Golden Tate and the Conundrum of Replaceable Players

Seattle Seahawks v St Louis RamsThere are more than a few dozen Golden Tates. He is a type. He is not the prototype. He is not Calvin Johnson. You can replace a Golden Tate with another Tate-type. You cannot replace a Calvin Johnson, a prototype, when only one of his kind, a six-foot-five-inch speedster with hands like cocoa butter, exists.

This is the reality of business in the National Football League. Unless you are a unique breed, amongst the elite in the sport, you are replaceable. You’re an after-market iPhone charger, a USB thumb drive, a pair of Levi’s 501s. We can go to the store and easily get more of you. Or in the case of your average NFL player, browse the open market for a viable successor.

Tate is the perfect example of a player who is just good enough to command eyebrow-raising interest from a handful of teams in the league, yet not quite good enough to force any of those teams to rush to the front of the line for his services. He is Betty, not Veronica. He is Jessie Spano, not Kelly Kapowski. He is Jerome James, not Lebron James.

It is not pretty, this vetting of an individual’s worth. Where average Joes like you and I grow up wanting to be pro athletes, pro athletes incubate under a spotlight that roasts them to the point of wanting to be treated like normal people. When millions of dollars are on the line, however, emotions go out the window, personalities take a back seat to abilities, and talent quickly overshadows character.

This is not your typical workplace, the NFL. Where an account manager or a sales rep might be able to take home an annual bump in salary and retain a job for decades without doing anything to separate himself from his peers, the world of pro sports dictates much loftier performance standards.

By contrast, however, even the NFL can relate itself as a business to American office life. Your job is titled “IT Technician No. 2” for a reason. It’s not called “David” or “Stephen” or whatever your name might be. Your job has a generic title because anyone with your skill set can fill the role. The same goes for pro sports, where anyone with a certain combination of athleticism and aptitude can become a point guard, an outfielder, or even a wide receiver.

That is where we find ourselves with Tate. He was not Golden Tate, Seattle Seahawk. He was Golden Tate, wide receiver, Seattle Seahawks. There are other receivers on the team’s active roster, let alone amongst the entire league. And because of this, along with the NFL’s stringent salary cap, Tate’s value is now, and forever will be, restricted to a certain number.

How important is re-signing a “type” player like Tate when it impacts whether or not a team can sign or re-sign a prototype? Richard Sherman, for example, is a prototype. Earl Thomas is a prototype. Kam Chancellor is a prototype. These are athletes like the aforementioned Calvin Johnson who are the ideal human specimen for the role they fill in their line of work. They are one-of-a-kind, undeniably unique, arguably irreplaceable employees. Most NFL franchises lack a prototype at any position on their roster. The Seahawks happen to have three prototypes on defense alone. And two of these three prototypes just happen to have contracts set to expire in the next couple years.

In Major League Baseball, teams like to calculate one’s Value Over Replacement Player, or VORP, for short. The advanced metric essentially determines how much a player is worth statistically compared to an average baseline, which in this case is represented by a player of “replacement” value. The same metric can be applied to all sports, including football, but isn’t nearly as prevalent or publicized in other leagues as it is with regards to MLB. Even still, if we were to calculate the VORP of the Seahawks’ three prototypes – Sherman, Thomas, and Chancellor – then compare those metrics to the VORP of a guy like Tate, the differences would be staggering. Without a doubt, Tate’s value would pale in contrast to his Legion of Boom teammates. And therein lies the rub.

With Sherman and Thomas both up for contract renewals in the near-term (not to mention a pair of Russells who will need to be paid soon), the Seahawks will need to manage their money carefully over the ensuing seasons. What that likely means is that guys like Tate, who can be replaced by assets of similar ability at lesser value, might not be worth retaining. Especially if the cost of such players severely mitigates the amount of cash that can be devoted to critically invaluable resources like the boom legionaries.

The emotion of these impending decisions will compel many fans to root openly for the retention of “type” players. These aren’t just names on a sheet of paper or warriors in uniform to the audience members who have grown close to a ballclub. These players, regardless of real or perceived value, are in fact people with personalities, hearts, and minds of their own. And because of that, passion and honest sentiments will certainly get in the way. To a business like the NFL, however, none of that matters.

Golden Tate is off to Detroit to play for the Lions at a rate much higher than the $630,000 he made playing for the Seahawks in 2013. By fans and the organization alike, Tate the person will certainly be missed. It remains to be seen how anyone will truly remember Tate the player, though.

When the Seahawks break camp in the fall and take the field with Tate’s replacement catching passes in a Seattle uniform, the sentiments of the day Golden Tate left town will matter very little. And should that replacement excel beyond Tate’s production, onlookers will forget all about that time they lamented the loss of a “type” guy. A “type” guy who might have hindered the team’s pursuit of prototypes, no less.

This is the conundrum NFL teams face every year. These are the results of that conundrum. It’s not personal, it’s business. Deal with it.

2 responses

  1. Nice article, I do agree that Tate is replaceable, but not by just some guy out there that plays wide receiver. He isn’t just an average “type” receiver, he caught 144 of 149 ‘Catchable’ passes since 2011; that’s quite a bit better than the average Joe, and he led the league in that category. His blocking was outstanding, and though people don’t often think of receivers blocking as important(mainly because not many can block well) Tate was a difference maker in that category as well. Which makes me wonder if he is as easily replaceable as you might think. He is a receiver in the mold of Hines Ward, and I think that when you factor in the blocking and soft hands he could be a great receiver. Too bad we spent big on Harvin, who may be more talented but also a more fragile build. Tate has a lot more mileage left in the tank.

  2. Also how many concussions has Harvin had? I don’t think guys can just keep letting those pile up. I even recall a couple years back he was getting terrible migraines and was possibly going to be forced into retirement. I love him he’s a great player to have when on the field(a genuine superstar), but his injury history is a pretty big red-flag.

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