A Deadline But No Headlines

Before delving into a notable trade that did happen, let’s examine why the NFL trade deadline has never created the same buzz and fan interest as the deadlines in baseball and basketball.

Game of Schemes

While there are certainly exceptions to the rule, the majority of players acquired in NFL trades do not produce, for the same reason that the majority of NFL free agents don’t: the schematic nature of the game (West Coast offense, 4-3 and 3-4 defenses, Cover 2, press coverage, two-gap, wide-nine, etc.). Football is 11 interdependent parts playing in concert, a sport in which even league MVPs play barely half the game. An individual’s impact is muted compared to other sports. Unlike baseball or basketball, football does not lend itself well to seamless transition from one team to another, or from scheme to scheme.

A common lament since the 2011 CBA restrictions on practice time is that coaches can barely teach players who are there all year what they need to know. Even with free agents, how often do we hear about struggles to adjust to new schemes without the benefit of a full training camp? Trading for a player midstream in the season forces that adjustment at an even more accelerated pace.

Impediments to Trade

Another important reason for the lack of a robust trading market is that teams are reluctant to offload problems in the small world of the NFL; what goes around comes around. As an example, there are now five general managers with whom I worked in the Packers’ front office: Ted Thompson, John Dorsey, John Schneider, Reggie McKenzie and Scott McLoughan. They are not going to “get over” on each other and hide players’ deficiencies. Without that trust, statements such as “he needs a change of scenery” are code for “we've had enough of this guy; please take him off our hands!”

Often a team will trade a player who appears talented but requires a high level of maintenance. I have seen coaches and management trade a player and then turn to colleagues and say, “Let those coaches deal with him.”

In the past, cash and salary cap consequences have also been used as excuses for inactivity, whether in trading or free agency. Now, however, teams are much more flush with cash and cap room, with virtually every team carrying over cap from last year. Lack of cap room is no longer a valid excuse for inactivity.

Proposals Denied

At the Packers, Ron Wolf and I drafted a couple of proposals to facilitate trading, but the league denied both.

The first was a much later deadline—after Thanksgiving—to allow for action between “buyers” and “sellers” (and create considerably more buzz). That proposal was rejected because the NFL wanted to discourage the “rent-a-player” strategy used by contending MLB teams.

The other proposal I formulated would have allowed teams to trade cap room, an idea I thought (and still think) would benefit both cap-flush and cap-strapped teams and allow more savvy general managers and cap managers to separate themselves. Teams that are rebuilding may not have many tradable assets, but they could have an excess of cap room to use as a trading chip. Alas, this proposal was also summarily rejected. The NFL did not want to let poorly cap-managed teams off the hook; I was told, “They made their bed, they should have to sleep in it.”

For reasons both inherent to the nature of the game and self-imposed by league management, the NFL and trading don't appear to be a good match.

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An Outlier

Having gone through reasons for inactivity at the deadline, here are a few thoughts on the trade that did happen: the Patriots sent rising star (or so we thought?) Jamie Collins to the Browns for a third-round compensatory pick.

  • This is the first time in NFL history that a compensatory pick has been traded; the restriction on that, which never made sense to me, was lifted last year. Even with that, the Browns have traded a pick they do not yet have, as compensatory picks are typically announced at the NFL meetings in March (followed by the inevitable griping from teams thinking they deserve a higher pick).
  • Although the Patriots would appear to be “buyers” as Super Bowl contenders, the trade is consistent with their pattern of extracting value for players before their free-agency leverage points; they did so previously with Richard Seymour and recently with Chandler Jones.
  • Perhaps the Panthers’ situation with Josh Norman was a cautionary tale for the Patriots. Whatever the reason for rescinding the franchise tag on Norman—perhaps personality, contract demands, style of play, or some combination thereof—the Panthers could have gotten something in return if they had merely held on through the first part of the season. As with Norman, it appears the Patriots were dealing with a player (and agent) who valued his worth far above what the team did.
  • While a pick at the end of the third round seems to be a commensurate value for Collins, it is actually a lot to pay if he is simply an eight-game rental before free agency. I completely expect that the Browns were/are having companion contract negotiations with Collins’s agent (Bus Cook) toward a long-term deal. The new regime in Cleveland values draft picks too much to barter one, even a compensatory third, for half a season of service.

The Other Election

With the presidential election receiving a bit of attention, there is another important vote on Tuesday: the viability of the Chargers in San Diego is at stake.

At this time last year, Chargers owner Dean Spanos was lobbying his brethren to move to Carson, Calif., with the Raiders in tow. Indeed, Spanos was the sentimental favorite to move to L.A., with powerful owners such as Jerry Richardson and Art Rooney (as well as Disney president Robert Iger) lining up behind his bid. However, that support waned. Jerry Jones and others moved the vote toward multibillionaire Stan Kroenke and the Rams, sending Spanos back to San Diego with a $100 million parting gift to be used to facilitate a stadium deal.

Fast-forward to now: There is good news and bad news. The good news is that a stadium deal in San Diego has been worked out, a proposed $1.8 billion venue seating 62,000 with a retractable roof. The bad news is that the deal requires a vote on Tuesday to fill funding gap with “Measure C.”

There is also good news and bad news regarding Measure C. The good news is that it calls for outsiders, not locals, to do the public funding (through hotel and tourism taxes). The bad news is that it requires a 66.7% (two-thirds) vote to pass. My Packers experience tells me that—no matter the spin of the tourist tax—66.7% represents an uphill climb.

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Tough Sell

At the Packers, I remember going door-to-door lobbying for a 50-cent county sales tax to fund $160 million of the $295 million Lambeau Field renovation. Even in Green Bay, perhaps the most supportive home market in all of professional sports, we had a difficult time reaching a simple majority, tallying 53% of yes votes to pass the referendum.

And what would be next for the Chargers if they don’t get the requisite 66.7%? Well, the percentage they do get could help determine whether Spanos takes another swing in his home market or looks elsewhere, as his erstwhile partner Mark Davis has done. Of course, the Chargers do have an option to join the Rams in Los Angeles, although no one seems to be pushing that resolution. The team doesn’t want to be second fiddle to the Rams in their facility, the Rams want the market to themselves and the NFL wants its teams to, if at all possible, stay put (as St. Louis fans smirk).

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