End Game for Wandering Drew

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March 15, 2004
End Game for Wandering Drew

by Bob Hulsey

"You got to know when to hold ’em,
Know when to fold ’em,
Know when to walk away
And know when to run."

– Kenny Rogers, "The Gambler"

Never doubt that Texans General Manager Charley Casserly has some nerve. Casserly took a throw-away pick in the sixth round of the 2003 draft and, after much toil and trouble, spun it into a third-rounder for 2005.

The ballyhooed Drew Henson deal is finally done and now we can cancel the reality series "Who Wants To Buy A Millionaire?" while Dallas starts an all-new season of "The Apprentice". Casserly took Henson, a failing third baseman in the New York Yankee farm system, and shopped him around the NFL, logging who knows how much in long distance calls and frequent flyer miles to get the former Michigan quarterback signed, sealed and delivered. Everyone, even SportsNation at ESPN.com, is trying to assess who got the best of this deal.

Jerry Jones, Bill Parcells and the Dallas Cowboys turned out to be the buyer and they can breathe a sigh of relief knowing this baseball player didn’t cost them as much as their last one. You’d have thought they had learned their lesson with Chad Hutchinson, who has quarterbacked Dallas to exactly two more wins in his comeback career than Kay Bailey Hutchison has and is now testing the bottled waters of NFL Europe just to prove to his bosses he can still play.

Hutchinson signed a seven-year deal with a $3.1 million signing bonus. His annual salary figures are spotty but it appears he’s earning around $850,000 a season if you don’t include the bonus. Contrast that with the approximately $450,000 a year Casserly is paying for his own third-round backup quarterback prospect Dave Ragone. Henson is guaranteed $3.5 million in the four-to-eight-year contract and, with sixth-round money as a starting point, his salary can’t climb very fast due to salary cap restrictions. Henson’s money is tied up in escalator clauses and incentives. There’s no signing bonus in it at all.

Dallas has also bought themselves another quarterback controversy, just as Quincy Carter had begun to establish himself as The Man in Big D. Rumor is that Parcells would still like to bring in ancient Vinny Testaverde as a security blanket, making the Cowboys’ sideline huddle very crowded indeed.

On paper, it’s a good deal for Dallas. If you buy into the notion that Henson can shake off three years of rust and display first-round skills, getting him for a third-rounder and a few million is a bargain. If that rust appears more permanent, or Henson shows he can’t hit an open receiver any better than he can hit a curveball, Ol’ Plastic Face will just need to sign another endorsement deal to recoup his losses.

On paper, it’s a good deal for Houston too. Casserly’s disdain for the tail end of the 2003 draft pool could hardly be disguised, particularly when his last pick was a long snapper from Texas A&M. Getting a worthless sixth-round pick to turn into a third-round choice two years down the road is a nice return on investment. You Houstonians should find out where Charley’s house is and buy something in the same neighborhood. He clearly understands "The Art of The Deal".

The person who seems to have been making all the wrong moves in this story is Team Henson. The only worse thing they could have done is hired Terrell Owens’ agent to file the necessary paperwork.

Henson was guaranteed another $12 million if he had just stayed put and continued to strike out and make bad throws in the Yankee farm system. Maybe his ego took too hard a jolt when the Bronx Bombers traded for a third baseman (Aaron Boone) and then ix-nayed any thought of having Drew fight for the job when Boone was injured. But it didn’t need to come that far.

If Casserly could see the handwriting on the wall back in April of last year, one would have thought Henson’s handlers should have seen it too. Instead, they insisted Henson had a career in baseball and wasn’t interested in playing football again. By the fall, as Henson rode the pines at Yankee Stadium, the rumors floated that he was looking at getting back into football.

My belief is that he would have been better served buying out his contract last summer and letting the Texans shop him during the season when he would have had the chance to get some football tutoring and made himself a year closer to free agency. It worked that way for Milford Brown. Instead, it wasn’t until February that Henson finally got out of his Yankee contract and declared himself ready to be a football player again.

With his rights tied up by the Texans, Henson would not have been able to work out for any NFL team without Casserly’s permission but that was really the only leverage Houston had over him. He was free to take his chances in the 2004 draft and probably would have been picked no later than the third round. It would have been just that easy to leave Casserly holding the bag and opt for a possible handshake with Paul Tagliabue and the chance to hold up a jersey with a "1" on it while flashes popped all around him.

Instead, he expressed his desire to choose the team he would play for and probably squandered a big chunk of change in the process. True, money isn’t everything, but you’ll never get an agent to admit that. Most of them would have steered the young lad wherever the most dollars led and that certainly wasn’t by saddling him with a sixth-round salary straightjacket.

Nor is it obvious that he is the Cowboys’ future. Carter is a young man and Hutchinson is still lurking. If all the kid wanted was a clear path to be a starter, there were easier situations he could have placed himself into – Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Buffalo among them. In Dallas, he’ll still need to keep an eye over both shoulders as he develops. And fans can be very unforgiving when their saviors struggle to cement a job. Call me a skeptic, but I don’t think Henson will find it easy winning a starter’s job there.

Casserly made his minimum trade demand known around the league – a first-day pick in 2004 or 2005. I’m sure he hoped that he could create a bidding war that would lead to another first-rounder in his pocket. It never developed.

Dallas, Buffalo, St. Louis and Cleveland all expressed a willingness to trade a third-rounder but there was still the thorny issue of getting Drew to accept a contract that met both his standards, his new employer’s and the NFL’s. There were fears that negotiating with Drew Henson would be like negotiating with Dru Barrymore. The public show of Henson’s agent suggesting a 10-15 year contract certainly didn’t endear him to Casserly’s cause.

In the end, Casserly jumped at the first offer that all parties could agree to. Early reports said that Buffalo and St. Louis had also made offers but my hunch says that Henson just wanted to be a Cowboy. After all, he’d already signed with the University of Michigan and the New York Yankees. He apparently needs to be with an organization he feels has a dynasty rep. If it weren’t true, why not go back into the draft, sign a better contract and live his NFL dream as an Arizona Cardinal or a San Diego Charger? Apparently, he needs the gloss that only a "big-time" club can give him. After a few years of fantasizing he was the next Derek Jeter, he can now set his sights on pretending he’s the next Troy Aikman.

But now the trade is done and we in Texanland can finally move on with our lives. Hopefully the next time we hear about Drew Henson is when Casserly is making that pick in 2005 for a stud linebacker that will blossom into an All-Pro. Of course, it would be really fun to stomp our former sixth-round draft choice when we bury Dallas again in 2006. By then, David Carr should be reaching All-Pro status himself while Henson, Carter, Hutchinson and maybe Drew Bledsoe and Ray Lucas will be creating a quarterback quagmire in Big D.

Meanwhile, it’s good knowing Houston has a GM that knows when to hold ’em, fold ’em, walk away and (especially) when to run. There’ll be time enough to count ’em when the dealin’s done.

Bob Hulsey would have been happy just to take $12 million of George Steinbrenner’s money and continue sucking at third base, even if that meant living in Columbus, OH for two summers. That makes a mighty fine nest egg while looking for your next line of work.

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