NFL teams are businesses, and the New Orleans Saints are no different. For the most part.
Of course, there are moments when sports team transcend the purely financial and become something more. Cortez Kennedy passed away, the Saints honored him by wearing his number of their helmets. When Will Smith died, the Saints took center stage in the mourning. And when Katrina devastated New Orleans, the Saints’ eventual Super Bowl run helped to uplift a city.
But for the most part, NFL teams are money machines. And that doesn’t just mean for the owners. For coaches and general managers, the goal of the league is not to feel good. It’s to win games. And that means operating like a business.
You see it all around the league. Most recently, the Lions forced longtime superstar Calvin Johnson to repay some of his signing bonus when he retired. That didn’t sit well with Johnson. But he and the rest of NFL players understand: these are football decisions. When Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs, both stars of their Super Bowl run, began their descent into old age, the Saints demanded that each take a pay cut. Grubbs refused, and the Saints traded him. Evans accepted, but then faced the same demand the next year. He refused a second cut, and the Saints released him.
But every now and then you do see a team show goodwill towards a player.
The Saints gave OT Zach Strief a rare raise last week. And the football logic behind the move isn’t clear.
Strief is not about to leave the Saints for any other club. He’s 33, and will almost certainly play out his career in New Orleans. On top of that, the Saints have a first-round pick waiting in the wings to take over when Strief does put the boots away. Strief has always been one of the calmer, more understanding players in the Saints locker room. He wouldn’t demand a raise. So why give him one?
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I think, even in this case, there is a football angle to everything. Yes, the Saints likely wanted to give Strief everything they could. But they had a reason for doing it.
They didn’t do it to make him happy — he’d perform happy or otherwise — but to send a message. This team treats their longtime players right. It’s a sign to agents and to prospective FA players. Come here, we’ll take care of you.
The caveat here is that this is a rare situation where the Saints don’t lose much by the move. They have cap space to spare this year after making room for a Malcolm Butler trade that never materialized. And Strief has been one of the team’s longest-tenured players and has always been a cornerstone of their locker room and culture. He put together the best season of his career in 2016. With another player or at another time, the team might not handle the situation so amicably.
And there’s one more thing to consider here: with a player as outspoken and culturally important as Zach Strief, there’s a real possibility that the Saints are buttering him up to join the coaching staff. Strief has been a fixture on the OL for nearly his entire career, and he’s done so with negligible athletic ability. Sure, he’s strong and big. But he’s got perfectly sound technique. And if the Saints think he can be a good teacher, they likely want to keep him in the building once he takes off his jersey.