A party was brimming at Redskins Park and there was hardly time for Eric Schaffer to revel in it, even though he was the driving force behind the excitement that was pulsating through the team’s building past 8 p.m. on a Friday night in late April.
Schaffer had just spent the last several hours in his office negotiating with agent Ryan Williams, fending off charging teams and hammering away at the framework of the five-year, $75 million contract that would ultimately lead Josh Norman to the Washington Redskins.
Some 48 hours earlier, the Carolina Panthers made the stunning decision to rescind Norman’s franchise tag, and general manager Scot McCloughan wanted to take his shot at acquiring the All-Pro cornerback. Schaffer briefed McCloughan and team president Bruce Allen on what he thought it would take to land Norman. More importantly, he reiterated that signing Norman would not compromise the roster composition the organization had so delicately mapped out in order to execute McCloughan’s philosophy of building a championship-caliber team from within.
Once Schaffer got the go-ahead, he crafted 10 contract models, picked the best one and called Michael George, who was representing Norman at the time. Schaffer’s initial offer set in motion a high-stakes courtship — which centered on flying Norman and his family to Washington on owner Dan Snyder’s private jet — and ensured the Redskins would be the first and last team to have a chance at signing the suddenly coveted free agent.
“We sign a free agent like Josh Norman, that had nothing to do with me or Scot,” coach Jay Gruden said. “That was Schaffer behind the scenes getting everything done.”
As Schaffer labored with Williams, others from the Redskins’ staff, including McCloughan, Gruden and defensive coordinator Joe Barry, met with Norman and his family and made their pitch. When the deal was complete, a celebration ensued and pictures flooded through social media. Schaffer retreated to his office, a quiet, tucked-away space in Redskins Park not nearly big enough to house the responsibilities entrusted in him as the team’s vice president of football administration and general counsel, and drafted a 30-page contract.
It is here where Schaffer is most comfortable — out of the spotlight and in the background — but he is as valuable to the organization as he is understated.
“He’s excellent,” McCloughan said. “Before I took the job, a lot of people I respect around the league all praised him. He wears a lot of hats for the organization which isn’t easy, but he accomplishes everything we need to get done. He makes us better.”
‘All about the work’
Raised in Cleveland, Schaffer attended Michigan and juggled a grueling schedule working in IMG’s motorsports division, where he oversaw the acquisition of sponsorships and managed the advertising layout surrounding race tracks for major IndyCar Grand Prix races.
“He was doing a job of a 40-year-old at 20, but that’s just Eric,” said Jeff Orloff, former senior vice president of operations at IMG.
Following his graduation in 1996, Schaffer returned home to care for his mother, Jan, who later died of skin cancer. It was Jan who raised Schaffer and his brothers, Andy and Ryan, and instilled in him a strong work ethic and an affable but firm personality.
“My mom was everything,” Schaffer said. “She was tough, hard-working. It’s close to 20 years since she’s passed away and it drives me to succeed. I still have that voice in my head that wants me to do well and treat people the right way.”
After completing law school at Case Western Reserve, Schaffer moved to Kansas City to work with Tom Condon, then IMG’s president of football operations. While Condon negotiated contracts for the league’s superstars, Schaffer was tasked with drafting them so they complied with the CBA.
A tattered copy of the NFL’s Collective Bargaining Agreement from 1998 remains in Schaffer’s office. It’s marked liberally and is a reminder of the crash course Schaffer gave himself in the league’s labor agreement when he was hired in 2000 to work for Condon, regarded as one of the most powerful agents in sports.
“You had to figure it out [yourself], or you were out,” Schaffer said. “We’d debate back and forth. I’d take the other side, [and] we would switch and negotiate with each other in our office for our client. I’d prepare that way. I loved it. It was all about the work. It was like getting your master’s in negotiating.”
What Schaffer didn’t like about being an agent was the recruiting aspect. He was intrigued by teambuilding, and, after three years at IMG as a certified agent, Schaffer was hired by the Redskins in 2003 to manage their salary cap.
Some of his greatest challenges occurred early in his tenure with the Redskins. In March 2005, the team traded wide receiver Laveranues Coles to the New York Jets for wide receiver Santana Moss. Coles had signed a seven-year, $35 million contract two years earlier, meaning Schaffer had to find a way for the team absorb the remainder of his $13 million signing bonus while inking Moss to a six-year, $26.5 million extension two months later.
“The creative thinking that goes on there can lead you to real success in some areas,” said Joe Gibbs, whose second stint as the coach of the Redskins lasted from 2004 through 2008. “With Eric, you could get creative advice. There were times he would stand up and was bold enough to give you his real opinion, and that was very valuable.”
Hours before the start of free agency in 2012, Schaffer and the Redskins were informed they were being penalized $36 million in salary cap space for front-loading contracts during the uncapped season in 2010. “We were very surprised,” Schaffer said. Despite the penalty, Schaffer negotiated a five-year, $42.5 million contract with free agent wide receiver Pierre Garcon to Washington — one that, in that season, assessed the Redskins a cap hit of just $4.7 million.
“At that point, I thought Eric was going to have a tough job ahead of him, and saying tough is an understatement,” said Condon, now the head of CAA’s powerhouse football firm.
“He solved the problem and did an excellent job. In my dealings with him since he’s taken over that job at the Redskins, his experience has broadened substantially since working with me.”
Before the Redskins signed tight end Jordan Reed to a five-year, $46.75 million contract extension early last month, Schaffer probed Gruden and offensive coordinator Sean McVay. He wondered how the 25-year-old compared to other tight ends Gruden and McVay have coached.
Schaffer also asked Barry how he’d cover Reed and how that strategy compares to tight ends such as Travis Kelce, who received a similar five-year, $46.8 million extension from the Kansas City Chiefs in January. He gave McCloughan a list of names, without values attached, and asked where he thought Reed ranked.
“The three prongs, to me, of a front office have to be in lockstep or you’re screwed up,” Schaffer said. “It has to be the scouting and the personnel, the coaching, and it has to be the money and the cap. If those areas are not exactly on the same page, you can make a major mistake.”
Schaffer, 42, said that lesson is the greatest one he’s learned since joining the Redskins, one gleaned from missteps such as Adam Archuleta’s six-year, $30 million contract in 2006 and Albert Haynesworth’s seven-year, $100 million megadeal in 2009.
“[Those contracts] were a great example of a situation of coaching, personnel and money not getting together,” Schaffer said. “Every team makes mistakes. Your best chance is when you’re together.”
That alignment exists now, which why the Redskins were comfortable pursuing Norman in April despite a seeming disregard for McCloughan’s overall plan. Washington had approximately $12 million in salary cap space before it signed Norman, whose deal eventually called for a $15 million signing bonus, $37 million guaranteed in his first two seasons, a first-year salary cap hit of $8 million and a charge of $20 million in 2017.
The size of that second-year cap hit isn’t a concern to Schaffer, who is confident it still fits into the puzzle of the overall roster composition. His belief: A successful team has approximately half of its roster signed to rookie contracts to supplement premium-priced established players, and the goal should be to have enough cap space to extend home-grown players when their rookie deals expire.
It’s a philosophy that echoes McCloughan’s. The Redskins’ general manager, regarded among his peers as a shrewd evaluator of talent, believes strongly in building from within the draft. That has set the foundation for a more balanced roster and is a stark contrast from the veteran-heavy teams that challenged Schaffer and strained the Redskins’ salary cap in previous years. The success of rookie Jamison Crowder, who caught 59 passes for 604 yards and two touchdowns as a rookie last season, put the Redskins in a position to cut veteran Andre Roberts and save $4 million this year.
That approach affords the team the ability to sign someone such as Norman when the opportunity arises. Similarly, third-year cornerback Bashaud Breeland has a cap hit of $720,000 this season — seemingly a bargain for a player who anchored the secondary in 2015 and is expected to start opposite Norman.
“You can pay certain players at the top level, the Josh Normans, but if we don’t have Breeland on the opposite side making the minimum for his level [of play], it doesn’t work,” Schaffer said.
The art of the deal
Those who know Schaffer consider him a firm negotiator, but say he isn’t abrasive. Joel Segal, the president of football and team sports at Lagardere, represents Reed, wide receivers DeSean Jackson and Josh Doctson, safety DeAngelo Hall and inside linebacker Perry Riley and has negotiated with Schaffer extensively.
“If you’re going to endeavor into a deal with Eric, you better know your numbers and better be prepared — because he will be,” Segal said.
While Schaffer’s initial offer to Norman required additional work — both sides needed additional assurances — Williams, the lead representation for Norman throughout negotiations with the Redskins, was more than willing to accept that fact.
“When you’re presenting two sides of a situation, often times there’s contention, points of disagreement that you come to,” Williams said. “And with Eric, you just know that you’re going to be able to work through them.”
During an initial phone call with Williams before Norman’s arrival, Schaffer keyed in on the cornerback’s desire to make the decision with his family, and it was he who hatched the idea of flying the group to Washington. That, coupled with an initial offer that got Norman’s attention, helped the Redskins seal the deal.
“What it did was apply pressure,” said Williams, from Athletes First. “It made other teams step up quickly if they’d get involved, which teams ultimately did. Eric being so delicate with his handling of the situation made is so Josh felt wanted, not pressured. There’s magic in that.”