Last year’s surprising decision by 49ers linebacker Chris Borland to retire after only one year (and to pay back a significant chunk of his signing bonus) sparked a new narrative for the NFL: The early retirement.
Since then, plenty of media members who would like to see football diminish or disappear along with some media member who presumably have a vested interest in its continued existence has crammed plenty of square-pegs into the round hole of “early retirement,” harping on the notion that the player chose health and safety over fame and fortune. Lost in this narrative (probably because it undermines the narrative) is the reality that, for plenty of players who are choosing to leave football before football leaves them, they’d still be playing if they were getting more money.
The latest example of this dynamic comes from Vikings tackle Phil Loadholt, who is opting for retirement over $2 million for another season in Minnesota. If he hadn’t been squeezed to drop his pay from $5.4 million, would Loadholt be walking away? My guess is that he wouldn’t be.
So, basically, Loadholt agreed to a pay cut and then decided that he wouldn’t be agreeing to a pay cut.
For other players who have opted for “early retirement,” would an enhanced financial offer have changed their minds? If someone were offering tackle Eugene Monroe $10 million per year, would he still be playing? Monroe didn’t retire until after the Ravens cut him, and then he had a chance to explore the market.
With former Jets left tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson, the answer is more clear. If the team hadn’t tried to reduce his salary for 2016, he would never have walked away.
Which brings me to the biggest name from the 2016 “early retirement” pool. Receiver Calvin Johnson. In a recent interview with ESPN, Johnson suggested that, if the Lions were contenders, he possibly would have kept playing.
He also possibly would have kept playing if the Lions weren’t intent on reducing his cap number of $24 million and his salary of $16 million, amounts that clearly overshoot what his value would have been to the team in 2016.
That’s not to say that every player who retires early definitely would choose to stay if the pot were a little sweeter. However, for many guys who opt to walk before they’re chased off, “early retirement” wouldn’t happen quite so early if more money were on the table.