Smart NFL teams spend little in free agency
10:51 AM CDT on Tuesday, March 18, 2008
I love what the Green Bay Packers have done thus far in free agency.
The Packers haven't signed any players in free agency nor have they lost any. The Indianapolis Colts also haven't signed any players.
Football is figuring out what baseball discovered in the 1970s you can't buy a championship. Which is contrary to public perception.
There's a frenzy in the fan bases of 32 NFL teams each off-season. Spend. Buy free agents. The bigger the contract, the better the signing. If you're not spending, you're not trying to get better as a football team.
LOUIS DeLUCA / DMN
The Green Bay Packers haven't panicked in free agency at the thought of Aaron Rodgers or another quarterback in charge.
The Cowboys, Cleveland Browns, San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks each signed a free agent to a contract in excess of $39 million last off-season. In addition, the Washington Redskins gave aging middle linebacker London Fletcher a $10 million signing bonus, and the Jacksonville Jaguars gave journeyman offensive tackle Tony Pashos another for $9 million.
All the while, the New York Giants were sitting out the spending spree. To borrow a Jerry Jones term, the Giants were "keeping their powder dry."
The Giants wound up signing one free agent to fill a specific hole on the depth chart, bottom feeding in late March for linebacker Kawika Mitchell. They gave him a modest one-year, $1 million deal.
Mitchell is now wearing a Super Bowl ring and 2007 multi-millionaires Leonard Davis (Cowboys), Eric Steinbach (Browns), Nate Clements (49ers), Patrick Kerney (Seahawks), Fletcher and Pashos are not.
In 2006, the Indianapolis Colts signed only one free agent, and he wasn't even a position player kicker Adam Vinatieri. The Colts wound up winning the Super Bowl.
In 2005, the Pittsburgh Steelers also signed only one free agent wide receiver Cedrick Wilson to a four-year deal worth less than $10 million. He didn't even start for the Steelers. But guess who won the Super Bowl that year?
Free agency never has been and never will be the answer. Teams are realizing the game's best players no longer become free. So the smart teams invest their salary cap dollars in re-signing their own players.
Back in the 1990s, you could sign a difference-maker like Reggie White or Deion Sanders in free agency. But with each passing year, the quality of free agents decreases, yet the quantity of the money increases.
I had breakfast with an NFL head coach last week, and he shook his head at the fiscal craziness, saying that average players are getting superstar money.
There were 112 players signed in free agency through the end of business last week. Only 28 of them were primary starters in 2007.
The annual list of signees has become a litany of older players (safety Sammy Knight and offensive linemen Alan Faneca and Damien Woody), players coming off injury (guard Justin Smiley, defensive tackle Chuck Darby and cornerback Jason Webster), players who have lost starting jobs (running back Chris Brown and defensive backs Drayton Florence and Tank Williams) and underachievers (offensive tackle Kwame Harris and wide receivers Jerry Porter and Keary Colbert).
In short, expendable commodities.
Talented young starters still in their 20s such as running back Michael Turner (Atlanta), linebackers Landon Johnson (Carolina) and Demorrio Williams (Kansas City), and safety Gibril Wilson (Oakland) in this year's class of free agents are few and far between every off-season.
You can count on the fingers of two hands the free agents this decade who have played to the level of the money and duration of the contract.
So the smart teams don't overreact to the market and offer superstar money to non-superstar players. You rarely get what you hope for and what you pay for in free agency. The smart teams don't sign contracts they will live to regret teams like Green Bay and Indianapolis.