The town of Metarie, Louisiana has seen its fair share of trials, hearings, and odd-ball characters over the years.
In 1911, the family of future-crime boss Carlos Marcello settled into a decaying plantation house in Metarie. There the young Capo-to-be cut his teeth on petty theft before moving on to much larger, and more horrible things like armed robbery and large-scale illegal narcotics dealing. In 2006, it also became the site of a shocking murder, where one of the most well-liked and respected sports TV and radio personalities in the state’s history was convicted of murdering his wife. One of the things that sent the reportedly-likeable sportscaster over the edge was his rage at how his wife hadn’t noticed a new shirt that he had purchased.
Metarie sees more theater of the bizarre than any normal suburban southern town expects. But this week, the town of Metarie was home to a far less-serious, yet also very odd and unprecedented type of proceeding: Jimmy Graham of the New Orleans Saints had his case heard, as he essentially sued the NFL to be considered as a wide receiver. Why would someone sue to be considered as a wide receiver? You might as well ask a Cajun restaurant chef in the Quarter why he puts hot sauce and Andouille sausage in his Jumbalaya? The answer: because it gets him paid. If Jimmy Graham wins his grievance against the league, and the arbitrator agrees that he is in fact a wide receiver, Graham will receive the maximum franchise tag for wide receivers set at $12 million dollars for one season, unless he works out a longer contract extension with the Saints. If he loses his case, and the arbitrator says he’s a tight end, then Graham gets only $7 million under the franchise tag.
Graham’s makes a good argument for why he should be considered a wide receiver. He lined-up as a functional wide receiver on 67% of the plays he participated in last year, whether he stood in the slot, or split wide. It has been my experience, that if you spend 67% of your time doing anything in life, that is your primary occupation and you should get paid as that. If you worked for a law firm and spent 67% of your time litigating in the court room, and 33% of your time in accounting, does that make you an accountant?
The NFL’s argument is less convincing. According to NFL.com’s Ian Rapoport, the NFL “will attest that the Saints playmaker meets in the tight-end room, regularly lines up on the field where tight ends line up and even lists himself as a tight end on Twitter.” This is specious, since a look at his performance last year shows that Graham lined-up where wide receivers line-up on Sundays far more than he did where tight ends line-up. Graham probably does meet in the “tight end room,” but I imagine he would, considering that’s where the team tells him to go. His team is a party to this case. But, if Graham had his preference based on where he actually plays on Sundays, he’d be in with the wide receivers. As far as how Graham describes himself on Twitter? Come on.
At the end of the day, the NFL has only itself to blame for a player grievance like this one from Jimmy Graham. For years, the watchword in the league has been to be “multiple”–to show different looks and have players line-up in different positions to confuse, concern, and confound. The versatility, the thinking goes, generally destroys the sleep patterns of opposing coaches and coordinators who would then have to burn the midnight oil trying to anticipate whatever diabolical Xs & Os wizardry you had devised.
The players that the NFL sought to execute their brilliantly-hatched schemes were guys like Jimmy Graham, an athletic superfreak with the body type to be a small forward in the NBA, in addition to being a tight end, or, more importantly, the wide receiver that he is. Hybrids like Jimmy Graham, Antonio Gates, and, yes, Aaron Hernandez, allowed coaches to execute a much more diverse gameplan. It didn’t exactly require the foresight of a Nostradamus to see that it was only a matter of time before these athletic marvels would become self-aware, and want to reap part of the rewards bestowed on the football masterminds who had taken advantage of their specialized skills.
Who cares what meeting room Jimmy Graham goes to for a 2 o’clock film session on a Wednesday afternoon? When it comes to getting paid in the NFL, it’s what you do, and, in this case, where you line-up on Sunday, that determines how many zeroes appear on your paycheck. And when it comes to Jimmy Graham, he’s an All-Pro player used as a receiver far, far more often than as a tight end. Maybe this will result in the NFL referring to their pass catchers simply as receivers, as opposed to wide receivers and tight ends, similar to the way the NBA refers to “guards” and “forwards” without over-scrutinizing the difference between 1 guards and 2 guards, and small forwards and power forwards.
However, the NFL is likely to be substantively changed regardless of what the arbitrator decides. Even if he rules against Graham, that ruling is not likely to dissuade other hybrid players from giving it a try. Why not? There’s no penalty for challenging these decisions, and the hearings happen during the offseason when the player isn’t doing much anyway. The potential reward from having an arbitrator rule in a player’s favor is huge, and if more of these grievances come forward, an arbitrator may eventually cave. The risk vs. reward analysis tilts heavily towards the player.
The arbitrator in Graham’s case will have to wait 5-7 days before releasing his decision. He’s entitled to that period of time to mull this thing over. But as bizarre and unique as this case is, and though the arbitrator’s decision is likely to have huge ramifications for the NFL, it won’t be the strangest thing to ever come out of Metarie. Not by a long shot.