Relax, Chiefs fans: Free agency is about winning in the spring, and the games are played in winter
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Money might buy you happiness, a pass rusher and some March headlines, but it won’t buy you a championship. So while the Kansas City Chiefs scrape along the lower shelf at the grocery store for generics and bargains and the rival Denver Broncos and John Elway keep squirrelling away the name brands above them, consider this:
Of the 10 biggest-spending clubs in free agency at this time a year ago — the Chiefs included, as they checked in at No. 7, according to the estimable John Clayton, one of the good guys in the football-writing business — seven failed to reach the postseason.
And four of the top six (Indianapolis and Philadelphia being the exceptions) whiffed on the playoffs. Among those 10 high-rollers, the average victory total was 7.5. Among the top six, the average win count was 7.8.
The four biggest NFL free-agent spenders of spring/summer 2012 averaged 6.75 wins in the fall of 2012; none reached the postseason. The three biggest free-agent shoppers the spring/summer before that wound up averaging 6.67 wins in the autumn that followed.
Every April, the likes of Cleveland, Buffalo, Tampa Bay and St. Louis spend to win back a lot of squandered political capital with the public trust. Then, a few months later, once the games start, it all fades away again, and the cycle begins anew.
Dozens of NFL pundits will try to convince you otherwise, but this league is not that hard to figure out: Right coach, right quarterback, and you’ve got a fighting chance.
The Chiefs, at present, have both.
Everything else, frankly, is showing off, especially where free agency is concerned. More often than not, it’s the dumb spending dumb money in order to run in place.
Oh, sure, Denver might be better off than it was a year ago, clearly trying to build a defense in the Seahawk mold. After all, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. And let’s be frank: As long as Peyton Manning is happy and healthy at the controls, the AFC West is the Broncos’ to lose. But that window will remain open for only so long. The Chiefs, in the meantime, woke up Tuesday with between $5.2 million (according to the NFLPA) and $4.8 million (according to the NFL) in cap space. That’s the fifth-lowest cushion in the league, and there are still draft picks yet to sign.
General manager John Dorsey doesn’t have the money to compete with Denver in March and April. He already knows that. It’s about trying to build something that will keep up with the Broncos from September through December.
Good teams lose good players looking for the "set-me-up-for-life" contract. Bad teams usually have the cap room to oblige them. It’s the NFL circle of life, why being consistently strong (or, conversely, consistently awful) on Planet Goodell is hard to pull off. With the right bodies, your 2-14 dumpster fire can become an 11-5 playoff team overnight. Caterpillar one year, butterfly the next.
Staying in flight is the tricky part.
The NFL is designed to reward the bad with good players and shuffle the cards every spring, the ultimate in football socialism. You can’t necessarily beat the system, but you can tweak it. The most foolproof insurance against getting pilfered by free agency is locking down a few long-term pillars (Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay, Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh, Tom Brady in New England, etc.), supplemented by year after year of productive, savvy drafts, building the rest of the structure from within.
Dorsey is an old hand at this, having spearheaded that particular side of the equation with Green Bay for most of the past decade, where the good calls on the collegiate-scouting side far outweighed the bad. When he turned up in Kansas City, a complete renovation was in order, fixing the most critical position on the field (quarterback, with Alex Smith), and the most critical failure of the previous regime, then gutting out the lower half of the roster, the part of Scott Pioli’s "Right 53" that was, internally, largely viewed as dead weight. The end results spoke for themselves, although the fact that the bad are also rewarded with soft schedules helped, too.
That dance-card layup is gone now, though, along with five (or six, if you want to count Quintin Demps as a return man) starters who took the money and ran, the NFL’s double-whammy of penance for a sudden rise to excellence.
The bad and the desperate — and yes, the Broncos, the defending AFC champs, mortgaging the moon before the Peyton window closes, count as desperate — clean the top shelves first, as they do every spring. As a general rule, the worse off you are, internally (especially at coach and/or under center), the more aggressive you need to be.
Last March, the Chiefs were rolling with Monopoly’s Mr. Moneybags, tearing down the slums left by Pioli on Mediterranean Avenue and trying to build things back up again in a more high-rent district. This March, Dorsey is Richard Rawlings from the car-swap show "Fast N’ Loud," hand-shaking and fast-dealing, shopping the "used" lots, trying to turn a clunker into gold. Unlike a year ago, Dorsey already knows he has an engine that’ll run. He just doesn’t know how fast. Or how far.
There are miles yet to go, and millions yet to spend. Who "won" the spring? Ask us in October.
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter at @seankeeler or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.