The NFL has changed, dramatically, when it comes to players wanting out of a given city and getting their wish. Although Steelers coach Mike Tomlin likes to say he wants volunteers not hostages, the truth is that, over the years, plenty of teams have taken the position that players who are under contract but who aren’t happy with their current situation must deal with it.
But that’s changing. Last months, a pair of franchise quarterbacks, Russell Wilson and Deshaun Watson, finagled new franchises for which to play. Receiver Davante Adams wanted to leave the Packers for the Raiders. He got his wish. Receiver Tyreek Hill wanted to leave the Chiefs for the Dolphins. He also got his wish. Two years ago, receiver Stefon Diggs wanted out of Minnesota; it happened very quickly. In 2018, edge rusher Khalil Mack arguably started the current trend by taking a hard-line position with the Raiders, refusing to budge, and getting what he wanted.
It definitely wasn’t that way a generation ago. In 2004, receiver Terrell Owens had a phenomenal first season in Philadelphia. He capped the year by playing in the Super Bowl on a broken leg that had not fully healed. In 2005, he wanted to adjust his contract. The Eagles refused, taking a very basic, straightforward approach. You signed a contract, live with it.
Owens decided not to live with it. He agitated for a trade or a release. He did so through a flurry of shirtless driveway sit-ups, front-lawn “next question” press conferences, locker-room squabbles, and eventually a four-game unpaid suspension followed by an invitation to take the rest of the year off, with pay. (The 2006 labor deal would end the ability of teams to suspend players with pay.)
Think of how differently the Owens situation would have played out if he had the ability to communicate directly, immediately, and repeatedly with fans and media via platforms like Twitter or Instagram. Think of how quickly the Eagles may have decided it just wasn’t worth the headache to fight with him in such a public setting.
Those realties become very relevant to Deebo Samuel‘s current situation in San Francisco. With other players wanting out and getting out, Samuel may expect the same treatment. What will the 49ers do? We still don’t know.
Here’s the bottom line. It’s a lot harder to draw a line in the sand now than it was in 2005. As each additional player beats a path out of his current city, the trail becomes a little more clear for the next one who wants to do the same.