Sunday, March 26, 2006

How The Atlanta Falcons Landed DE John Abraham - From The AJC

This is a great article and a careful study in deal-making in business, period. A great read, and an insight into why Falcons President Rich McKay is one of the most successful NFL executives.

The art of John Abraham's deal
How the Falcons signed a Pro Bowler on their terms

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Published on: 03/26/06
The hard part was getting John Abraham on Falcons owner Arthur Blank's private jet.

The Seattle Seahawks had their claws deep into the New York Jets free-agent defensive end. There was a dazzling visit, a contract offer that supposedly was more lucrative than the 6-year, $45 million deal the Pro Bowl defensive end signed with the Falcons this week. And, the Seahawks had just played in the Super Bowl.

John Abraham liked what he saw and held little hope of getting to his desired locale, Atlanta, where he owns and condo and is near his family in South Carolina. His agents called the Falcons at the outset of free agency to gauge their interest and were told the team loved him but didn't know if it had the means to acquire him.

"Oakland actually was pressuring us to come there too," said Rich Rosa, who represents John Abraham along with Tony Agnone. "We were in Seattle and we had every intention of going to Oakland and maybe, maybe going to Atlanta.

"Then it took a 180-degree turn. We were done in Seattle [Falcons president and general manager] Rich McKay and [senior personnel executive] Billy Devaney tracked us down. They called us and said, 'We've got the plane fueled up and Arthur Blank said to send it out there and get you guys.'

"We all looked at each other and said, 'All right. I think we got a good game going on here.'"

Said McKay: "When we got him on the plane, I felt pretty comfortable, given that he'd expressed an interest to come to Atlanta. From that stage, it took on another life."

Homework done

By this point, the Falcons had looked well beyond Abraham's 53 1/2 sacks in six NFL seasons. His on-field production spoke for itself, as did visions of him bolstering a defense much in need of his pass-rushing skills.

His injury history -- he's missed portions of three seasons -- turned out not to be an issue. In 2003, Abraham was charged with drunk driving and was suspended for a game. The team needed to know if that was an isolated incident or if there was more there. They had the inside help they felt they needed. Strength coach Sal Alosi and director of player development Kevin Winston, both hired this summer from the Jets, shared everything they knew.

Everyone, including Blank, as image and character conscious as there is among pro sports franchise owners, gave the all clear.

"Like any player, we look into their background on both the personal and football character side," McKay said. "Kevin Winston, our new player development director, was with John in New York and, therefore, very familiar with him. We are very comfortable that John fits what we want our players to be about. He made a mistake a few years ago and learned from that mistake."

The game plan

With Abraham and his agents en route from Seattle March 15, the breakdown of duties among the Falcons' brass for the next day's recruiting visit kicked into high gear.

The negotiating teams were dispatched. Since the Jets' held Abraham's rights by designating him their "franchise player," he needed to reach contract terms with his suitor and compensation to the Jets had to be arranged.

Backup quarterback Matt Schaub or Atlanta's first-round pick (No. 15 overall) in the April draft were the demands. The Falcons weren't going there. A second-round pick (No. 47 overall) was Atlanta's counter.

McKay admitted this week he knew that might not be enough, but that was the card he would play — at the time.

The pitchmen, including coach Jim Mora and his staff, prepared to ramp up the charm to convince Abraham this was the place for him. That part, wasn't hard at all.

When the 6-foot-4, 258-pound Abraham got within Georgia state lines, he was closer to his mother and his daughter and his grandparents, who had never been to any of his pro games. He could hear them screaming his name in the Georgia Dome.

"When I got here, it was done," Abraham said. "There were no visits after that."

The sell

When Abraham got to Flowery Branch Thursday, March 16, Mora, Winston, McKay and Blank -- especially Blank -- put on the full-court press. Defensive end Patrick Kerney, who shares the same agents as Abraham, had already been recruiting. A licensed pilot, Kerney said he would have flown the plane to retrieve Abraham.

"I was pretty psyched," Kerney said. "I talked to John a couple days before everything came together and let him know how excited we were that they were going to make it happen."

That night at dinner, while the wooing of Abraham continued, McKay, Agnone and Rosa acknowledged they reached contractual terms in less than an hour.

The deal, to those at dinner, was done. Abraham would replace Brady Smith at right end and join recently acquired safeties Chris Crocker and Lawyer Milloy on Atlanta's beefed-up defense.

The risky bluff

The optimism was doused less than 24 hours later when Seattle and president of football operations Tim Ruskell, McKay's longtime wingman in Tampa Bay and for a season in Atlanta, offered the Jets' their first-round pick (No. 31 overall), satisfying the Jets' wishes. New York, which, according to Agnone, tried to sign Abraham to a long-term contract throughout this whole ordeal but was rebuffed, because Abraham wanted out, agreed to trade Abraham to Seattle.

While openly expressing dismay that Seattle may have trumped him, McKay privately hoped he'd forced the Seahawks into showing their entire hand.

The King, some Falcons' employees call him, hadn't lost his touch.

Seattle could not acquire Abraham without getting him to sign a contract and Abraham gave his word to the Falcons that would not happen. So Atlanta's personnel department had time to find a way to sweeten its deal to New York without giving up the 15th pick or Schaub.

"There was a lot of poker that was played," Blank said. "There also was a lot of tenacity and patience exercised."

Atlanta called at least eight teams, McKay said, to try and construct a rare three-team trade. Denver, which had two first-round picks, wanted in.

The Broncos, who held the 22nd and 29th picks in the first round, were willing to part with their later first-round choice, a third-round selection in this draft and a fourth-round pick next year, for the Falcons' first-rounder this year. McKay, who has acquired some pretty impressive mid-round talent -- Ronde Barber and John Lynch in Tampa Bay, Schaub, Chauncey Davis in Atlanta -- felt that was enough to execute the first trade.

When the Falcons extended the 29th overall choice they'd just acquired to New York, the process was complete. The Seahawks, Rosa said, tried to stay in the ball game until Monday night when the Jets and Abraham's agents told them it was time to end the saga.

"I was at peace the whole time," Abraham said.