There is no night in the NFL calendar year when more poker games are played than tonight. High-stakes bargaining and negotiating takes place with the added and unknown element of the offers behind the curtain, that unknown bringing a variety of results to a highly charged situation between teams and players.
This night is tenser than even the night before training camp. With rookies, all negotiators know that at the end of the day the players have no options but to sign with the team. With free agency, that’s not the case. Thus, the anxiety.
On the players’ side, most agents have a strong idea of what the market might be once the curtain is lifted at midnight. However, it’s always important to note that what is said prior to free agency may be just that — words that do not turn into reality. There are a lot of factors that have to work out for a free agent splash to happen, among them: the team has solid Cap room, the team is not filling other needs through free agency, the team does not have solid young players at the position, the team is willing to make a splash, and the team has the cash. Those factors sound good in the hypothetical discussions prior to free agency; whether they happen when the time of reckoning comes is an open question. Free agency is the Wild West; you never know what might happen.
From the teams’ perspective, they know which players they desperately want to keep and which players they are comfortable letting walk out the door. For the former group, this night becomes a last gasp to retain a player before the Wild West atmosphere of free agency takes place, bringing with it outrageous offers fueled by emotion and “winning” the battle of signing the player over other interested teams. The true pressure for Cap managers around the league is negotiating as best they can but never losing sight of the goal of delivering the player back to the team.
I was in one of those situations in 2006. I had tried in vain for months to sign one of the Packers’ most important players, Aaron Kampman. Aaron was not only a solid player on the field but had true value to the team in the locker room. Defensive linemen can be a tough group character-wise, and that was the case with the Packers until Aaron got there. He raised the character level and tone of that group immensely just by his highly principled ways.
Aaron and his agent were intent on slow-playing my advances during the 2005 season, preferring to wait until the leverage built as we entered the free agency. It worked (I always tried to sign players before reaching the eve of free agency, reducing their leverage).
Aaron, for reasons described above, was a player we had to have and a player I had to deliver, much like Chad Clifton on the same night two years earlier. We paid a premium for Aaron three years ago tonight. The other suitors moved to other similarly priced options, such as Houston with Anthony Weaver (released this week). It seemed like a lot to pay for Aaron’s production at the time, but the deal soon looked like a bargain for the Packers and has appeared so ever since.
There are similar players to Aaron Kampman around the league tonight, with teams trying to negotiate the best they can — but at the end of the night, they cannot lose the player. There will be lots of nail-biting tonight because the results may have dramatic effects on the 2009 NFL season.