Jets' Ferguson takes an emotional ride as Dallas sweeps him off his feet
Sunday, March 06, 2005
BY DAVE HUTCHINSON
On Wednesday, the first day of NFL free agency, Jason Ferguson rolled out of bed shortly after 6 a.m., awakened by the telephone. On the other end was his agent, Jimmy Sexton.
"You have a visitor," Sexton told him.
Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones had flown into Memphis, Tenn., where Ferguson makes his off-season home, and Jones was sitting in his private jet at a local airport, waiting to whisk Ferguson to Dallas and sign him. It was the beginning of a whirlwind courtship that swept the free-agent nose tackle off his feet.
"Man, Jerry Jones is at the airport waiting for me," Ferguson recalled in a phone interview Friday, his voice rising in disbelief. "The cat is waiting for me."
By mid-afternoon, Ferguson was sitting in a Dallas hotel room with a five-year, $21.5 million contract -- including a $9 million signing bonus -- from the Cowboys, who had outbid the Jets. The contract will pay a hefty $11.5 million in the first two years and $13.5 million in the first three seasons. Despite that, Ferguson was sobbing uncontrollably, despondent over leaving the only team he had ever known.
A seventh-round pick when he entered the NFL in 1997, Ferguson had gone to bed Tuesday with an uncertain future. Wednesday, he went to sleep a weepy multimillionaire.
And while many people have trouble identifying with the money that was thrown around during the first week of free agency, they can relate to the mental anguish that goes with the decision whether to switch jobs. The suitor is offering more money. The current employer wants you to stay and, while offering a big raise, can't match the figures the new guy is offering.
The NFL, like your workplace, is a business. But it is also personal. Here is a look at the emotions Ferguson went through as he considered whether to switch his professional address or remain with the team -- and the friends -- he knew so well.
ON THE FLY
The jet, with Jones inside, was idling on the runway as Ferguson and Sexton discussed their options on the phone. Cowboys coach Bill Parcells -- who drafted Ferguson for the Jets and coached him during Ferguson's first three years in the league -- wanted the 6-3, 305-pounder on his roster again, this time to anchor a new 3-4 defensive scheme.
Jones had arrived to make that happen. One other factor was working in the Cowboys' favor: Sexton is Parcells' agent, too.
Although the Jets wanted to re-sign Ferguson, 30, they hadn't been able to come up with enough money to get his signature on a contract.
Ferguson has never played in the Pro Bowl and never had more than 4 1/2 sacks in a season, but he was highly coveted as a run-stuffer in the middle. The Jets knew this, so they sent assistant GM Mike Tannenbaum to Memphis on Tuesday to meet with Sexton. Still, they couldn't get a deal.
The next day, they were outflanked by Jones' flashy recruiting tactics.
"I immediately asked my agent, 'What about the Jets?'" Ferguson said. "He said, 'Why don't you go down there (to Dallas)? Maybe that'll put some pressure on the Jets.' Jerry's jet was nice. I ain't going to lie. They wined and dined me. It felt great to be wanted like that. The last time I was in free agency (2001), it was nothing like that."
Jones and Ferguson took off from Memphis around 7:30 a.m. and Ferguson arrived at the Cowboys' offices in Irving, Texas, about an hour later. On the flight, Ferguson and Jones hit it off. The Cowboys had the momentum.
Jones didn't accompany Ferguson to the Cowboys' complex. He stayed aboard his jet and flew to Atlanta for an NFL owners' meeting. When Ferguson walked through the doors, the first person he saw was wide receiver and ex-teammate Keyshawn Johnson, who was at the Cowboys' training facility rehabbing his knee following off-season surgery. The pair spoke briefly before Ferguson headed to Parcells' office.
Ferguson and Parcells renewed acquaintances and revisited old times, and the coach told Ferguson how much he wanted him -- again.
"Being that it was Bill, that was a big factor," Ferguson said. "You're always resistant to change. I was with the Jets for eight years. But Bill was my first coach, and with him, it was like coming home. He drafted me."
Ferguson was given a tour of the Cowboys' headquarters. He saw the spacious locker room, with huge couches in the center, the indoor practice facility and the new medical wing, which was added last year and enables the medical staff to perform MRIs on site.
He met the coaching staff and several players, viewed the Cowboys' Super Bowl trophies and had lunch with defensive tackle coach Kacy Rodgers.
Then it was time to talk money.
Ferguson was taken to a conference room, where he spent a couple of hours alone, while Sexton and the Cowboys began negotiating a deal. Ferguson was in contact with his wife, Gena, Sexton and some Jets teammates, including John Abraham and Shaun Ellis.
"Things moved so fast," Ferguson said. "It was crazy. First, it was $7 million (for a signing bonus). Then it went to $8 million. I'm sitting there thinking, 'I can't believe this.' At $8 million, the Jets hit a wall. They said that's as high as they could go. Both teams were at $8 million.
"At that point, I wanted to go home and talk it over with my wife. I wanted to step back and take some time to think about things. I wanted to make sure I would make the right decision. But Jerry (who had returned from Atlanta) and Bill wouldn't let me go. It's not like they blocked the door or anything. (But) finally, Jerry said, 'What will it take to get this done?' I said, 'You have to talk to my agent.'"
Around 3:30, Jones and Parcells returned to Ferguson, huge smiles on their faces.
"Jerry had his hands in his pockets and then turned them out, saying, 'I'm out of money,'" Ferguson said.
The deal was done. Ferguson had his blockbuster contract. The Jets' final offer had been four years for $16 million, with an $8 million signing bonus.
"I always thought I was worth that kind of money, but I never thought I'd get it, especially being 30," Ferguson said. "After 30, they say players go downhill."
In the 16 years Jones has owned the Cowboys, he has never spent more cash to acquire free agents in a day than he did Thursday. The Cowboys committed $28 million in signing bonuses and $66 million in contracts on Ferguson, cornerback Anthony Henry and guard Marco Rivera. The previous week, they signed veteran quarterback Drew Bledsoe.
"We were sitting at the combine and saying that the two or three days after the start of free agency might be the most significant in our time with the Cowboys," Jones said. "We had a resolve to execute our plan. It was pretty well-orchestrated."
And it had began with Jones in his plane on a runway at dawn in Tennessee.
After eight long, hard years in the NFL trenches, Ferguson had arrived. As the final details were worked out, Ferguson went to his hotel room.
He started bawling.
"Man, I can't lie, I just started crying," Ferguson said, his voice cracking. "It was so hard to leave the Jets. I called my wife. I called my 'dawgs' on the defensive line (Abraham and Ellis). I didn't know if I had done the right thing. I love those guys. They're part of my family.
"But they told me I did the right thing. They told me I had to take care of myself and my family. They said it's business and they would always be there for me. That made me feel so much better. I mean, the Jets are the only thing I've known. I had some good times there. I was crying like a baby. The Jets are my family. I'll never forget them.
"I just wish they had stepped up earlier and it wouldn't even have come to this. I kept hoping they would. At the end, they did, but it was too late."
Though it wasn't a big factor, Ferguson remembered how he signed a four-year, $12 million contract as a free agent in 2001, then was forced to take a significant pay cut the following year. It was business then and it's business now, he thought.
"Yeah, that was mentioned (during the negotiations)," Ferguson said. "Then, they started paying everybody (Curtis Martin, Wayne Chrebet, Kevin Mawae, Chad Pennington, Ellis), and I was like, 'When is it going to be my turn? I've been here a long time.'"
Ferguson called coach Herman Edwards. He got Edwards' voice mail.
"Herm is my guy," Ferguson said. "He was sort of like a father figure to me. I'd talk to him about my kids, about everything. I told him how difficult it was to leave him, and (defensive coordinator) Donnie Henderson. Donnie did a great job."
In Dallas, the plan is to go to a 3-4 defense with Ferguson at nose tackle. The expectations will be huge for a guy who made 59 tackles last season, forced two fumbles and had 3 1/2 sacks.
"I'm not going to take the money and lay down," Ferguson said. "I still have a lot of goals I want to accomplish. I want to go to the Pro Bowl. I want to win a Super Bowl. When I'm finished playing, I just don't want to tell my kids that I played. It's like, 'What did you do?'
"I got a lot of (fan) votes for the Pro Bowl last season. It felt good that people were starting to recognize me. Now, with this contract, people are going to be looking at me. Now they know about me. I'm just getting started."