The problem with the Hail Mary pass is that it's a low-percentage play. Born of desperation, it's something NFL teams try only when they have no other choice. It's breathtaking to watch and thrilling to attempt, but they do it with the full knowledge that it has little chance to succeed.
When Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam decided in March to throw a Hail Mary with his checkbook, however, he had a pretty good chance of connecting. That's because Haslam's heave was a five-year, $230 million contract offer to quarterback Deshaun Watson that was -- unlike nearly every other NFL contract -- fully guaranteed.
"I wish they hadn't guaranteed the whole contract," Baltimore Ravens team owner Steve Bisciotti said a few weeks later at the annual NFL spring meetings. "I don't know that [Watson] should've been the first guy to get a fully guaranteed contract. To me, that's something that is groundbreaking, and it'll make negotiations harder with others."
There are many reasons Bisciotti would think Watson shouldn't be the one to have broken this ground. Watson hasn't accomplished what superstar quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes have at the NFL level. He also didn't play last year, when he demanded a trade from Houston and sat out rather than play for the Texans again. And there are all of the legitimate questions that come with the 22 civil lawsuits still pending against him from women alleging sexual misconduct, for which he could still face league discipline in the form of a suspension.
Bisciotti is wrong about Watson being the first, though. When quarterback Kirk Cousins reached free agency following the 2017 season, he signed with the Minnesota Vikings for three years and a fully guaranteed $84 million. Cousins wasn't the best quarterback in the league, but there were market factors that led to his ability to do what others had not. A starting quarterback reaching free agency in his prime is a rare thing. At the time, the Cousins deal was hailed as a historic signing, and many wondered if others would follow. They did not.
In the four years between Cousins' deal and Watson's new extension, Rodgers, Brady and Mahomes were among the quarterbacks who negotiated new contracts or contract extensions that came with eye-popping numbers, and none was fully guaranteed.
Fast-forward to March 2022, when the Browns worked out a trade with the Texans to acquire Watson and convinced Watson (who had a no-trade clause) to approve the deal by fully guaranteeing all five years. They did this after he had informed the Browns and Panthers that they were out of the running for his services and turned his attention to the Saints and the Falcons as potential trade destinations. Haslam didn't want to take "no" for an answer, so he made an offer he knew most (if not all) of his fellow owners wouldn't be willing to make.
NFL executives were stunned by the fully guaranteed structure of the contract and what it could mean when their own superstars come up for extensions. How likely is it that the next set of extension-eligible quarterbacks -- including Lamar Jackson, Russell Wilson and Joe Burrow -- move the market toward a world in which NFL players get guaranteed contracts just like their baseball and basketball counterparts? What's stopping that from happening, and how likely are things to change anytime soon?