Why NFL Free Agency doesn't work: part II

NBA notes

A couple quick notes on the NBA as we await the dramatic conclusion of LeBronathon tonight:

  • Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh did what I suggested LeBron may do, fulfilling the master plan of having their contracts expire simultaneously to their full advantage to play together.
  • The $100 million given by the Knicks to Amare Stoudemire, $80 million given by the Bulls to Carlos Boozer, $35 million given by the Nets to someone named Travis Outlaw and the combined hundreds of millions that Wade, Bosh and James will reap remind us again that when it comes to guaranteed money, NFL players are sitting at the kids table compared to their brethren in basketball and baseball.
  • My best guess on WWLD (What Will LeBron Do): he joins his buddies in Miami as part of a plan hatched long ago to for he, Wade and Bosh to make close-to-maximum salaries, pay no state income tax and potentially win championships. As for Cleveland, he may surprise me, but I’m just not feeling it unless this whole thing was a charade.

Back to football and free agency, I appreciate the response to the previous column. To clarify, I am not saying NFL free agency never works out. I remember signing free agent Charles Woodson, the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year, and will detail Woodson's signing in a coming column. I am saying that due to the schematic nature of football, its injury rate, it coaching turnover and its interdependency on so many players, the deck is stacked against one player having tremendous impact. Here was a less successful venture into those waters.

The chase

In 2002, I was the point man for the Packers in chasing Joe Johnson, a two-time Pro Bowl defensive end from the Saints who was to be the key to our championship run. Johnson -- or so we thought – would be a prized acquisition, an accomplished player at a high impact position strong against the run and pass. We recruited Joe both at our facility and coach/general manager Mike Sherman visited him at his home.

As happens in free agency so often, the impulse and emotion of the chase took over. The Saints were intent on keeping Johnson, and the game was on.

My role was to be a balance between the football side of the organization and the business side. The football needs were more immediate and impulsive; the business side was more long-term and strategic. In some cases, I was a voice of action; in others like this, a voice of reason, or hoped to be.

In the case of Johnson, I warned of the ramifications of venturing into the financial neighborhood that we heading. As to the inevitable question “Can we do it?” the answer was yes although we would have to shed in other areas (I had to get Frank Winters to take a pay cut just to enter our deal into the system and stay under the Cap).

We finally won the battle for Johnson, a deal I closed from the Magic Kingdom with my family after the NFL meetings in Orlando that year. As I sat on the Dumbo ride after closing the deal, I knew we had made a big deal for a game-changing player, which was exhilarating. I also knew the contract was a challenge and the momentary euphoria could turn to long-term angst.

Money not love

Of course, Johnson didn’t work out. He was a nice guy and worked with me over the next couple years to take pay cuts, as I was able to provide him cash advances in exchange for lower salaries. But his career was derailed by injury, as so many are, perhaps the biggest reason to avoid free agents with any age on them. With Joe, I also detected something deeper.

Joe came to Green Bay for the money but I could tell his heart was in New Orleans. He didn’t really want to leave the Saints; he had to leave with what we were offering.

This happens every year throughout the league. Players are seduced by the recruiting of free agency, the lure of a big new contract and, in some cases, are emboldened by feelings of a lack of respect from the front office of their incumbent team. They leave for what they think is greener grass. Often it is not.

I saw the Johnson issue from the other side at the Packers many times. Players left for better deals only to later call and ask about returning to Green Bay. They left for different reasons -- more money, the lure of recruiting, feelings of disrespect from the front office, etc, but they ultimately missed where they were.

Dawkins decision

Last year I was involved in the Eagles negotiation with Brian Dawkins (with a result that nearly had me enroll in witness protection in Philadelphia). Although we presented an offer well above the existing safety market at the time, the Broncos jumped that range by a healthy margin.

I don’t know Brian and only dealt with his agent. I do know that he loved Philadelphia and it loved him back. My sense is his heart is still with the Eagles while he plays for the Broncos.

In talking to players, agents and teams, there is a constant refrain about the experience: players leave for free agent riches yet find, like the teams, that often the relationship becomes the indifferent remains of a passionate start.

My sense is tonight LeBron will say his heart is in Cleveland but he will leave his heart behind.

Follow me on Twitter at adbrandt.

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