Chris Jones is not the villain: A philosophical deep dive

Like everybody and their mother, I’m sick of talking about this Chris Jones holdout. Yet at the same time, feel the strong urge to write something that reframes a situation that desperately needs reframing.
Las Vegas Raiders v Kansas City Chiefs
Las Vegas Raiders v Kansas City Chiefs / David Eulitt/GettyImages

Chris Jones is not the bad guy here. Repeating that for the people in the back. Chris Jones is NOT the bad guy here. 

I want to preface everything I’m about to write by saying there really isn’t a bad guy in this scenario, and I really don’t want to be nominated as the president of the Clark Hunt Hater Club. It’s a messy business situation where different entities must agree on a huge sum of money, not to mention the neverending legal fine print. I do have opinions on what’s going on, though, as well as how things could go even better in the future with some tweaks. 

Sometimes fans tend to think that since Chiefs players make millions playing a kid’s game, they should just shut up and take what the team wants to give them. Never mind that NFL owners—many of whom became owners through nepotism and no innovative act of their own (Clark Hunt)—make considerably more money off that kid’s game.

These NFL owners don’t strap on a helmet and risk their long-term health. Players literally jeopardize their brains every time they step on a field. Look at what Tua Tagovailoa went through. Look at what’s become of Antonio Brown, the poster boy for CTE. Remember Tamba Hali publicly stating that “every night he’s in excruciating pain.”

I get the part where many fans are working-class folks who don’t have much tolerance for the grievances of millionaires. However, when you really sit down and mull this over, siding with the billionaire side of a labor dispute makes even less sense. Chris Jones is an employee who blew the expectations of his contract to smithereens. Without him, the Chiefs wouldn’t have beaten the Bengals and made Super Bowl 57. They don’t even get there. You’d want better pay and financial security if you came through for your employer like this, too. I'm never going to begrudge someone who excels at their workplace for advocating for themselves.

It's Normal for NFL Stars to Seek Extensions

The current collective bargaining agreement allows players to negotiate an extension before the last year of their current contract. It isn’t rare. It isn’t a player deciding not to abide by their contract. This is what the owners and players union agreed to. Trust me, the players union had to fight for every tiny detail. They typically get crushed in these talks by the owners, who are pretty rigid when it comes to sharing wealth and power. Chris Jones is within his right here. Last year, he was the highest-performing person in the world in his particular area of expertise. 

I suppose it just never made sense to me why fans see owners as the team and key players in contract disputes as a threat. Owners don’t convert critical third downs or sack All-Pro QBs. I understand that they are more permanent fixtures, but honestly, their primary focus on profit is a bigger obstacle than a player wanting their full worth could ever be. Maybe a more healthy way is to take neither side and say you support the city, fan base and uniform in these situations. Easy in theory, difficult in practice.

If this was you, and it was agreed upon that you could renegotiate at this juncture, would you walk away because taking less might be slightly better for your employer? Jones doesn’t even want to be the highest-paid defensive tackle. He’s reportedly fine with being second out of respect to Aaron Donald, and seemingly out of an understanding that Donald’s contract was a weird lifetime-achievement mega-deal to stave off retirement. 

Chris Jones Still in His Prime & Worth Every Cent

That said, Jones wants to be paid more than Jeffery Simmons and Quinnen Williams-level defensive tackles. That’s justified. He’s considerably better than those players and has been for a while. When you look at pressures, he’s more Micah Parsons and Nick Bosa than those guys—especially during crunch time. Nobody in the NFL had more fourth-quarter and overtime sacks and pressures than Jones. NOBODY. He was the top defensive closer in football. For a Super Bowl team. Mariano Rivera stuff. He was also double-teamed twice as much as Bosa and Parsons. 

Jones has a legitimate argument that he should be considered as a superstar pass-rusher, not as a traditional defensive tackle. We shouldn’t downgrade him because his pressure comes inside instead of outside—although he also can apply pressure outside! Inside pressure bothered Peyton Manning and Tom Brady more than outside heat. Quarterbacks like Jalen Hurts and Josh Allen, and of course our own No. 15, are often able to negate outside pressure by scrambling and extending plays.

Before we dig in any further, I also want to point out that one thing you hear from salary cap experts and football business insiders all the time is some version of this: NFL owners/front offices are notorious for kicking things off with borderline insulting lowball offers and alienating players. It’s a business. The stakes are so high everyone eventually moves on. But if players are frustrated, there is almost always a reason.

The "But He's Hurting the Team" Fallacy

Let’s talk about ulterior motives. Some fans seem to think a star player seeking what they are worth is intentionally hurting the team, that the onus is solely on players to make sacrifices. Part of that is due to a fundamental misunderstanding of the salary cap. Some believe it is an inflexible annual line that cannot be crossed, a situation that cannot be manipulated. The owners have done a phenomenal job of PR wizardry here to make it seem they all spend every cent they possibly can. In reality, owner budgets are a bigger constraint than the salary cap. We’ll get to that here in a bit because it’s important. It’s also super-duper complicated, so the misunderstandings make sense.

Yes, Chris Jones is currently looking out for himself. You could also argue that he’s looking out for the rest of the locker room. If this brain trust won’t even take care of an irreplaceable superstar like Jones at the peak of his powers (last year, he played the most snaps and had his highest Wins Above Replacement), everyone sans maybe Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelce must be feeling expendable. There is an optics side to this dispute. 

Once Jones gets extended (more like if at this point), there’s no doubt that his primary mission in life will be the on-field success of the Chiefs franchise. He’ll be a heat-seeking human missile targeted at the likes of Joe Burrow and Josh Allen. Can we say the same about Clark Hunt?

The Clark Hunt Side of the Equation

For NFL owners, even ones who do care about football like Hunt, this will always be a for-profit business, first and foremost. Before you ask star players to take a pay cut, ask yourself if the owner would be willing to put himself in a significantly worse financial situation to win more games. The answer is almost always no. So it’s utter madness that we expect players—who can’t do this for decades and don’t get tax breaks and financial support from the local government—to take hits the owners wouldn’t dare take.

In Hunt’s case, the answer is definitely no. The Chiefs are 22nd in cash spending on average over the past five years—the entirety of the Mahomes era. They are currently 24th among NFL franchises. The team had a bottom-five performance in the NFLPA survey that rated how much teams invest in training, recovery, amenities, etc. Some of that stuff definitely translates to on-field success. Recently we’ve seen some of the NFL’s most successful franchises splurge on analytics departments and recovery science in particular. There are advantages to be had and lost there. The cap doesn’t exist for staffing, facilities or coaches. 

Back to cash spending and the cap. Think of the salary cap as a fluid five-year situation. In this half-decade period, unused cap can be rolled over and spent later. Teams can also use tricks like prorating bonuses and void years (among many, many others) to spread cap hits from player contracts into the future where the cap “ceiling” will be much larger—especially in an era when a salary cap boom is projected due to a massive influx of tech money (Amazon and Google). If done well, this can become a significant advantage in a game of inches. 

Many fans tend to think the only paths are to be frugal or to be a bit reckless like the Saints allegedly are, with no gray area in between. Personally, I don’t think the Saints are that reckless. The Bensons are quality owners who have won a Super Bowl, would have appeared in another if not for the worst call in playoff history, and have consistently competed. Most franchises cannot say that they’ve remained competitive over a 15-year span. They also did everything they possibly could in terms of spending and salary cap magic to maximize their window with Drew Brees and Sean Payton.

Personally, I believe the Saints have arguably maximized their winning chances more than any team in the league. They’ve consistently drafted well, including one epic all-time heater. They’ve mostly made quality decisions. They shouldn’t be some cautionary tale. Only one team out of 32 can win a Super Bowl. It’s become even harder than the odds you’d expect when the league has been dominated by either Tom Brady or Patrick Mahomes during the past two decades, not to mention their Mount Rushmore-level coaches. Basically, about three-fourths of the league would love to have the success the Saints have enjoyed.

A More Aggressive Cap Strategy Could Pay Off

Back to my original point. The Chiefs are 22nd in cash spending over the past five years. That number has not gone up recently to account for Mahomes’ contract extension. So the aggressiveness has actually gone down. I don’t want Kansas City to be first in cash spending or even eighth. Just somewhere in the 12th to 15th range would be nice. There’s not much peril in that range if we’re being transparent. 

A little more aggression and we don’t have to let CB Charvarius Ward walk. Ward was a top-ten corner last year for the 49ers on a fairly team-friendly deal. Did Jaylen Watson and Joshua Williams mostly work out so far? Definitely. They held up last year, especially Watson. But cornerback is the most volatile position in football. Now, L’Jarius Sneed seems to suddenly have my forty-something knees. What happens if last year’s rookie corners have a fairly common sophomore slump or Sneed misses significant action? I have confidence in Trent McDuffie, but even he looked a little rough against the Saints. Rookie Nic Jones just got hurt as well. We’d have zero worries about this group holding up if we had Ward right now.

Another thought is we could do a bit more in free agency. Perhaps not have to moneyball the wide receiver position to such an extent and depend on Mahomes' ability to walk on water to elevate the unit. DeAndre Hopkins wasn’t for me because he probably doesn’t have enough in the tank to be a wise two-year investment. The WR age cliff is more real than many other positions, even for stars. The same could be said on Odell’s one-year price tag. Not worth it. That doesn’t mean they were the only options. 

Jakobi Meyers would’ve been solid as hell. Who knows who’s out there on the trade market? It’s not my job to know that, to be honest. It’s Brett Veach’s and he only can go as far as his boss allows. I like that they keep replenishing wide receivers with early draft picks which drive costs down there so the Chiefs can spend elsewhere, I simply think they take it a bit too far. We want our league-best offense to be a prime Golden State Warriors Death Star, not simply good enough for Mahomes to go “over my dead body” and barely drag the Chiefs across the finish line if luck goes their way.

Sometimes luck does go your way, and Jimmy G misses a long bomb late. Sometimes it doesn’t, like when Eric Fisher ruptures his Achilles moments before earning a Super Bowl berth. A bit more aggression could mitigate luck as a factor, especially when it comes to health. Quality depth is important. 

Lambos vs. Lexuses: Retaining Nick Bolton, Trey Smith, Etc.

Speaking of quality depth, I know a lot of Chiefs fans are worried about re-signing Nick Bolton and Trey Smith, citing that as a reason not to pay Jones the top-of-market deal he’s worth. First off, I believe if ownership/the front office gets a little more aggressive with cash and accounting, they can likely fit those guys in—maybe not Sneed, but definitely Creed Humphrey most of all. No, we’re not letting the best center alive who snaps to a half-a-billy QB walk because Mitch Morse and Rodney Hudson once left, too.

Those worries are irrational, though. Bolton and Smith are good players at positions that aren’t premium ones (linebacker and guard). Jones is trending towards being a first-ballot Hall of Famer and has been a unicorn of an interior pass-rusher. Outside of Aaron Donald, obviously, there’s really been nobody like him over the past decade or so. Ditching Jones to keep Bolton and Smith would be like selling a Lamborghini for two Lexuses. It. Makes. Zero. Sense. 

One of the reasons you draft Nick Bolton in the second round is so you don’t have to pay a linebacker like Fred Warner or Roquan Smith outrageous money. Bolton is a really good player and an excellent leader as the green dot. I'm not minimizing his talents. But in the grand scheme of things, he and Smith are replaceable. On the other hand, we could wait 20 years to find a defensive game wrecker like Jones. With all respect to Eric Berry and Justin Houston, the last defender we had who gave offensive coordinators nightmares on this level was Derrick freaking Thomas. 

There is a path to retaining Bolton, Humphrey, Smith and, most of all, Jones. It might involve some tough choices and more cash from ownership along with a willingness to utilize salary cap tactics Hunt hasn’t wanted to explore, but there is a path and it’s fairly safe (maybe not as safe to his bottom line, but hey). Not to get all Mike Florio, but I don’t want Patrick Mahomes' contractual sacrifices to exist solely to save Clark Hunt some f--king money. Mahomes is doing that because he believes building a dynasty will be more lucrative for him and the city long term. He expects the rare opportunity he’s created for his franchise to be weaponized. He’ll probably be a billionaire one day, but that doesn’t minimize his sacrifice. I am totally fine with Mahomes' choice. He has agency here and I don’t believe he’s being duped like Florio’s weird ass does. But part of me does worry that Hunt looks at Mahomes and says, “This guy is so damn great that we can win championships without me splurging.” Again, he’s a business person. These NFL owners all put profit before winning (to varying degrees). It shouldn’t be forgotten. 

[Note: I don't want to interrupt the flow too much, but I need to point out that Mahomes’ unusual ability to take less because of the strength of his long-term earning power and brand, plus Travis Kelce contractually being classified as a tight end, has conditioned Chiefs fans to think it is normal for players to take pay cuts to win. It is not normal. It rarely ever happens, especially for homegrown players. Now, maybe a mercenary vet coming into ring chase needs to pay the dynasty tax if they want to piggyback on Mahomes and pad their legacy. But that’s different. Kelce also is a one of one in the charisma department who’s already making major bank off the field. He’s an A-list sports celeb with a long, prosperous post-tight-end career ahead of him. Comparing Jones or 99% of other players to Pat and Trav is unrealistic and unfair.]

NFL Contenders Hell-bent on Stopping a K.C. Dynasty

Buffalo is spending $60 million more than Kansas City this season. The Eagles, arguably the most well-run team in the league, regularly exploit the salary cap to their advantage, and Jalen Hurts’ contract has an extremely creative structure. Plus, the Eagles make other smart choices like extending key players early to save money. They pounced on Jordan Mailiata’s extension with what might’ve seemed like a big deal early, but it turned out to be an insanely team-friendly deal for a stud left tackle. Other AFC contenders are getting aggressive financially to be able to keep up with the Chiefs—Baltimore, Cleveland, Miami, New York and LA, to be specific. It’s turning the AFC into more of a gauntlet. Cincinnati doesn’t have the cash to keep up. Since they are the biggest threat to K.C.’s reign, that is yet another reason to spend more.

Now, in some instances, I do think some of these teams have gotten a little too aggressive. The J.C. Jackson deal the Chargers signed was a bad one. The Von Miller deal the Bills signed was a bad one, and I believe Miller is one of the greatest pass-rushers of all time. The problem is he was an oft-injured 33-year-old at the time, and they threw the GDP of a small country at him. The Deshaun Watson guarantee was sheer lunacy. Even those deals might not hamstring these franchises as much as people think, though. All three of those teams have strong GMs.

Buffalo and L.A. have simply been trying to maximize the opportunity of having inexpensive superstar quarterbacks before those cap numbers skyrocket. Brandon Beane and Tom Telesco (alliterations, anyone?) are quality GMs who will figure this out. Worst-case scenario: they have to go through a small retooling year before they can get aggressive again. The Browns were more desperate and might be a little more screwed, and it epends on how well their personnel decisions turn out. Keep in mind that the Chiefs do not need to be desperate to go for the league’s throat a bit more. There’s a middle ground between frugal and betting everything on a predator who’s been out of football for a year.

The common refrain Chiefs and NFL analysts receive when they are even moderately critical of the Chiefs is, “Shut up, dummy! Like you know better than Andy Reid and Brett Veach.” Yes. It’s obvious that they do their job better than we would (but not so obvious with other coaches and GMs). On the other hand, how good would they be at fixing cars, preparing tax returns or, yes, even writing about football process from an analytical, objective and entertaining perspective? I took a 10-year hiatus from covering the Chiefs, and am a little shocked at how often we now see fans say this stuff to almost anyone who covers the team.

Wouldn’t it be terribly boring if we just watched these games with no informed discussions in between to enhance the fan experience? Maybe you don’t feel sorry for NFL players due to the money they stack up. Well, I can assure you most sportswriters are not driving Rolls-Royces into the garage of their second homes. They do this because they are passionate about the game. They do this because they love informing and entertaining fans. [Side tangent terminated]

Even the Chiefs Can Improve Their Team-Building Process

The bigger issue with the “like you know better than Andy, Brett, and Clark” line of thinking is it paints the Chiefs organization as infallible. Analysts and reporters should be process-oriented, not cherry-pick results. It’s easier to say the Chiefs won two Super Bowls in four years and hence did everything single thing right. Easy, but wrong. 

Look, they do a helluva lot right. Of course they do! Reid is a top-five all-time coach. Veach has quickly proven to be a top-10 GM. (I hesitate to push him further up so early due to some early hiccups and a short tenure.) Hunt deserves credit for hiring good people and not inserting his ego like many, many professional sports owners tend to do. 

But the process is not perfect. Never can be. In any aspect of life or vocation.

Maybe, just maybe, the key ingredient here is the greatest player who ever lived. Yes, Veach found him, Hunt signed off on the trade and Reid brought him along. Credit where credit is due! Let’s just not act like Mahomes wouldn’t be an All-Pro in Chicago or Jacksonville or wherever the hell else he could’ve landed. That would be overrating coaching, in particular, which we as a football community tend to do (look at the Hoodie without Brady). 

Mahomes is a goddamn prodigy. It’s undeniable. Irrefutable. Impossible not to see. He’s so talented he makes crucial mistakes like reaching on a relatively small and slow running back in the first round disappear. A draft pick like CEH, or a drastic trade overpay (both contract and draft capital) for a non-superstar like Frank Clark, would’ve slammed many title windows shut.

I can hear some people now. “Well, the Eagles and Bills aren’t winning. We are! I’ll take our process over anybody else's” 

Well, again, the Chiefs have Patrick Lavon Mahomes II plus Andy Reid and two other Hall of Fame players. I think Eagles owner Jeff Lurie and GM Howie Roseman do an even better job than Hunt and Veach do, if I’m being frank. That organization is generally regarded as the sharpest in the NFL. They simply have a top-eight QB instead of HIM. Yet even they could do things better (Jalen Raegor over Justin Jefferson). The Patriots certainly weren’t stacking up rings because of Robert Kraft. And I believe he’s a fairly good owner outside of his extracurricular activities. Ahem. 

Realize this probably comes across as nitpicky to some. However, this is the dynasty window we’ve waited our whole lives for (my dad took me to my first game in the very early '80s). We must maximize it. Pushing for that requires objectivity and constructive criticism, not the old “can’t argue with the results!” Why wouldn’t you always be striving to improve in any part of life?

The Chiefs Hardball Stance: Causation or Correlation?

Perhaps this extension happens and everybody wins. Perhaps Clark Hunt shows that he is willing to pony up a third contract for certain superstars, that the Tyreek Hill trade was more about his personality/drama, the WR age cliff and a lack of positional scarcity than being frugal. 

There just are some breadcrumbs that are hard to ignore. Bombing the NFLPA survey. Bottom 12 cash spending during the entire Mahomes era. Contentious, perhaps borderline hostile negotiations with important players like Tyrann Mathieu, Orlando Brown Jr., Hill, and now Jones. Hardball seems to be the company line. While most fans applaud it, I’m not sure it’s why we’re winning or what sets up future success.

What happens when Veach’s unsustainable draft heater runs cold like they always do? His first few drafts weren’t great, folks. The Saints and Seahawks both showed us that these runs don’t last. This current strategy is contingent on knocking every draft out of the park to infuse the roster with cheap talent. Sure, accumulating lots of picks by trading vets and gaming the comp formula helps you take lots of bites at the apple, but the draft is never a guarantee. Both talent evaluators and fans overestimate hit rates.

Sometimes a Tyreek Hill trade nets you a great return. Sometimes a Randy Moss trade nets you a meh linebacker and the biggest bust in franchise history. The assumption that because the Chiefs did this once, they can trade Chris Jones and easily hit another grand slam is a naive one. They are much more likely to trade in a Lambo for three or four mystery boxes that turn out to be used Hyundais.

Additionally, I’d argue that the Chiefs winning the Super Bowl without Tyreek is correlation, not causation. They overcame that obstacle, got resourceful and won. They definitely could’ve won with him as well. They already did it once. I’m an advocate for that particular trade, but just want to point out that it wasn’t some super secret magic formula the Chiefs should go to every single time a superstar wants a new deal.

Summary: You Made it to the End (Good Job!)

Thank you for reading this far. Really appreciate you hearing me out and letting me rant. This has been a frustrating process for everyone. It’s been difficult for me to thoroughly get my points across via Twitter, video shorts or even the podcast medium. If we all stepped into the players’ shoes, learned a bit more about cap strategy (this is a great podcast primer that should be required listening and won’t take much time) and admitted that even the Chiefs’ process is not perfect, the dialogue surrounding our favorite team would be more informed and healthy.

P.S. If you’re getting triggered by Chris doing some relatively harmless trolling on social media, log off, go outside and touch some grass. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯