If he hadn't seen the guy in the Eddie George jersey, David Givens might still be a New England Patriot. Such are the idiosyncrasies of free agency once your team decides to let you stray off the reservation.
Thirty-six hours into what would become an 84-hour whirlwind of travel, negotiations, meetings, physicals, family phone calls, and self-examination for both Givens and his Boston-based agent, Brad Blank, the Patriots' highly regarded wide receiver stood in an office at Reliant Stadium, the home of the Houston Texans, talking on the phone with Blank about an option neither had considered when free agency finally began at 12:01 a.m. Saturday. The Tennessee Titans were trying to talk their way into the equation, one that to this point included the Patriots, the Texans, and the Miami Dolphins. Those had been Givens's teams of choice from the start, but suddenly, unexpectedly, he had a desperate new suitor.
Blank was trying to persuade Givens to visit Nashville the next day while Givens was searching for reasons to give a hometown discount to his real hometown of Houston, where he'd grown up rooting for what ironically was now the Titans. As he pondered these options, The Jersey suddenly appeared. It was like an apparition, a voice in the wilderness calling to him from a Texas parking lot. Who can know about such things as these?
''The general manager [Charley Casserly] and the coaches had left me to use the phone in their offices and Brad started talking about how the Titans were interested," Givens recalled Tuesday night, only hours after signing a five-year, $24 million contract in Tennessee. ''I'm in the Texans' facility and he's telling me about the Titans and all of a sudden there's a guy outside the stadium at some sort of carnival and he's wearing Eddie George's jersey. There were about 2,000 people there and I didn't see any other jersey but that one on anybody. It was really strange. Very strange."
As Givens looked at the jersey of the Titans' former All-Pro running back, Blank told him how Tennessee general manager Floyd Reese had just made an offer well in excess of what either the Texans or the Patriots were putting on the table. While he explained the options already in play and others still unexplored with teams such as San Diego, San Francisco, and Carolina, Givens talked about omens.
''He was giving me all the reasons to sign in Houston," Blank recalled. ''He was talking about comfort level and playing in front of his family and the convenience of knowing his way around. He had good reasons for the way he was thinking and I had 23 million reasons for him to take a look at Nashville. At the time Houston was offering 17.5 [million dollars] so I said if they go north of $20 million we can fight about going but if they stay south of 20, it's a no-brainer.
''As I was talking he said, 'Brad, Brad. Somebody just walked by wearing an Eddie George jersey. Do you think it's a sign?' I told him I didn't know but we should take a look at Nashville. David agreed if [Houston] stayed south of 20 he'd get on the plane."
Less than 36 hours later, Givens was the Titans' No. 1 receiver, having rejected the lesser offers to go and play for his original hometown team, the team that was once the Houston Oilers but now played in a town he'd never visited and knew little about. That's how it goes in free agency sometimes once the winds begin to blow and the money begins to flow. It's a time where anything can happen. Anything but getting a good night's sleep.
Blank had been talking to Givens for weeks, preparing him for the onslaught of calls, trips, and decisions he would soon face. He told him to be ready for a phone call around 1 a.m. to discuss his travel itinerary. By then, Blank assured him, he'd have several trips lined up to visit the teams most interested, which at the time appeared likely to be Miami, Cleveland, and Houston.
Givens's preferences were Miami or Houston, cities he considered livable and acceptable from a football standpoint. He had grown accustomed to winning in New England, having played on two Super Bowl champions and three playoff teams in four years. That's a career for most guys, but for Givens, it had become the norm and as much as he wanted to get paid like a guy who'd caught a career-high 59 passes last year and scored a touchdown in a record seven straight playoff games, he also wanted to go to a city in which the team was on the rise.
But before his chance came, the NFL owners and players' union agreed to extend the start of free agency after first rejecting a proposed extension of the collective bargaining agreement and then deciding to negotiate further. Those negotiations appeared fruitless a second time until a second, 72-hour extension was granted for further talks less than a day before free agency was to begin again. With each extension players such as Givens, poised for their first chance at free agency, grew more restless.
When the sides finally agreed a half-hour before a final 8 p.m. deadline March 8, they again pushed free agency back two days to give the clubs time to plan what to do with the new $102 million salary cap that would go into effect at 12:01 a.m. March 11. Back in Boston, Blank sat alone on his sofa planning out not only Givens's strategy but also that of three other clients after having already negotiated lucrative contract extensions for Denver center Tom Nalen and Jacksonville backup center Dennis Norman, who despite having played only five games as a starter last year landed a four-year, $6.235 million deal that was better than the contracts of more than a few starting centers.
Blank's experience paid off for Norman, who at first was looking at a deal no better than a string of minimum salaries until Blank calmly told the Jaguars how 10 years ago he had a guy named Ron Stone in the same position and he landed him a $10 million contract with the Giants after Stone had started just three NFL games. He was confident he could do it again. Less than a week later, Norman, a Princeton grad, was being paid like a Princeton man should expect to be paid.
Four clients remained unsigned, however, and so there was work to be done.
''When free agency got postponed it was more relief than disappointment because David and I felt there'd be more teams involved with him if the CBA was ultimately extended," Blank said. ''Either way he would have done well but when the cap went up it meant he had more options."
By early Saturday morning, Blank had talked with the Dolphins, Texans, 49ers, Bills, Broncos, Seahawks, Saints, Browns, and Eagles about Givens, gauging each of their interests. He'd been on a conference call earlier in the day with Patriots coach Bill Belichick and personnel director Scott Pioli, who asked what he felt the market would be. His response surprised them.
''I told them I hadn't negotiated with anyone and that they were asking me to predict and I'd heard in the past that predictions weren't worth anything," Blank said, a reference to Belichick's disavowal of such notions. ''Bill laughed. That was it."
But Blank had sorted out the Givens market after much research, believing it would be between $4.5 million and $5 million a year with the new cap. They would land a deal worth $4.8 million a year. His numbers had been right but Blank had no way of knowing then how -- or where -- he would get them from.
''About 12:45 a.m. Mueller called," Blank recalled. ''He said, 'What the [expletive] are you doing to me? Do you think I'm an idiot?' I had no idea what he was talking about."
What upset Mueller was that the Browns had posted a press release on their website claiming Givens had agreed to terms with them when he hadn't even scheduled a visit. Blank was shocked but he knew this was the kind of disinformation that could knock his client out of the marketplace so he hit his speed dial, frantically trying to learn what had happened. Eventually it became clear an error by a Browns website employee caused the mistaken posting of three bios of players the Browns were pursuing but hadn't signed. All three came down within minutes but Blank feared the damage had been done.
In the sensitive world of free agency, anything can tip the balance, so trust is important. Blank called all the teams he'd spoken with and told them the report was untrue but his sense was people he'd had past dealings with, such as Texans director of contract negotiations Don Ferens, accepted his explanation while those less familiar with him, such as Seattle's assistant director of pro personnel, Lake Dawson, were skeptical.
''Dawson kept saying 'It's on their official team website,' " Blank recalled. '' 'How do I know who to trust?' "
Blank understood this was a problem unique to the Internet age, where every word written, true or false, travels fast. Fiction mixes with fact until reality becomes distorted and negotiations become difficult if not impossible. Because of that Blank spent part of his Saturday on the phone with three of the Browns' lawyers arguing over the wording of a retraction the Browns were reluctant to make. Although they grew to learn otherwise, Cleveland kept insisting a hacker had gotten into their computer system and posted the erroneous report.
While this was going on, Givens was in a first-class seat headed for Miami while Blank was arguing with the Browns, trying to negotiate deals for former Walpole High quarterback Todd Collins, Arizona safety Quentin Harris, and Jacksonville defensive end Marcellus Wiley, as well as tend to the Givens calls that continued to mount. Many balls were in the air and the problem with the Browns was an unwelcome distraction, although ultimately it was corrected before real damage was done.
Mueller and head coach Nick Saban were flying in private jets meeting with quarterback Drew Brees, linebacker Will Witherspoon, and several other free agents in various cities, before the two of them arrived back in Miami that night to have dinner with Givens and several other recruits. Saban's approach was similar to the college recruiting world he'd come from before returning to the NFL to challenge his old friend Belichick for supremacy of the AFC East, but Givens was left wondering why he was there.
''He called and asked if he was being used," Blank said. ''I told him possibly. It was like being invited to someone's house for dinner and they're not there. They seemed preoccupied with getting a quarterback. David took a physical and met some coaches but Randy said they were frozen for a few days so I started focusing on Houston. I asked Randy to call after dinner [with Givens] Saturday night. He never called back."
He also never made an offer but by then Houston had made a preliminary one of $17.5 million while Blank was trying hard to push them to $20 million. In the end the Texans didn't go that far but Givens was to head there Sunday morning anyway. Everything was set, it seemed, for Givens's dream homecoming.
And then Brad Blank's BlackBerry went berserk.
''I was discombobulated," Givens acknowledged. ''What the hell was going on? Twice in two days. I thought somebody was doing it to take me off the market. Why were these things happening? I had a little anger in me. I knew the Cleveland thing had cost me some visits and I was thinking a few more teams might shut me out.
''It was very stressful for a guy like me, in his first time in free agency. I called Brad a couple times from the plane to ask what was going on. I kept calling my parents, trying to get the number of the Texans. I must have spent $300 on that [air] phone. I thought it was $1 a minute. It's $5 a minute. It was pretty intense."
When Givens arrived however, the airport was packed with media, TV cameras there to catch his arrival and thus make clear he'd signed no deals with anyone. As Givens was wading through the crowd and heading over to Reliant Stadium, back in Boston Blank received a fateful phone call.
On the line was a Nashville newspaper reporter named Jim Wyatt, who was calling to ask if Givens was still on the market. When Blank said he was, Wyatt told him Reese was interested and he should consider calling him.
Blank did and when Reese called back his first question was, ''How much did you get from Cleveland?"
''I told him, 'Floyd, he's in Houston," Blank recalled. ''You're a day and a half behind the rumors. He hasn't signed with anybody.' "
In short order Reese upped the ante by sending along a blockbuster, $23 million proposal that led Blank to say, ''You're damn right he'll be there but I got to get him out of Houston first. They're doing a great sales job."
That job was being done not only by the Texans but also by Givens's family, who were talking the kind of hometown discount that's real.
As the Texans' sales pitch grew, it became ever more disingenuous. They talked of the millions he could make in local endorsements. Someone cautioned him that there was a 6 percent income tax in Tennessee and none in Texas, a difference of about $1.5 million on a deal as big as the $18.5 million they were now offering. Only problem was there's no income tax in Tennessee and the last guy to make $2 million a year in endorsements in Houston was probably named Nolan Ryan . . . if anybody ever had.
Still Givens was wavering. He was tired, eager to come home and now aware the Patriots had made a $17.5 million offer at 6:12 p.m. Sunday night that was $1 million below Houston's and nowhere near the Titans' proposal. Givens also understood he'd be the No. 1 receiver in Tennessee, while in Miami or Houston he'd be behind Chris Chambers or Andre Johnson. Still, his parents kept calling, urging him to stay. As day turned to night, he and Blank kept talking while the Texans did all they could to keep him away from Nashville until Blank finally demanded Houston let him leave. Givens was given a ride to spend the night at the Hilton at Hobby Airport in Houston at the expense of the Tennessee Titans. So it goes when the whirlwind is blowing.
Soon after, Givens met with coach Jeff Fisher, position coach Ray Sherman, and offensive coordinator Norm Chow, as well as Reese, and all was going well, but he was growing ever more tired, stressed, and anxious. Decision time was near.
''It sounds like fun but you're up at 5 a.m. every morning, flying around, meeting people you don't know all day, being interviewed. You're with those guys all day. You're pretty stressed. I lost 6 or 7 pounds because I couldn't eat and I wasn't sleeping much. I took three full body physicals in 72 hours. MRIs, X-rays, everything. They all drew blood, and needles are my worst enemy. It was wild."
What was particularly difficult was leaving Houston to move on to the next offer because, Givens said later, ''I was willing to take a hometown discount from them but I had to weigh all my options. Houston was my No. 1 place to go. I kept asking Brad what the difference was."
In the end, the difference between Tennessee's offer and New England's was $6.5 million. It was $5.5 million better than the Texans. It was also the difference between being a solid No. 2 receiver or accepting the challenge and the opportunity to be someone's No. 1.
Yet as Givens spent a fitful Monday night in Nashville before going out to see the neighborhoods where Titan players lived and getting a better feel for the city the next day, he mulled over one last time the offer the Patriots had made Sunday night -- a deal worth $17.5 million with a signing bonus of $5.5 million. It included bonuses worth up to $500,000 a season, but they required Givens play 75 percent of the team's snaps to earn $100,000, another $100,000 at 80 percent, $150,000 more if he played 85 percent, and an additional $150,000 if he was in on 90 percent of the plays. Those numbers looked good on paper but Givens knew he'd played in only 67 percent of the plays last season and had never approached 90 percent in four years in New England. They were bonuses not likely to be earned.
Givens had also spoken directly with Belichick at the coach's request Sunday night from his hotel in Houston and they had what he later called ''the best conversation we'd ever had." But, in the end, the numbers told the story.
''It was a good conversation but their offer was too low," Givens said.
New England's offer was essentially a million below the Texans and well below Tennessee's $24 million deal, which included a $8 million signing bonus ($2.5 million more than New England's), as well as salaries and roster bonuses in the final three years that made the deal worth $11.3 million over two years, $15.3 million over three, $19.3 million over four, and finally $24 million over five, an average of $4.8 million a season that exceeded Randle El's. The gap was too much for the Patriots' pleas about how it was better to take less money to stay with a winning organization to be heard, not when you once were a seventh-round pick playing for minimum wages and hoping one day to get a chance like this one. A chance to do what he'd once dreamed of as a kid in Houston.
''He told me he felt he'd given Floyd his word," Blank said. ''He said he was leaning that way but he wanted to see the city. I respected that."
By 9 a.m. Tuesday morning, a bleary-eyed Blank, who had now negotiated $44 million worth of contracts for four players and put out two major disinformation fires in three days, arose to see messages from Givens and Reese on his BlackBerry. Both said he wanted to sign. While Blank was calling the other teams involved, Givens was smiling at a press conference in Nashville, Floyd Reese and Jeff Fisher by his side. Neither knew they had Eddie George to thank for this moment. Or at least his jersey.
''It was like signing with the other Houston team," an exhausted Givens said Tuesday night after returning to Boston. ''I'm happy with the decision I made. If the Patriots had given me an offer I couldn't refuse I would have stayed. That wasn't the case but it was still difficult to leave. It's a great organization. They helped me win two Super Bowls and gave me an opportunity to show my ability.
''I kept the Patriots in my mind but Tennessee seemed like it had a good organization. I'm not saying the Patriots are dishonest, but I felt the Titans were very honest right from the minute I got there. I just felt more comfortable there. I play a lot better when I feel comfortable. I know they'll expect a lot of me but I accept that role. I want to be one of their major guys. I want that pressure."
At $4.8 million a year now, he's got it. He's got Eddie George's jersey to thank for that, too.