Every year at the NFL annual meetings, there is a presentation showing a negative correlation between spending big in free agency and winning. The proven model of success is investing in one’s own players rather than others. The takeaway was not a directive to not spend; that would be collusion. It was simply graphs and charts showing how few free agents make the Pro Bowl and/or contribute to winning. The message jibes with one of my mantras: teams that win in March rarely win in January.
The NFL does not need really that PowerPoint, though. There are always public examples about recent free agent treasures turned to trash.
On the first day or two of free agency, there are a few players each year who punch their golden ticket, taking the “stupid money” from teams looking to make a splash (this year’s group featured Julius Peppers, Karlos Dansby and a few others). Let’s look at a few situations over the past two years.
The Jets made Alan Faneca the highest-paid guard in NFL history, jumping the market with a four-year deal with $23 million guaranteed. Halfway through that deal, the Jets dumped Faneca despite $5.25 million remaining on that guarantee. The Jets will pay Faneca that amount on top of the $2.5 million he is now receiving from the Cardinals.
The Raiders signed Gibril Wilson – yes, Gibril Wilson -- to a staggering deal with $16 million guaranteed and $9 million in 2008 only to shed their treasure after 11 months. Wilson - who must be living right - earned another golden ticket in 2009 free agency from the Dolphins with $8 million guaranteed. One year later, the Dolphins turned the same treasure into trash, releasing Wilson.
Albert Haynesworth’s saga has been a running soap opera this offseason. The Redskins tried desperately to either delay the April 1st bonus of $21 million or trade him before it was due, both without success. Once that check was cashed, the team lost all leverage, that money in the bank as part of the $32 million he has received from the team for one season.
Haynesworth has been a constant pebble in the shoe of new coach Mike Shanahan. Without an ability to take his money, Shanahan has tried to take his will, serving him up to fans and media ready to anoint Haynesworth the poster child for the overpaid and under motivated athlete.
TJ Houshmandzadeh, like Haynesworth, was inherited as a big-ticket free agent by new coaching and management in Seattle that wishes it could have a do-over. The massive deal with the Seahawks was a surprise, as he had virtually no teams interested and the Seahawks poor results with another high-priced receiver in Deion Branch.
Now the Seahawks are on the hook for all but the veteran minimum ($855,000) of his $7 million guarantee for 2010.
Perhaps no position has been prone to misses in free agency as wide receiver. There is graveyard full of bad contracts for receivers changing teams, consisting of (including trades): Alvin Harper, Andre Rison, Derrick Alexander, Javon Walker, Roy Williams, Peerless Price, Terry Glenn, Laverunes Coles, Ernest Wilford, Antonio Bryant, Branch and many more. Not a good omen for the Lions and their bonus baby wide receiver this year in free agency, Nate Burleson.
ICONAndrews lasted 18 months with the Eagles.
And in a deal that I was intimately involved with in consulting with the Eagles last year on the first day of free agency, they signed Stacy Andrews -- brother of talented but troubled Shawn -- to a seven-year deal that lasted 18 months. Andrews made $10 million in 18 months with the team (not a very good negotiating job by me), including a $4.1 million roster bonus in March and a $500,000 workout bonus, before being shipped out to Seattle for a 2011 seventh-round pick. He is further owed a guaranteed salary this year of $900,000, an amount assumed by the Seahawks.
Again, the NFL doesn’t need charts to tell teams about this danger.
The Bengals thought they had their treasure at wide receiver this year in Antonio Bryant after failing to find him last year in Laveranues Coles. Bryant signed a four-year $28 million deal which turned into a four-month, $7.85 million expensive mistake as that treasure was put out in the trash. With $9.6M given to Coles last year, that is a lot of wide receiver treasure kicked to the curb.
The Broncos gave free agent defensive tackle Jarvis Green a four-year contract in March with total value approaching $12 million. Those four years became barely four months although Green keeps his $2.5 million signing bonus and his $755,000 guaranteed salary is due and becomes offset if and when he receives any 2010 compensation from another team.
No charts and graphs needed about the dangers of swimming in the free agency waters. The headlines make it clear. For every exception to the rule – Charles Woodson, Drew Brees, etc. – there are tens of millions of dollars flushed away at the free agent trough.
Later in the week I will address the treasure to trash, high draft choice edition.
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