The two questions I get asked more often about my time in the NFL are “who is the toughest player you played against?” and “what is the biggest difference between college and NFL?” The first is easy: Julius Peppers. The second has multiple answers.
The easy answer is the speed of the game and the quality of opponents. In the Pac-12 conference (Pac-10 when I was there), I only played against one or two professional defensive ends, and in the NFL, you clearly play more than two all season. The hard answer, and one that’s not discussed often, is that the NFL is big business.
This concept is hard to understand at first for 22-year-olds who just left college, where everything is provided for them and football still feels like a kids’ game.
Our agents, business advisors, and friends within the locker room try to explain the business we are entering, but until you have your first “oh shit, this is a business” moment, you have idea. All of us remember that moment in the NFL, but most of the time, it doesn’t play itself out in the media.
The New York Jets’ stud safety Jamal Adams had his at the trade deadline. There were rumors that Adams was on the trading block and several teams had interest. A few days before the deadline, Adams told the team he wanted to remain a Jet, and then general manager fielded calls about Adams near the deadline. This infuriated Adams, who took to social media to voice his displeasure with the front office:
At the end of the week last week, I sat down with the GM and Coach Gase and told them I want to be here in New York. I was told yesterday by my agent that the GM then went behind my back and shopped me around to teams, even after I asked him to keep me here! Crazy business.— Jamal Adams (@TheAdamsEra) October 29, 2019
Adams continued to air his issues with the Jets in interviews the following day.
Jamal Adams had his first NFL business moment in public. Luckily, my own came in private.
My first true “the NFL is a business” moment came at the end of my fourth season. I had started the last three games of my second season in 2009 and then played every snap in 2010. I played well and was looking forward to the following season, the last one before I was a free agent. The Panthers’ roster was set for the future besides one safety position and myself. I was hoping to make it out of camp as the starter and get paid. That was the goal.
The Panthers had a coaching change in 2011, plus there was the league’s spring lockout, so I entered camp without having much of a relationship with the new coaching staff. They penciled me into the starting right guard position, and I proceeded to play terribly with an unrealized injury for the first two weeks of camp. I was demoted to a backup and then eventually my hip gave out at our Fan Fest. That was the end of my season. I had my first hip surgery in September and my other hip was fixed in December.
Through it all, I was rehabbing hard and was looking forward to returning strong in 2012. I was naïve.
The NFL Combine is the unofficial start of contract negotiations. It’s the first time team personnel and agents are together in the same place, and naturally there’s some talk about players up for deal. I knew my agents had a casual meeting with the Panthers’ front office. I knew my long-term deal options were off the table, but I was still a restricted free agent and they owned my rights.
There are many options when you’re a restricted free agent. A team can place a first-round tender on you, which means if another team wants to claim you, it must give up a first-round pick. A second-round tender or an original-round tender are also on the table. Or, the team can choose to do nothing, and you become an unrestricted free agent.
Considering my position, I assumed I’d get an original-round tender or maybe a second-round tender. I convinced myself that I was still part of the long-term plans for the Panthers, even though I missed the season.
The day before the staff was heading from Charlotte to Indianapolis for the combine, I was getting treatment in the training room. I was lying on my back, with my leg up getting some ice. Our general manager, Marty Hurney, was making the rounds, just seeing how everyone was doing. He came over to me and said something to the effect of “We are meeting with your agents soon and we got you.” Then Hurney winked at me and walked away.
I could have surely misinterpreted that encounter, but I was certain that meant they wanted to keep me. I was pumped because I wanted to stay in Charlotte. I had a house, fiancée, and my future was there.
Later that week, my agent, Deryk, called and wanted to discuss his interaction with the Carolina brass. This was the phone call I had been looking forward to for a while now. Deryk didn’t waste any time. He said the Panthers had decided to not offer me anything, and I’d be an unrestricted free agent.
I was totally stunned, disappointed, and angry. I thought about my short conversation with the general manager (for the record, I have no issue with Marty and we are friendly) just a few days beforehand and explained to Deryk what we said. I don’t recall what he said next, but I knew that I was done in Carolina.
Now I had to run out the clock in the facility until free agency started. Most players in my situation would just pack their stuff up and never come back, but I had to continue my rehab until free agency opened and I was no longer on the roster. It made the next few weeks super awkward, as they were doing my rehab knowing it wasn’t for my time on the Panthers anymore.
From that phone call until the end of my career, roughly five more years, I knew this game was a business and your feelings need to be left at the door when you enter the facility. Teams will make decisions best they see fit and don’t quite care about their players’ feelings. I’m not sure they should either, but it’s always nice when you believe someone cares about you.
In the end, this is a lesson that every NFLer learns, some sooner than later.