“It was a slam dunk that a deal would get done.”
“It was a foregone conclusion.”
“Totally different situation.”
Those are just three things said about T.J. Watt and his training camp hold-in and contract negotiations of 2021 whenever anyone dares to compare it to Diontae Johnson and his recent training camp hold-in and contract negotiations of 2022.
Do people ever use the Time Traveler function on their Google machines? In the case of Watt’s 2021 contract drama, they wouldn’t have to set the controls back that far to see that, not only was there drama but there were no guarantees that Watt and the Steelers would agree to anything.
Why were there no guarantees? Because, up to that point in their history of negotiating contracts, the Steelers had never agreed to guarantee money beyond the first year of a veteran deal. And we weren’t talking about chump change, either. Watt reportedly wanted close to $100 million in guaranteed money. This was a major sticking point and something the media and fans spent many days and weeks debating in the months leading up to training camp. The debates never stopped once the players convened at old Heinz Field for training camp last summer.
Watt, much like Johnson this year, decided on a “hold-in,” meaning he didn’t practice with the team in any meaningful way and didn’t appear in preseason action.
That’s right, this “foregone conclusion,” this “slam dunk” of a contract extension dragged on for so long, that it looked like it would never get done.
The Steelers were so used to doing business the Steeler Way, that there was growing concern that Watt would have to play the 2021 season on his fifth-year option and...?
Would the Steelers be forced to franchise tag Watt prior to the 2022 season? Would this lead to another Le’Veon Bell situation, where Watt either delayed the signing of the tag or simply didn’t sign it at all?
“I’m going on vacation. Hopefully, Watt will have a new deal by the time I get back.” These were the kinds of things Steelers fans spent the entire summer saying on social media. It was a major concern for them, where most sided with Watt and demanded that the Steelers get this done.
The Watt situation was the number one talking point on social media, on talk radio and on places like Behind the Steel Curtain.
Watt’s teammates—including Ben Roethlisberger and Cam Heyward—went public and pleaded with their bosses to get Watt signed to a new deal.
However, not every teammate was on board with Watt’s hold-in. During the reporting of that now infamous and, by all accounts, ugly fight between Minkah Fitzpatrick and Chase Claypool near the end of last year’s training camp, it was said that Watt screamed something at Claypool, and the second-year receiver retorted: “You’re not even practicing with the team!”
There were even some fans who weren’t on board with Watt’s ongoing hold-in, and they felt he should suck it up, join his teammates at practice, and prepare for Week 1 against the Bills.
Just how long did Watt’s contract talks last?
Here is a link to a headline from Pro Football Talk titled: “T.J. Watt, Steelers pushing their contract negotiations to the brink.” Why was the word “brink” used in the title? Because this article was published on September 5, 2021—or just seven days prior to Pittsburgh’s regular-season opener against the Bills.
I’ll provide a snippet from the article just to add some texture to the Watt drama from last summer:
“The “no contracts once the season starts” rule complicates the Watt situation in a different way. He didn’t hold out. He showed up, and they’ve allowed him to not practice or play in the preseason. Since they won’t (unless they break their own rule) do new contracts after the season begins, there’s no benefit to either side to letting him skip games while talks continue. The talks simply won’t continue.”
That’s right, speaking of the Steeler Way, they have a habit of shutting down contract negotiations once the regular season starts. “Even for Watt?” was a reasonable question, but nobody could predict how things would go.
Again, this was a week before the Steelers' 2021 regular season was set to kick off in Buffalo.
You know how it turned out, of course. Watt and the Steelers finally agreed to a record-setting contract worth $112 million with an unprecedented $80 million in guaranteed money, a deal that wasn’t finalized until three days before the start of the season.
Yes, Watt is more valuable than Johnson. Watt is arguably the best edge rusher in the NFL, a commodity that’s very hard to find. Johnson, who surprisingly agreed to a two-year contract extension on Thursday to the tune of over $36 million—with $27 million of that guaranteed—is simply a very good receiver, a commodity the Steelers don’t seem to have a hard time acquiring.
But Watt was also a commodity that was very hard to retain in 2021. A failure to break from team philosophy and guarantee Watt the better part of $100 million may have driven a wedge between the Steelers and their star player. This wedge could have led to a franchise tag designation and further hard feelings that may have forced Pittsburgh to make a major decision about its best player.
Slam dunks are easy. Foregone conclusions don’t cause the kind of stress that Watt, the Steelers and their fans endured in the summer of 2021.
T.J. Watt’s training camp hold-in of 2021 could have very easily been the start of an ugly divorce between him and the Steelers. The fans may have ultimately been forced to choose sides for real and would have likely sided with the team (they usually do in the end).
Finally, T.J. Watt’s contract drama from last summer may have been a little different than Diontae Johnson’s was this summer, but it wasn’t as different as your memory is telling you.