NFL

July's the right time for big signings

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Peter Schrager

Peter Schrager is the Senior NFL Writer for FOXSports.com and the national sports correspondent for FOX News Channel's "FOX Report Weekend." He's the co-author of Victor Cruz's New York Times' best-selling memoir "Out of the Blue" and lives in New York. Feel free to e-mail him at peterschrager@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter.

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“Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.” — John F. Kennedy

In 1990, the programming executives at FOX made the bold decision to move “The Simpsons,” the network’s hottest show and a budding national pop culture phenomenon, from its Sunday evening home to a new time slot — Thursday nights at 8 p.m. The decision caused waves around the entertainment industry, as for the first time in nearly a decade, a network was challenging NBC’s vaunted Thursday night lineup and “The Cosby Show,” the long-established, No. 1-rated program on television.

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Kari Granville, TV critic for the Los Angeles Times at the time, wrote, “Fox is gambling with its most valuable property. ‘The Simpsons,’ a sardonic animated view of family life that is the antithesis of ‘Cosby's’ warmth, is more than just a popular cartoon. It's a genuine phenomenon in the mass culture.”

With an opportunity to make the most of something wildly popular with fans, Barry Diller and company rolled the dice.

The NFL needs to do the same.

The suits at 280 Park Avenue need to react to the widespread, previously never before seen popularity of the past two weeks and rearrange the NFL’s future offseason schedule accordingly. In the words of Chris Berman, it’s time to push the free-agent signing period back, back, back.

Just how hot has the NFL been since the lockout essentially ended July 25 with the players' approval of the collective-bargaining agreement?

Amidst a national debt crisis, a plummeting stock market and our president’s 50th birthday, NFL-related terms dominated the Google Trends list over the course of the past two weeks. Last Thursday, a day in which the Dow Jones industrial average dipped 512 points and rumors swirled about George Clooney dating Stacy Keibler, “Braylon Edwards” and “Derrick Mason” were No. 2 and No. 5 on the Yahoo! “Trending Now” list.

The past two weeks, unlike any two summertime weeks before it, had the nation fixated on the sport of football. For the networks and the game's broadcast partners, the proof is in the pudding.

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Comparing 2010 and 2011, total site visits to NFL content on FOXSports.com were up 64 percent year over year during the past two weeks of July (18 million vs. 11 million).

Yet it was hardly just a FOX thing.

The NFL Network’s coverage of free agency, trades and cuts from Tuesday, July 24 to Thursday, July 26 posted a 288 percent increase in average total day viewership from the same period last year, with an average of 186,000 fans tuning in. In prime time, NFL Network averaged 290,000 viewers over those three days, a 202 percent jump from 2010.

The guys in Bristol also boasted bigger numbers. From Monday, July 25 to Friday, July 29, ESPN’s live editions of “NFL Live” averaged a 0.6 household coverage rating and 677,000 viewers — up 20 percent and 14 percent from the corresponding week last year (0.5; 595,000).

ProFootballTalk.com, the round-the-clock news and rumors site, enjoyed its record-high day in site traffic on Wednesday, July 27. During the first week of post-lockout player movement madness, the site posted numbers that more than quadrupled their numbers from the same week a year earlier.

It wasn’t just Nnamdi Asomugha and his version of “The Decision” that had the entire country stalking the Twitter feeds of Jay Glazer and Adam Schefter like crazed ex-girlfriends. It was a wave of veteran quarterbacks switching teams at an uncanny pace. It was Bill Belichick trading a pair of draft picks for Chad Ochocinco late on a Friday evening. It was Santonio Holmes not only signing a massive long-term contract to remain with the New York Jets, but also then posting a picture of himself guzzling a $1,000 bottle of champagne to celebrate.

It was Eric Weddle — umm, yeah, Eric Weddle — signing the largest deal ever inked by a free-agent safety.

For 14 days, the NFL became the very fantasy leagues and “Madden” seasons we, the fans, obsess over in our living rooms. It was life imitating art imitating life. It had the spirit of March Madness, the volume of a heavy metal concert and the pace of a stock car race.

It was awesome.

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The craziest part? There was absolutely zero football played.

Those two weeks of sheer madness, dubbed by my FOXSports.com colleague Adam Schein as “Christmas in July,” created an unstoppable momentum heading into the preseason this week. Fans, enthused by the rapid progression from free-agent signings to training-camp openings to the start of the preseason, are foaming at the mouth for the NFL. The sport has never been hotter.

So, why not do this all again next year? And the year after that? Let’s switch up the offseason schedule for good, permanently moving the free-agent signing period from the first week of March to the last week of July.

Critics of such a scheduling change will point out the following:

• The reason fan interest, site traffic and TV ratings were higher during the last two weeks of July than in previous years is because the final two weeks in July are traditionally a slow point in the offseason. It’s like comparing apples and oranges.

My response: That’s true. But buzz, site traffic and TV ratings have been higher the past two weeks than they were during the first two weeks in March in any recent year.

• Teams need offseason organized team activities, team workouts and the summer months to work together.

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My response: Teams can still have OTAs and the rest of their organized offseason activities. They just won't be able to sign free agents until July. If anything, team activities with big free agents waiting in the wind, like bucking horses lined up at the gates at Churchill Downs, will only add suspense and interest to these typically mundane offseason events.

• The longer it takes teams to fill their rosters, the worse the quality of play will be.

My response: We’ll see. This year is going to serve as a guinea pig of sorts. By my unofficial count, seven players already have torn an Achilles in camp, a figure way up from previous years. (The latest victim: Lions second round draft pick Mikel LeShoure, on Monday) Some players — notably, Bryant McKinnie, formerly of the Vikings — showed up to camp woefully out of shape. If the quality of play is downright pitiful this preseason and noticeable in the first few weeks of the regular season, we’ll know the real effects of a four-month-plus work stoppage. But if free agents are looking to sign contracts, I highly doubt they’ll come to camps, post-signing, in terrible shape. Like they're doing now, they'll be coming to camp enthused, full of fresh energy and ready to hit the ground running.

• How would it be regulated? Teams inevitably will be tampering with players and agents throughout the spring and summer, no?

My response: The free-agent signing period will be regulated the same way it’s always been regulated during the month of February, just extended until July.

In its rich history, the NFL never has seen two weeks of offseason activity like the 14 days we just witnessed. With website traffic numbers across the board, TV ratings and overall national buzz serving as data points, it’s fair to say that this country has never been more excited for the start of an upcoming football season than it is at this very moment.

Was this merely the result of more than four months without football? Something akin to giving a starving dog a steak when it’s at its hungriest?

Or is there something truly magical to a late July free-agent signing period? Perhaps July 25 is the perfect time to get the fans engaged with the game again, following the sport and ready for training camps and the preseason. It's the the unofficial kickoff to the upcoming NFL campaign, six weeks before the actual kickoff to the upcoming NFL campaign.

The NFL should rearrange its offseason schedule. The league should spread out its offseason calendar and get the fans going full steam ahead a week before training camps open with a permanent mad-dash free-agent signing period in the last week of July.

What would be the national reaction to such a change?

I’ll cite the patriarch of the Simpsons clan, when I say: “Woo-hoo!”
 

Tagged: Jets, Chargers, Eric Weddle

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