EDITOR’S NOTE: The column references several lines from the movie “Rounders,” so if you unfamiliar with it or just need a refresher, please watch the short YouTube video below.
Every time I begin to ponder New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham’s contract situation, which seems to be quite a bit lately, the first thing that inevitably comes to mind is the voice of “mad Russian” gangster Teddy KGB (John Malkovich) from the classic poker movie “Rounders.”
“Pay him. Pay that man his money,” defeated Teddy KGB said in a thick Russian accent after poker virtuoso Mike McDermott (Matt Damon) takes him for enough money in a heads-up game of Texas Hold’em to buy he and a friend out of some “trouble of the worst kind.”
Graham and the Saints are themselves currently embroiled in a high-stakes game, with each side contemplating its next move, waiting patiently for the other to lay its cards on table.
But is it really necessary the two sides continue to play and drag the game out until the bitter end on July 15, the deadline for a long-term deal? Furthermore, who really wins if one or the other takes the whole stack?
The Saints should just bite the Oreo (KGB’s poker tell - featured in the YouTube video above) and “pay that man his money.”
Graham, a virtuoso in his own right, has earned it, regardless of arbitrator Stephen Burbank’s ruling as it relates to the franchise tag.
Where Graham lined up on the field is of no consequence, only that he produced when he was on it. His position designation should be as relevant as the distance between a poker player and the dealer.
Former Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez recently penned a column for CBS Sports in which he questioned the NFL’s practice of slotting players’ salaries by position.
Major League Baseball doesn’t do it. Neither does the NBA.
So for all the cries that the NFL is home to sports’ ultimate meritocracy, this contrarian practice of slotting players’ salaries by position wholeheartedly dispels that notion. Players’ salaries should be based on their past production and future ability to produce rather than where they line up on the field.
That would better gel with the “best players play” philosophy espoused by NFL players, coaches and front offices. Under the existing CBA franchise tag structure, maybe that platitude should be amended to say, “the best players play, they just don’t get paid the best.”
Graham wasn’t exactly aces when the Saints gambled on him in the third round of the 2010 Draft. Was it a wild bet that could have cost the Benson Family the house? No. But for a player with only one year’s worth of college football under his belt, the odds weren’t in the Saints’ favor.
Graham had potential, though, in spades. But like any bet, nothing was guaranteed – well, except $665,140 of his four-year, $3,308,545 rookie contract.
Still, that’s a small price to pay for his considerable production since. With 301 receptions for 3,863 yards and 41 touchdowns in four seasons, Graham clearly outplayed his contract. Moreover, the Saints got an even better deal when his production over the past three seasons (270 receptions for 3,507 yards and 36 touchdowns) is measured against the league’s top-paid wide receivers.
No one caught more touchdowns during those three years, not even Detroit’s Calvin Johnson, the league’s highest-paid receiver. (Sure, Johnson’s 5,137 yards far exceeded Graham’s total, as it did every other NFL “pass catcher.”)
Of the NFL’s 10 highest-paid receivers, only Johnson (302 receptions) and Chicago’s Brandon Marshall (299) eclipsed Graham’s reception total over the last three years.
Consequently, Graham should be paid exactly like what he is: one of the game’s best offensive skill players at any position.
I could easily argue as a tight end Graham is required to do more than a typical receiver.
But I need not “check, check, check” any longer. Here’s what’s on the table.
With Graham, the Saints have already flopped the nuts straight. They gambled and won.
After last week’s ruling, the Saints have a better hand and probably hold all the cards. Nevertheless, what differentiates it from a typical poker hand is that the Saints are still winners — and likely for years to come — if they fold and “pay that man his money.”