The Jets’ prolonged contract dispute with a former coach has prompted people across the NFL to question how the organization conducts business.
The Daily News has learned that the team resorted to unusual tactics during a year-long disagreement with former offensive line coach/run game coordinator Rick Dennison. An arbitration hearing is expected to take place at the Commissioner’s office later this month if a settlement isn’t reached, according to sources.
The Jets attempted to re-assign Dennison to a scouting position after he was told that Adam Gase wouldn’t retain him on his staff in order to force him to quit and forfeit about $1 million, according to sources.
Moreover, Gase told people that he had discussed a possible reassignment to the scouting department with Dennison when he actually never did, sources said.
The News spoke to 11 people in and around the league, including general managers, high-level front office executives and agents, about the particulars of this standoff. The prevailing sentiment: This was uncommon behavior for an NFL team.
It’s been a forgettable 12 months for the franchise on and off the field.
The Jets missed the playoffs for a ninth consecutive season. Adam Gase, hired to jumpstart the offense, finished with the league’s worst-ranked offense. CEO Christopher Johnson fired general manager Mike Maccagnan after enlisting him to spend more than $100 million in free agency and run the draft. Two players (Kelechi Osemele and Luke Falk) filed injury grievances against the team.
Although the Jets technically followed the letter of Dennison’s contract that included a reassignment provision, teams typically don’t attempt to force a coach to quit by telling him they’ll move him to a scouting position that they don’t actually want him to take to save money.
“It’s legal, but it’s B.S.,” one general manager said. “It’s a Jets move.”
The spirit of the agreement was clear by all parties at the time. However, the Jets have leaned on strict contract language in an attempt to circumvent an understanding between team decision makers and the coach.
Why does this matter?
Coveted coaches with options will think twice about the wisdom of choosing to work for an organization engaged in a year-long battle to wiggle out of an agreement that supposedly was made in good faith with a coach.
“They owe him the money,” one league source said. “Don’t think other coaches aren’t watching stuff like this. They need to resolve it. They need to stop being the Jets.”
Ten of the 11 GMs, NFL executives and agents contacted for this story believed that the Jets employed underhanded measures to avoid paying Dennison. One source subscribed to the caveat emptor line of thinking: Buyer beware when dealing with the Jets, whose culture is shaped by too many non-football voices.
The strong sense from people across the league is that this issue should have been settled long ago. The notion that there’s been a year-long rift is ludicrous.
“I tirelessly tried every possible scenario to avoid getting to this point,” Dennison’s agent, Peter Schaffer, said in a statement to the News. “This is not something Coach Dennison relishes. We just didn’t have a choice, because the team is not living up to their word and their agreement. That’s the frustrating part to us. You really would hope that NFL teams and their leaders would hold themselves to very higher standards and always be honorable and ethical.”
So, why have the Jets been so resistant to pay Dennison after Maccagnan agreed that the only way to incentivize the coach to come to his team would be to backload money that was a de facto guarantee in the form of no-offset provisions?
NFL rules prohibited both parties to structure the four-year contract in a markedly different way. However, there was no gray area from the team or coach’s perspective at the time, according to sources. The $1 million over the final two years had no offset provisions, which is rare in assistant coaches’ contracts. By every objective measure, it was a de facto guarantee.
Four league — and Jets — sources claimed that the team is sticking to the precise language in the contract, while conveniently ignoring the spirit of the agreement.
The spirit of the agreement resonates with coaches.
Why would they want to work for a team that treats their coaching brethren in this fashion?
“It’s the weasel factor,” a league source said. “Nobody wants to work for a weasel organization.”
Roger Goodell’s modus operandi is to urge both parties to come to a reasonable settlement. He’s not keen on resolving stalemates between coaches and teams in arbitration for myriad reasons. (It also seems unlikely that the Commissioner would rule against a team given that he answers to the 32 owners).
The Jets aggressively pursued Dennison after he was fired as the Bills offensive coordinator following the 2017 season. Dennison was the top choice for newly promoted offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates, who worked with him in Denver and subscribed to the same offensive principles.
Maccagnan and Dennison’s camp agreed to a four-year deal that would offset some of Buffalo’s remaining financial obligations in 2018 and 2019.
There was no logical reason for Dennison to join the Jets, who had missed the playoffs for seven consecutive years, without a financial incentive. So, Maccagnan structured a contract that included about $1 million spread over the final two years of the deal to ensure it would be approved by the league office.
There was an understanding between both parties that Dennison would collect that money if he retired after two seasons. If he kept coaching beyond 2019, the sides would re-negotiate the final two years of the contract to reflect market value. Maccagnan, who was fired in May, could not be reached for comment.
Everything changed when Todd Bowles was fired after the 2018 season.
The Jets held on to their assistants in case the next head coach wanted to retain any of them. (Gase didn’t retain anyone on the offensive staff).
Although that’s not an unprecedented move, it put assistants in limbo when time is of the essence during the annual coaching carousel.
When Maccagnan informed Dennison that he would not be retained by Gase — who hadn’t been officially hired, but had an agreement in place — the team signed off on Dennison seeking other employment. The Jets packed up Dennison’s remaining belongings in his office and locker and prepared to ship them to his home.
When the Vikings offered Dennison a deal to become their offensive line coach, he informed the Jets, who did an about-face. The team refused to pay the roughly $1 million that both parties had previously agreed to, citing strict contract language that didn’t refer to the payout as a guarantee. Terminating Dennison’s contract would have triggered payment. However, a resignation would get the team off the hook.
The Jets did not make team president Hymie Elhai, who has taken the lead on this matter, available for comment. Gase did not respond to several attempts for comment. A Jets public relations official didn’t respond to request for comment from Gase.
Four general managers reached for this story believed that this was a highly questionable tactic by the Jets. Dennison had found other employment, but that shouldn’t have impacted the $1 million in question with the Jets.
“They’re hiding behind the contract language and screwing the guy,” a second general manager said of the Jets. “We don’t do things that way.”