In 1999, running back Ricky Williams signed a rookie contract with the New Orleans Saints in a deal often called the worst for any player in NFL history. Williams, who was the fifth draft pick overall, agreed to a large signing bonus and a minimum salary. The total contract value — driven by ambitious performance incentives — was reported as being worth up to $68 million. As Williams put it at the time:
“I decided to go with the big bonus on the front end, and the rest I have to work for. With this contract I’m going to be making great money if I’m playing well enough.”
Williams never lived up to the hype of his contract. He was traded from New Orleans to Miami in 2002, and although he rushed for over 10,000 yards during his career — one of only 29 players to do so — he had only one Pro Bowl season, in 2002. He retired in 2004, due in part to a failed test for marijuana, returned in 2005, missed the entire 2006 season for another marijuana violation, and retired for good before the 2012 season.
But if Ricky had matched the high expectations set out for him, and had consistently played for the seven years of his contract instead of bouncing in and out of the league, could the deal have paid off? FiveThirtyEight obtained a copy of the deal, and we calculated how much every running back since 1989 could have earned from it.1 And we can say without reservation: Ricky Williams got screwed. Williams definitely underperformed expectations during his career, but only a fraction of that $68 million was achievable at all, even to the greatest running backs in recent memory.
Signing bonus and base salary
The basic structure of Williams’ contract was pretty simple. He would receive an $8.8 million dollar signing bonus and a minimum base salary over the next seven years (totaling $2.3 million). Everything else would get paid out by meeting performance incentives.
It’s tempting to think of Ricky Williams as an overconfident rube, tricked into betting on himself. But Williams was a four-year college player, putting up 6,279 rushing yards and 75 touchdowns in his time at the University of Texas while earning no salary. Highly touted rookies come into the NFL as some of the most valuable and poorest athletes in the world, and $8.8 million off the bat2 is not inconsequential, especially since this signing bonus was guaranteed money. (Until it wasn’t. The Miami Dolphins successfully sued to get the signing bonus back after he retired from the team in 2004, and he paid some of it back in order to return in 2005). But very little else was.
The minor incentive bonuses
One of the famous sections of Williams’s contract is the “Special Provisions,” a list of 26 incentives each worth $50,000 a season. Some of these incentives are pretty easy to reach, if you’re a competent NFL starter, but some have only been hit by the best running back seasons of all time, and a few are practically impossible.
Getting 41 or more receptions is pretty easy: Around 17 running backs do it every season.3 Likewise, meeting the contract’s workload requirements4 while being on an improving team isn’t too difficult. You’ll also notice that many of these bonuses are contingent at least in part on the team’s performance, meaning that starting backs on championship teams hit a lot of bonuses regardless of their own stats.
The bottom of the list is where stuff gets nuts. Only three running backs since 1989 won Super Bowl MVP — Ottis Anderson (1991), Emmitt Smith (1994) and Terrell Davis (1998).5 No backs have won the honor in the last 18 years.
Even worse, no running back has ever, in modern football history, caught 12 touchdowns. Marshall Faulk and two other RBs have hit nine, and Danny Woodhead led the NFL last year with six. Likewise, no running back has ever managed 18.6 yards per reception (with at least 32 receptions). Joe Cribbs hit 15.1 yards per catch in 1981; the highest in the last decade is Arian Foster in 2011, with just 11.6.
So which running back seasons would have actually made some money? The real answer is that it would have been a 52-way tie, as the contract details make a bad deal even worse by stipulating that no more than $500,000 can be paid out for a single season. Hitting 10 incentives would be the same as hitting 20. Williams maxed out just one time, hitting 10 incentives in 2002. He never hit more than six incentives in his three seasons in New Orleans and only hit one his rookie year.
Even if Williams had hit 10 incentives in each of his first seven seasons, he only would have taken home $3.5 million, less than half of his signing bonus. The real meat of his deal came through two heftier performance bonuses.
The rushing bonuses
The contract said Williams would receive significant bonuses for breaking several rushing thresholds, including the all-time mark of 2,105 yards set by Eric Dickerson in 1984.6
With these benchmarks, “max contract value” goes out the window. In order to hit $68 million, a player would have to break Dickerson’s record, and then break his own record several times in a row to keep hitting the $3 million bonus.
Williams didn’t break the record, and Dickerson remains the only back ever to break 2,100 yards in a season. These $2.5 million and $3 million rushing bonuses were practically unachievable, and the less valuable benchmarks weren’t much easier:
LaDainian Tomlinson, probably the best running back of the last 15 years, would have hit three of Williams’s rushing bonuses, earning a total of just $3.5 million. Barry Sanders, maybe the greatest running back ever, would have hit a bonus twice, and no back from the last two NFL seasons would have made any rushing bonus money at all. These rushing thresholds are simply too high for any back to have made sustained money, although plenty of fluke seasons would be rewarded (including Williams’s in 2002).
So the rushing bonuses were a bust. But there’s one final way that Williams could have earned money.
The ‘Be As Good As Terrell Davis’ bonuses
The Ricky Williams contract is really a monument to the achievements of Terrell Davis, who accrued the above stats during the four seasons prior to Williams’ signing his deal.7 If Ricky could match three out of four of those marks during his first four combined seasons the value of his contract would increase immensely, and he’d earn as much as $39 million over his final three seasons (but more likely somewhere in the area of $15 million to $25 million.)8
He wasn’t even close. But few running backs have been:
Only four backs since 1989, including Davis, hit three of these benchmarks over any four-year period of their career. Tomlinson never pulled it off — he “struggled” with rushing totals and average — and no running back since him has managed to hit even two.
Williams was the victim of both a terrible contract and terrible timing. In historical context, Terrell Davis’s first four seasons were one of a kind, and would never be asked of even the best running backs today. But at the moment the contract was signed, in the wake of not just Davis but also Smith and Sanders, the goal must have seemed formidable but attainable.
The total contract value
Now we can take everything together: the signing bonus, the base salary, the minor incentives, the rushing bonuses and the Terrell Davis bonuses. Below are, by our estimates, how much the best running backs from 1989-2015 would have made if they’d signed Williams’s seven-year contract at the most opportune time:
The gist of the contract becomes obvious: Hit the Terrell Davis bonuses or you don’t get paid. Had Tomlinson signed this contract in 2001, he still would have missed the Davis benchmark and ended his seven-season stretch — one of the best ever! — with around $17 million, more than half of it in signing bonus. Williams himself would have finished with $14 million (largely thanks to his 2002 campaign) if he’d played out his contract from 1999 through 2005 instead of retiring, good for 13th overall. Smith, Faulk, Sanders and (obviously) Davis would have hit the big bonuses if they’d signed this contract in their best years. None would have sniffed the reported $68 million max contract value.
The NFL is a deeply player-unfriendly league. Large rosters, short careers and a weak union mean that players are less financially stable than their NBA and MLB peers when their careers are over (although the extent of this financially instability is still being debated). Ricky Williams got a particularly bad deal, but the way in which it was bad — a fantastical max value propped up by hard-to-reach incentives and a lack of guarantees — are true of many less notable signings. Just last year the Bills made headlines by signing quarterback Tyrod Taylor to a six-year extension worth up to $92 million. Of course, only $9.5 million of that is guaranteed. According to NFL.com report’s Ian Rapoport, who broke the news, “there’s a lot of prove-it in the deal.”
Setrige Crawford contributed research for this article.