Why NFL Free Agency doesn't work
First, someone who has been a subject of many a column here, JaMarcus Russell, was arrested this past weekend for possession of a controlled substance. As I detailed in December, Russell appears to be the leader in the clubhouse for the most money spent in the NFL for the least performance.
With Russell the poster boy for what's wrong with rookie contracts, Albert Haynesworth has become the same for free agent contracts. Free agency is the hot topic in sports right now, centered on a certain free agent whose contract expired last week with the Cleveland Cavaliers. With the topic front and center, let’s take a multi-part look at free agency in football.
Although NFL free agency has been relatively dormant in this uncapped year that has seen player-spending drop, even in the height of spending results have been mixed at best. The Redskins’ certainly wish they could have a mulligan on their decision a year ago to lavishly reward Haynesworth.
The first free agent: Big dog
When NFL free agency finally arrived in 1993, the biggest catch of all, Reggie White, defied common wisdom and went to Green Bay for the stated reason of advice from a higher power and the unstated reason of much more money than anywhere else.
White changed the image of the franchise with his decision. I remember that he retired on the day I started in Green Bay, February 17, 1999, but later unretired and inquired about returning to the team. In a scenario that was to play out again with Brett Favre, the Packers denied his request to rejoin the team, although White was allowed to go to chosen second choice, the Carolina Panthers.
White was an extremely successful free agent signing but more the exception than the rule. Many teams have found this out the hard way in the 17 years of NFL free agency.
Teams that make a lot of noise in March rarely do so in January. The big splash signings of free agency certainly create short-term buzz but reality soon sets in. The team now has the player and his wieldy contract to go along with the expectations the signing has created, which are usually not met.
More often than not, the team and the player sign a long-term contract – for the player to get as much bonus money as possible – only to have the team looking for a way out in a few years. Today’s treasures soon become tomorrow’s trash. Alan Faneca was an example this year; it happens every year.
There have been several years, such as last year with Haynesworth, where the Redskins have “won” March. How’s that worked out for them?
And this is not all about the Redskins. Some of the teams that have reputations of being well managed and careful in their spending have fallen into the free agency trap. Examples include the Packers with Joe Johnson (more to come), the Eagles (Jevon Kearse), the Patriots (Adalius Thomas) and more.
At league meetings and labor seminars every year, the NFL Management Council presents slides illustrating large free agent signings and their negative correlation to winning and producing Pro Bowl players. The league doesn’t tell teams not to sign free agents; that would be collusion. It simply shows data and benefits of a strategy of signing one’s own players rather than someone else’s -- a strategy many teams use.
Why Free Agency rarely works
Football is about schemes, sets, body types, coaching philosophies, etc. Tony Dungy loved fast, small linebackers, Bill Parcells likes big, stout linebackers: the Redskins employed a 4-3 defense last year, a 3-4 this year, etc. Coaching staffs change; players that fit the previous scheme do not fit the present one. And, of course, football players are completely dependent on teammates; the best players play less than half the game.
For these reasons, moving parts are not as seamless as in other sports. A player may look enticing on a board of players eligible for free agency (or the Draft, for that matter) but the question that has to be asked and answered is not how good the player is, but how good the player will be in our system?
In baseball, players pitch, hit and field. In basketball, a couple of players may now change the landscape of the sport. There are no 3-4 defenses, no cover 2s, no west coast offenses, two tight end sets, etc. These sports put free agent players in better position to succeed than football. Football is the ultimate team sport, ironically a reason why free agency has less meaning.
So as LeBron, Chris Bosh, Dwayne Wade and others decide on their free agency options, there is a much greater chance their salivating suitors will be happy with the acquisition and that it will not end up being a Haynesworth-sized disappointment. There are no Lebron-type free agents in football.
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