin launched the career of Tannenbaum, who, despite his initial skepticism, crafted a landmark contract. "There was some personal gratification, but it was more like, wow, we got better as an organization. We got a special, special guy that came through our door," Tannenbaum said.
Martin did what great players are supposed to do -- he made everybody around him better, from the field to the front office.