Throwing money at free agents rarely wins titles
Sunday, February 27, 2005
By Dave Goldberg, The Associated Press
No one paid much attention when the New England Patriots signed a Steelers backup linebacker named Mike Vrabel on March 13, 2001, for what amounted to petty change.
They should have.
As the NFL heads into its 2005 free-agent period, which begins Wednesday, Vrabel and some of his New England teammates are the models for free agency -- reasonably priced square pegs in square holes who have helped the Patriots win three Super Bowls while keeping them in decent salary cap shape.
Some teams use the same model, such as the NFC champion Philadelphia Eagles.
Others, notably Washington, have continued to throw big money at big names and have realized nothing. That's a trend that's unlikely to change until Daniel Snyder, the team's owner, stops running his team like a fantasy league outfit and hires a real personnel expert for Joe Gibbs.
In fact, it can be argued that the only big-name, high-paid free agent to have a major impact was the first -- the late Reggie White, who signed with Green Bay in 1993 and eventually helped the Packers win a Super Bowl and reach another.
That doesn't mean big money won't be thrown around again this year.
"It used to be you overpaid for someone else's free agents. Now you overpay to keep your own," said Indianapolis president Bill Polian, who in the past year has paid out more than $56 million in signing bonuses to re-sign Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison.
"People like us pay a premium to re-sign our own guys. As one of my friends used to say, that's the cost of doing business."
The highest-priced guys are effectively off the market -- Edgerrin James, Drew Brees, Charles Woodson, Orlando Pace and Walter Jones, among others, have been protected by the franchise player tag. The most desirable players, in fact, could be those cut by their old teams for cap reasons, such as the "Tennessee Six," ex-Titans led by cornerback Samari Rolle and wide receiver Derrick Mason.
Indianapolis' franchise tag on James raises an interesting question.
Would the Colts have been wiser to let him go and use what money they haven't spent on offense to get the defensive help they need to get by the Patriots?
New England thought so in 1997.
That was the year that Bill Parcells left the Patriots, went to the Jets and decided to take running back Curtis Martin with him. He signed Martin as a restricted free agent, and the Patriots didn't match New York's $36 million, six-year deal, getting first- and third-round choices in return and spending the money on cheaper role players.
Nothing against Martin, who led the NFL in rushing last season and is fourth on the league's career list at age 31. But the Patriots have won three titles without him and the Jets haven't been farther than an AFC title game with him.
New England has done it with a collection of players such as Vrabel, who fit Bill Belichick's system of interchangeable parts. Vrabel has yet to make a Pro Bowl but he's one of a number of Patriots who make big plays at big times and he's even played offense -- as a short-yardage tight end, he's caught touchdown passes in each of the last two Super Bowls.
Yet he was only a part-time player with the Steelers, a defensive end at Ohio State who was a backup at end and linebacker.He played in a 3-4 there, the same defensive system the Patriots use, so they grabbed him for relatively little when he became a free agent.
"We liked him. He was a solid player for us," Steelers coach Bill Cowher said. "He just couldn't beat out the players we had ahead of him, so he left for the chance to start."
Then there are the Redskins.
Since Snyder bought them in 1999, they have jumped the minute the free-agent bell sounded and spent millions on all kinds of promising players. They're liable to be less active this year simply because they are running out of salary cap space.
Two years ago, for example, they raided the Jets, signing four players from New York, including restricted wide receiver Laveranues Coles, who got a $13 million signing bonus. Coles now wants out even though he led the team with 90 receptions last season because he believes Gibbs' offense is too run-oriented.
"We'll try to work on something that's good for him and good for us," Gibbs said last week.
Last year, the Redskins jumped on defensive tackle Cornelius Griffin and cornerback Shawn Springs and made two big trades, sending cornerback Champ Bailey to Denver for running back Clinton Portis and acquiring quarterback Mark Brunell.
Griffin and Springs had good years but Portis was a disappointment and Brunell, who got a seven-year $43 million contract, was a bust. Anyone who saw his last two years in Jacksonville could have predicted that but Gibbs, the new/old coach, wanted a veteran quarterback.
That simply reflects the fact that free agency can't overcome a meddling owner and poor scouting -- the Redskins are 11-21 over the past two seasons and 42-54 since 2000. And even when they get good players, they don't seem to work out.
A good example is linebacker Jeremiah Trotter, signed in 2002 from Philadelphia. Bothered by injuries in Washington, he was cut last summer, went back to the Eagles and made the Pro Bowl.
The Eagles, who made the Super Bowl last year after getting to the NFC title game for the three seasons before that, share the Patriots' philosophy: If a player, even a star, wants too much, let him go because if you draft well, you can replace him.
Philadelphia strayed a bit last season when it signed defensive end Jevon Kearse and acquired wide receiver Terrell Owens in a trade.
But the Eagles also let veteran cornerbacks Troy Vincent and Bobby Taylor leave after last season and replaced them with Lito Sheppard and Sheldon Brown, who they had drafted two years earlier to play in just such an eventuality. Sheppard made the Pro Bowl and Brown could have.
"You have to evaluate where a player is and where he's going to be when you decide if you'll re-sign him," says Tom Heckert, Philadelphia's personnel director. "If you develop players who are ready to step in, you can let the higher-priced older players go. With Owens and Kearse we identified two needs and decided to do it, but that's not our usual method."
The same goes for New England. If you win at free agency, you usually win on the field.