Free-agency winners a myth in NFL

March 14, 2013

Every year, about this time, my people start passing judgment. There is nothing we the media love more than declaring winners and losers of NFL free agency.

Signing a couple of players, even JAGs (which is a Bill Parcells-ism for Just A Guy) at insane price points, guarantees a spot among winners. And my FOX friends dutifully listed Kansas City and Cleveland among their admittedly early free agency “winners” using said criteria while Baltimore registered among the Day 1 losers.

I say this respectfully: This is all kinds of wrong.

Judging a team by their amount of action on the first day of the NFL league year is kind of like judging porn on its dialogue. You are missing the point. Free agency is the landscape of the truly damned; the stomping grounds of the desperate. The teams throwing money at age-inappropriate, salary-cap casualty, castoffs do so not because results from this endeavor have been positive. They do so because they have no other options.


The best teams are built in April, in the draft, with young talent being paid for potential rather than rewarding age for past performance. March is when money is thrown at problems, when Benjamins are plugged recklessly into holes. It is like the end of an NFL game, when a losing team trailing by a couple of touchdowns, starts blitzing inappropriately. It might lead to a few big plays. It is not to be confused with defensive competence.

And so it is with the busy in free agency.

This seems obvious, especially in light of what happened with the Eagles a couple of years ago. They “won” free agency. They have won little else since. All that remains is the wreckage — a coach fired, their prized free-agent signee from that offseason, cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, released and a big bag of nothing to build upon. It is easy to pretend Asomugha is the problem, or the contract is. The reality is the team built in March almost always fails.

The proper care and use of free agency is to add a Player instead of a JAG. This is what the Broncos did a year ago, adding quarterback Peyton Manning to an already strong team or this year by bringing Wes Welker on board. What we have seen so far this March does not qualify. There have been no truly horrendous contracts, the overpaying of the average by the desperate, yet. But this is more a result of a glut of certain types of players than restraint or lessons learned by past free-agency failures. What we have is a poor-man’s version of “The Dream Team” yet we heap praise upon these Philly-lites anyway.

In what world does Kansas City “win” anything by willingly signing up for Alex Smith and Chase Daniel as their quarterbacks? Or does Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome go down as a “loser” because he has the foresight to churn his roster and go young before age and contracts that come with age prevent him from building another Super Bowl winner?

I say this not to be a contrarian but few NFL teams have had better offseasons than Baltimore. This is exactly how the best teams operate. They sign the best quarterback possible and they plug in people around him, younger and ostensibly cheaper players with upward mobility found in April in the draft. It is not nearly as sexy as the breathy first couple of days of free agency, but the mining of the fourth and fifth rounds is where the best teams excel. It allows teams like the Ravens to build a base where a smart free-agent signing or trade transforms a team from contender to Super Bowl winner.

I just do not buy into this idea that the Ravens got worse because an aging Ray Lewis and his diminishing skill retired, or because they did not throw crazy money at players to keep the band together, or because they did not bring in Daniel. This is not to say the Chiefs and Browns screwed up in free agency. They already were screwed up. They knew it. It is why they fired people and hired new ones. It is why they are looking for Band-Aids in free agency.

It is the stomping grounds of the truly damned and there are no winners here.