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30 Million Reasons To Beware Of Contract Years

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Matt Schaub is tended to by the medical staff after suffering an injury to his right ankle against the Rams. Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images.
Matt Schaub is tended to by the medical staff after suffering an injury to his right ankle against the Rams. Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images.

Is there anything more unpredictable than a professional athlete in a contract year?

That's a rhetorical question to those of you screaming 'Earthquakes!'

In all seriousness though, the hypothesis proves true more often than not: If a player is in a contract year, then said player will thrive to earn the big money deal.

That's all well and good for the front office that has just witnessed a breakout season from their new superstar. After all, what's more important than an outstanding individual performance resulting in a successful season for the franchise? Moreover, there is only going to be progression, hence there is no trepidation when the multi-year, multi-million dollar contract is offered. That's more or less the thought process at the time of granting the player with a new contract.

And needless to say, it is signed on the dotted line in record time. Both sides are happy, and it's going to be a beautiful marriage. Right?

Not so fast.

Fast forward 12 months, and we have seen time and again that the same athlete is struggling mightily and management is regretting their decision, while mortified of the next three to five years of regression from who they thought was their superstar.

Of course, players feel pressure to achieve when they’ve gotten so much money. Even though they live in a rarefied world, they have to know this is an insane sum of money. It’s impossible to live up to, barring humongous success. And money is linked to production. If someone calls and says, ‘I’m going to triple your salary,’ they expect you to improve. This is a business. They paid him the money to get a result and he knows that.

The majority of the time, however, the athlete doesn't have the same motivation preparing for a season in which guaranteed money is attached as he did heading into a contract year. Did somebody say Albert Haynesworth? The former defensive stalworth received a $100 million contract from the Washington Redskins after a 2008 campaign, totaling 51 tackles and  8.5 sacks while anchoring the Tennessee Titans’ defense in a contract year. What the Redskins overlooked was the fact that Haynesworth accumulated ONE sack his previous five seasons.

Not to pick on Haynesworth, though. He is undoubtedly one of a hundred examples. Matt Cassell received a six-year, $62.7 million contract from the Kansas City Chiefs that included $28 million in guaranteed money and $40.5 million in total compensation in the first three seasons. That came on the heels of leading the Patriots to an 11-win season. He is now riding the bench in Minnesota.

In 2009, the Panthers gave Jake Delhomme a five-year contract extension that would see him gain $42.5 million. He was released the following year.

Javon Walker signed a six-year, $55 million deal with the Oakland Raiders. The wide receiver gave the organization 15 receptions, 196 receiving yards and one touchdown in two seasons.

The contract year theory. Almost as scientific as the Theory of General Relativity.

The most recent casualty might be the Houston Texans, who gave their all-pro quarterback Matt Schaub $30 million in guaranteed money this past offseason. Schaub earned that money with his performance over the past few years, no question about it. In a league where it's 'What have you done for me lately,' though, the past month has been rough, as the Texans have been searching for the Matt Schaub they invested in.

As Schaub was working hard to return from a leg injury to play in this Sunday's game, some of the Houston faithful were crossing their fingers that T.J. Yates or Case Keenum would take  the ball against the undefeated Kansas City Chiefs. Well, fans got their wish and will usher in the Case Keenum era.

Schaub learned first-hand that NFL fans will turn on a player, no matter how instrumental he was in past success. Perhaps the $30 million guaranteed doesn't have anything to do with throwing a pick-six in four consecutive games, or throwing just two touchdown passes in that span, but make no mistake that fans are going to use it against him.

The Texans can escape Schaub's contract after this season, making the former pro-bowl quarterback a free agent.

While it’s debatable whether Keenum or Yates would be as good as Schaub, either guy would be a better choice on a dollar-for-dollar basis.  They each will make less than 10 percent next year of Schaub’s scheduled pay in 2014.

One of them could be in line for a raise, as soon as next season. Uh-oh.