Burning The Midnight Oil

Last night, if you went to any NFL team office, you saw plenty of activity:

More cars in the parking lot than usual, pizzas being delivered, secretaries staying late and reporters hanging in plain sight or slouched stealthily in their cars staking out the facility.


In some of my most recent articles, I’ve made several references about team officials who play in the gray area of tampering, or just blatantly do it. What I didn’t mention is that there are a few teams that carry themselves to the letter of the law. These are the teams that literally make their first contact with player agents at 12:01 a.m. eastern time.

Although these teams may appear to have to play catch-up to the market, it doesn’t necessarily count them out. Any seasoned agent is going to take the call, listen to the offer and interest, then let the team know where the market stands at that moment. The agent says something like,”Hey, Bob, the market for player X is at $15 million in guarantees, with $24 million in the first three years and going higher, much higher.”

Now, the agent could actually be bluffing and setting the market or raising the market. Then the agent says, “Are you competitive at these numbers?” Then Bob might say, “Absolutely. What will it take to get it done in this conversation?” He says this because he knows that if the agent hangs up, he’s going to take the next team’s call or go back to the higher bidder and tell him the market is going higher. Some teams will ask the agent to keep them on hold for as long as it takes.

If a team is going after several free agents, it will incorporate a small army of front office people to manage the phones. As an agent, if the cap guy and/or the GM is the one calling you on the first day of free agency, it’s a good sign your client is a priority to that team. If you get somebody else, it could mean your client is option No. 2 or down the priority list.


Because we live in an age with multiple mass media outlets, including this one, there is actually immense competition for information. Therefore, teams are now playing things very close to the vest in free agency. About 10 years ago and beyond, everyone in the front office knew who the team was targeting. Today, it may be limited to the owner, GM, cap guy, and head coach. And in one case, just Al Davis!


When an agent wants to hype up the market for his client, he simply lets one of the ESPN or NFL Network reporters get through. These guys work their butts off at this time of year and they have very little time to confirm stories. So they’ll call agents and ask them where their player or players are headed. Are they close to a deal? Where is the market? What are the terms?

The agents who are looking for some leverage to increase the numbers may tell the reporter something like, “I have three teams interested at $7 million per year and Tampa is his next visit.” In reality, he may have one team interested at $6 million a year and Tampa is only interested at $5 million. Then all of a sudden, three minutes later there’s the agent’s message on TV for the rest of the league to hear. It works every time. (However, Adam, Mort, John and others are catching on.)


I was representing one of my first big free agents in the mid-1990s when I was first introduced to the neutral verifier.

As soon as the clock struck midnight, I received a call. A booty call? I’m not so lucky. It was Team A calling about my hot free agent. My client’s current team (Team B), in the same division, wanted him back as well. Team A made me a nice offer early in the morning, which I then forced Team B to match. However, Team B wanted to see the fax from Team A to make sure I was being honest with the numbers. I was certainly a bit offended. C’mon, an agent bluffing? No way. Anyway, Team B told me they were calling the neutral verifier to check on the offer. The neutral verifier is a league official in charge of verifying offers from other teams. However, the verifier does not disclose which team wants to check on the validity of the offer.

About two minutes later, I got a call from Team A saying, “The offer is off the table, but stay tuned. Goodbye.” So now I’m thinking, “What the hell just happened? Team A pulls the offer and Team B thinks I’m lying!” I felt like Rodney Dangerfield.

A few minutes later, Team B called and said, “We’re not raising our offer and we don’t think you have one from Team A.” Evidently the neutral verifier called Team A, which took its offer off the table before it picked up the line and told the verifier it had no offer at that moment. Then, a few minutes later, Team A called back and said, ”The offer is back on the table.” All this happened in less than five minutes, and it finally hit me what had occurred. My first thought was, “I’m being played.” Then my next thought was, “Brilliant move by Team A.”

So I convinced Team B that my offer was legit, and they stepped up and beat Team A’s deal.

Not too many teams use the verifier as frequently as you’d think because of moves liked the one Team A pulled. However, if they’re dealing with agents they don’t trust, the verifier will get a call. I assume he’s burning the midnight oil tonight along with everyone else.

'Twas The Night Before Free Agency

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.

Monday Money Matters

Although our focus at the Combine has obviously been on the NFL and this annual intersection between the business and scouting sides of football, it’s a heady time in the business of sports in all three major leagues.

Here in Indianapolis, football minds are gathered, teams are laying out their plans for the offseason, and the next group of incoming players is being poked, prodded, examined, tested and grilled.

The Indy Heat

I’ve been at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis since Wednesday night. I’ve slept only about four hours each night and stayed up way too late sharing stories and drinks with various coaches and NFL executives. My time here broke down like this: two NFL Players Association meetings; meetings with five GMs, about seven cap managers and several coaches; a half dozen meetings with various team management types; and sessions with my two Iowa O-linemen (Seth Olsen and Rob Bruggeman) and two of my coaching clients. I also mingled with about 25 prominent agents.