Free agency is a time to get what you can because you never know if you will be in such a lucrative position again.
When I hit free agency after the 1997 season with the Chicago Bears, I was concerned the Bears were not going to pay me fair market value. After two Pro Bowls, a Super Bowl and being the team captain of a highly talented squad that won primarily on defense and special teams, I felt like I should have been rewarded with a long-term deal to remain in Chicago.
However, the Bears and former GM Jerry Angelo didn’t quite see it the same way and wanted me to succumb to the hometown discount. In fact, they had already re-upped me for a "cheap" contract when I was a restricted free agent in 2005 — after they traded two players to acquire me from the Miami Dolphins.
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To my dismay, it was hurting me that I was born in Chicago and lived there for a large chunk of my youth. They wanted to low-ball me because they knew my off-field marketing value in Chicago was higher than any other market. From Angelo’s eyes, they were banking on off-field marketing dollars to supplement my on-field dollars, thus their low-ball offer would be equal to that of a team offering me more on-field dollars. They even threw the whole relocation cost out there to justify paying me less.
These strategies are often implemented by teams particularly in the largest media markets like Chicago, New York and Los Angeles.
I had concerns about leaving Chicago; none of them were related to marketability. I enjoyed having the platform, but football was my bread and butter. Any marketing dollars were icing on the cake for a player like me.
Like most free agents, I did not know exactly how I would fit into other organizations. As a team captain in Chicago, I knew I would be a leader anywhere through exemplary play. I have always had strong leadership skills both on the field and in the locker room. As an NFL Play 60 ambassador and with the time I invested into the community, I knew I would represent the team in a good fashion.
Schematically, I was a 4-3 linebacker and was hitting my stride playing defense in the Bears’ Tampa-2 scheme. I didn’t know where exactly I would play in a 3-4 defensive scheme.
Being a big-city kid who played football in Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, Vancouver, Toronto, Amsterdam all of which are larger cities, I did not want to end up in a rural market. My views on life were more congruent with those of people in big cities. I wasn’t a small-town-mentality type of guy, especially with my radical-for-the-time views on equality.
On the flip side, I was looking forward to having more of an opportunity to play defense. I wanted to be in a scheme where I could play and excel. I always thought I was one of the best defensive players on every team I ever played with.
For the majority of my career until 2008, though, I had been a backup and relegated to special teams. It was a role that I grew to embrace; after all, I was the best at it in the NFL. At the same time, I felt like I was being underutilized. I always felt I had a lot more to give to my team, as one of the fastest, strongest and smartest players on the field at all times.
Did I want to stay in Chicago and be a backup to Lance Briggs and Hunter Hillenmeyer? Or did I want to test the market and potentially earn a spot as a starting linebacker?
I chose free agency.
I will never forget my visits to New York to meet with the Jets and Baltimore to meet with the Ravens.
Both teams called me when the free-agency period started in March 2008. I was at my home in Los Angeles and scheduled a visit to hit NYC first to meet the Jets at Hofstra, followed by the Ravens.
Then-coach Eric Mangini told me the Jets’ strategy was to have me come and purely be a specialist. Their special teams coordinator was Mike Westhoff, a coach I had been playing against for years and respected immensely.
To my understanding, I only had to practice special teams and I could hang with the kickers in the locker room once full-blown practice started. I thought this could add several years to my career, but it wasn’t where I wanted to go as a player. I wanted to play more, not less.
Coach Mangini and I had a good meeting in his office where we surfed the Internet and shot the bull over all sorts of off-field issues. He Google-searched me while I was sitting in front of him, and poked some fun at some of the pictures and articles that surfaced.
It made for a good laugh, but most importantly they made a good offer. I immediately departed for Baltimore, a one-hour flight on a prop plane, where then-first-year head coach John Harbaugh eagerly awaited me who was a former special teams coordinator himself. The Ravens attempting to impress upon me that I would be their first free-agent signing and top priority, recruiting tactics that were music to my years.
As I arrived at the castle, first item on the agenda was a physical. Then it was time for a one-on-one with Harbs. Yes, it was a one-on-one, and not a meeting. I am talking about shooting some hoops. We took a tour of the Under Armour performance center and ended up on the basketball court, familiarizing ourselves with a little shoot-around.
Harbs reiterated to me that he knew I wanted to play defense. He said that Rex Ryan, who ironically would eventually leave Baltimore and replace Mangini as the Jets head coach, would find a position for me in his 3-4 defense.
Hook, line and sinker, plus they were going to pay me more than any other team on the market. They wanted to pay me some defensive money. After averaging a few hundred grand a year for my first five seasons in the NFL, I was finally going to average seven figures. Little did I know I was going to earn every cent of that money, too.
Afterward, the Bears offered to pay me a million dollars less than what the Jets and Ravens offered. As hard as it was to leave, it was hands-down the best career decision I made.
We went to the playoffs five years in a row in Baltimore. I got to play in another Pro Bowl, three AFC Championship Games, and I won a Super Bowl. I also reached my goal of being a starting linebacker. Even though I only started in the nickel package, I was able to log 25 defense snaps a game on average.
The benefit of being a young free agent is that you are a lot more flexible and not as deeply rooted in a city as a veteran. Eventually you get married and have kids in the city that you play in. You forge lifelong relationships with your teammates and neighbors in the city. Being a young father in 2008, I was not as concerned with uprooting my family. My kids were not in school, and we were ready to go anywhere that was going to give me the best opportunity for success.
Fast-forward to 2011, when I hit the free-agency market with the Ravens, I had two young children and one in elementary school. I was not going to go anywhere, although my agent, Drew Rosenhaus, did talk to a couple of teams. In my mind those teams were helping set the market to make me more valuable for an eventual deal with the Ravens. In real-estate terms they were comps, just like the buying and selling of homes in your neighborhood.
This time it worked; I received a few extra dollars from the Ravens and was fortunate enough to go on to win the Super Bowl. In 2008, I had many of the same sentiments. All the Bears had to do was match the offers/comps of the other teams that were going after me, and they had me. Obviously things worked out much differently.
Whether it’s an opportunity for more playing time or being in a great city, the most important factor for the vast majority of guys is money.
I know the fans hate to hear this, but money is the motive. This game is too dangerous, too tough and consumes you in every way to do it purely for the love. All the love and passion you put into it hopefully results in ROI. The NFL is a business run for maximum utility, more than any other professional sport, because of no guaranteed contracts.
For the owners, the NFL is a long-term game; for the players, the NFL is a short-term game.
You have to strike while the money is hot, and most players do. Every once in a while, you come across a player to whom it’s not about the money, and that is refreshing. Keep in mind, though, they already made a lot of money in a previous contract. Now they either want to win or just be in a city where they are comfortable.