Here, at the start of
Free Agency 2007, we are once again reminded that trying to buy a championship
in the NFL just doesn’t work.
In baseball, money often
rules. Why? No salary cap nor the consequences thereof. This is why George
Steinbrenner has been able to buy so many championships. Sign a bad player?
Trade him. You may eat his salary but there’s no punitive cap to keep you from
throwing good money after bad.
In all fairness, explaining
away what the Yankees do simply by citing a bottomless cash pit is not telling
the whole story. You have to pick talent, of course, but you must have
chemistry; guys with egos that coexist productively rather than destructively.
You also cannot rely
solely on free agency to fuel your team. Steinbrenner’s big dollar signings get
the press but it’s the Yankee farm system, the development of key young players
like Derek Jeter that made the difference in championship seasons. Oh, and
having good leadership in Joe Torre didn’t hurt.
In recent years the
Yankees forgot that lesson, relying too heavily on free agency. Not
surprisingly, they have gone six years without a World Series championship.
In the salary cap era
of the NFL, the draft is the unquestioned secret to success. Teams that draft
wisely and employ a strategy of building primarily via the draft will win.
Those that don’t, won’t.
The reason is simple.
Good young players cost less than high priced veteran free agents and are a
better long term investment. They also tend to be less injury-prone (on the
whole) and the rookie cap keeps most teams from hurting themselves with large,
cumbersome signing bonuses. A younger player is also easier to indoctrinate
into a team’s culture than a veteran set in his ways.
This is not a new
lesson. If we look back to 1995, we’ll find the first team that learned about
the dangers of free agency: the Miami Dolphins.
At the time, Don
Shula felt as though owner Wayne Huizenga’s millions could bring him a
championship in the twilight of his career. He signed expensive free agents he
felt would plug holes on the Miami roster. What Shula really got were overpaid
players with large egos and poor chemistry that badly underachieved. The end
result was ugly as The Don resigned in the wake of a disappointing 9-8 season
and a playoff blowout in Buffalo.
Miami was burdened by salary cap issues many years thereafter and
could not protect some of their best players from leaving via agency (Marco
Coleman, Troy Vincent, Bryan Cox). Today, the 1995 Dolphins are a case study
used by the league in how not to manage the salary cap.
Another classic case
study in cap economics is the 2000 Washington Redskins. Owner Dan Snyder spent
lavishly on free agents, handing out multimillion dollar deals to older guys
who didn’t earn their keep. In the aftermath of those poor spending decisions,
Head Coach Norv Turner got the axe and the Redskins were burdened for many
years with bad contracts, losing records, and old players whose best years were
Lessons learned, all.
Today, there are several tenets to free agency that most teams abide by. Here
are some of my favorites:
First, place a high priority
on keeping your own good players. Good players are very hard to find. Don’t
lose the ones you have, if you can help it.
Second, use free
agency to fill holes rather than build the foundation. It is amazing and
frightening how quickly free agent contracts and signing bonuses can blot out
the balance sheet for years to come.
Third, never give a
substantial signing bonus to a low character guy. Never. And, if you do, make
sure you at least have some legal protections in the contract to recover the
bonus if/when things turn sour.
up-and-coming talents are worth more than one elite superstar…unless you are
convinced that the elite superstar is the difference in winning a Super
Bowl within a year or two.
Five, hire staff
(business and legal) totally dedicated to managing the cap. They know the
market value of players, and they know what the ramifications will be of making
a personnel decision.
Six, never let good
players walk away without compensation. Tag players and tender them to a level
that compels an interested party to make a deal that brings value in a trade on
terms that you dictate.
When the gun goes off
signaling the start of free agency, you can expect today’s Miami Dolphins to be
smarter in how they approach the market.
First, they protected
their best free agent (Vonnie Holliday) from hitting the market.
Second, they will
shop to fill holes on the offensive line. Look for them to be especially active
in bidding for the services of the top guards available (guys like Cincinnati’s Eric Steinbach, San Diego’s
Kris Dielman, and Washington’s
Three, they already
have a policy in place that they do not give out big bonuses to bad guys. Wayne
Huizenga’s hand is personally in that.
Four, GM Randy
Mueller has already said that “quantity over quality” and up-and-coming talent will be the theme.
Five, the Dolphins
have one of the best cap staffs in the NFL in Bryan Wiedmeier and Matt Thomas.
And Huizenga will be prodding the conservative Wiedmeier from time to time when
things bog down.
Six, the Dolphins have
tendered key free agents (e.g. Wes Welker, Yeremiah Bell) at level that
requires high compensation. The tenders came before the opening bell, before
the market could set the price.
The Dolphins know
that free agency isn’t free. They also know that spending lavishly on the wrong
guys is a recipe for disaster.