Free Agency "Phase One" Madness

As the first week of the 2004 free agency period comes to a close NFL teams, coaches, fans, and media can all sit back and reflect on the madness. In what will shatter prior year top player signing bonus and contract totals, the 2004 NFL offseason already raises some questions. Under any circumstances, teams signing players to enormous contracts introduce incredible risks into the viability of their teams.

The team concept appears to be at least somewhat lost on many teams given the enormous contracts of individual players featuring outrageous signing bonuses. There will no doubt be detractors in this debate, however I will stand firm in my belief that the tenets of solid overall team performance and chemistry can still by far and away outweigh the benefit of having one or two of the league's single top superstars on the roster.

Many teams have seemingly yet to figure out that free agency is a zero-sum game where it is not the presence of one or two marquee players at 20% of a team's salary cap that will win championships, but rather a "team" made up of players capable of playing above average at all or most positions. In other words, a team made up of players all capable of playing at a 7, 8, or 9 level (1 to 10 scale) is more apt to outperform a team made up of one or two marquee/top players with average or poorer play elsewhere. When those one or two marquee players consume a disproportionate amount of cap space then tradeoffs in team welfare necessarily exist. As well, injuries to those key players negate a good chunk of a team's viability.

If the Washington Redskins in recent history do not paint this picture perfectly, then no team will. On the flip side the New England Patriots take the opposite approach. No team has outspent Daniel Snyder in Washington over the past several seasons while no team has outperformed the Patriots. The Redskins clearly possess the marquee player spending edge over the Patriots, however the Patriots possess a 34-14 to 20-28 edge in regular season performance featuring two Super Bowl wins combined with three straight winning seasons while seeing the Redskins achieve no winning seasons.

Teams such as the Redskins continually sign the biggest names on the downsides of their careers for top dollar such as Deion Sanders, Jeff George, and Bruce Smith while paying top dollar or overpaying altogether for the league's top talent elsewhere. Meanwhile, the Patriots release top veterans or allow them to leave after making the decision not to overpay for "brand name" recognition while settling for only nominally lesser play from far more affordable players willing to be one of many on a team, a concept that appears to be getting closer and closer to extinct in pro sports. Of course players such as Terrell Owens and Keyshawn Johnson certainly do their share to grab up the entire scene as well.

What the Patriots have realized and provided a very clear model for, is that it is perfectly possible, and even likely given good management otherwise, for a team to be the best without the top players at any single position. While Ty Law is arguably the best cornerback in the league, certainly a step down from "best" to top 10 would certainly have altered the Patriots approach or performance little. As a case in point, a very similar situation existed after the 2002 season when Lawyer Milloy was released. Yet, the Patriots improved after gathering themselves following a week one loss to the Bills, Milloy's new home, winning all but one of their other eighteen games this season. Meanwhile, the addition of the "brand name" of "Milloy", among others, netted the Bills a minus two in record.

Furthermore, if the signing of these players, even youthful and fully proven players such as McNabb and Manning were worth selling the farm over, then why haven't they produced when push comes to shove? Neither QB can seem to perform well enough to beat the best playoff teams and certainly neither carry their teams in those games. In fact, vs. New England in the playoffs this past season Manning led his Colts to only 14 points. Last season in the Colts' only playoff game, getting routed 41-0, Manning was abysmal as well throwing only 1 touchdown to 6 interceptions on less than 50% completions on a combined rating in the low 30s in those two games. Who cares what he did vs. an issue-laden Bronco team or a Chiefs team that is not even amongst the top half of teams in scoring defense. So why does it make sense to absolutely break the bank on him?

The same goes for Donovan McNabb whose playoff woes are well documented. As well, there is Randy Moss, given what was at the time a ridiculous contract, yet, with what for results? Little. The Vikings are a combined 20-28 over the last three seasons since that enormous contract and have been ranked 6th, 8th, and 24th in scoring offense since. He has averaged 11.3 TD/season and barely over 1,400 yards/season since as well. Moss also possesses an attitude at times that is clearly not team focused to be sure. For top money, one would presumably expect a little bit more.

In fact, an argument can be made that paying an individual player so much necessitates that player getting the ball regardless of whether or not it is in the team's interests to do so. For Moss that may make sense. However, for other players it does not, such as Drew Bledsoe right here in Buffalo. Consider Manning as well, given his enormous contract, it would be counterintuitive for the Colts to become predominantly a rushing or run-oriented team. Yet, if that is what will befit the team's success, then what would happen?

Meanwhile, teams such as New England under Belichick flourish for one simple reason. That reason is that they have a head and leadership that fully understands that the performance interactions of the team and players as an entirety matter more than the performance that can be gotten at any single position, even perhaps at two or three positions. They also have a front office deft at assessing and finding that talent without needing the highest profile player available at a given position. They tailor their gameday approach to that as well and are as team-oriented as a modern day pro team can be. .

Any person can look at a player who has played well and admit it. It takes someone with a little something extra to look at players who are entering their primes who perhaps have not played on high profile teams, or who have put up solid numbers in spite of not having a wealth of talent to their sides, or who have a record of steady improvement with more expected as they enter their primes and then to build a team around them as a collective, not as a few individuals. The Patriots have done just that. They have also used their draft to select players in positions where they have needs, not squander their selections in positions where they are set for starters and need only secondary depth.

Teams that are solid in all positions can afford to be strategic in their draft strategies. Teams having huge gaps in talent must select to fill those needs. This is a concept that has eluded the Bills over the past two drafts as they have almost completely neglected the lines. Their use of the few draft picks that they have made in those areas has been far from optimal and effective as well.

Regardless, the risks inherent in this approach are also potentially catastrophical. Consider what would be the state of the Colts if Manning were to suffer a career ending injury this season. Even an injury that would reduce his effectiveness only marginally would relegate his contract status to an enormous issue. As well, while Manning has played extremely well during his first six seasons averaging 28 touchdowns per season, it should not be a reach or difficult to believe that many other viable quarterbacks would have put up well into the mid-20s for touchdowns or perhaps even equaled Manning's numbers given all of the talent surrounding Manning on the Colts and with arguably the best WR in the game during Manning's tenure.

This has been exactly the Bills' biggest staffing issue over the past several seasons. Instead of finding solid talent, talent on the upswing with players acquired entering their primes while signing them to value-based contracts, the Bills have signed players just leaving their primes and paid those top dollars/draftpicks that other teams would not pay. Bledsoe came in on exactly that type of deal. Milloy provided only nominally improved play at approximately ten times the price of a former third round draft pick Coy Wire who played extremely well on a team with no defensive line as a rookie, yet was replaced by Milloy. Those were arguably Tom Donahoe's two biggest acquisitions.

But the biggest problem underlying the lack of improvement of the Bills as a whole from a player perspective is that of opportunity cost. The Bills have paid huge amounts of money to players who have not contributed to the level at which they have been compensated. Both Bledsoe and Milloy fall into that category. Bledsoe's play since his arrival could have been had from numerous backup quarterbacks playing for veteran minimum. Milloy, while solid, is getting paid as the best yet did not perform to that level.

Posey got decent money yet has not played to that level. Sam Adams has also been handsomely paid yet does not show up when playing the top teams. Trey Teague was foolishly signed as a tackle for Bledsoe's blind side, then shifted to center where he got paid like a top center yet again, does not perform to a level of a top center. Who knows why Izell Reese was brought on to start at safety. Fletcher, as a middle linebacker incapable of anything short of inadequate pass coverage is not playing to the level of his compensation there as a result either.

It is opportunity costs in this zero sum game of roster optimization where the Bills have made the largest mistakes. Some of this stems from recent drafts as well. With enormous issues on both lines, the Bills draft Willis McGahee realizing that his contributing in the season drafted is slim to nil. Then the Bills 3rd and 4th round selections were used to acquire three players in positions where not only the starter spots, but also the top backup spots were already filled. Meanwhile, positions where starters or top depth were needed, and still are, went unaddressed.

This season the Bills have somewhat surprisingly only signed a single offensive lineman, Chris Villarrial to a nominal, in contrast, contract, yet a fair one for both parties. There remains plenty of time however for GM Tom Donahoe to engage himself in one of the presumably forthcoming media circus bid-fests. Or perhaps he will wait to make his media splash with another team's overpaid rejected player following June 1st cap cuts. Here's hoping that the current trend of signing moderately or nominally priced impact role players continues for the Bills instead however. As well, with the loss of Ruben Brown at LG, the net change here is one of par. The Bills have plenty of "brand names" to carry them for a while; Travis Henry, Eric Moulds, Takeo Spikes, Lawyer Milloy, and Nate Clements.

My larger concerns however regarding the recent spending spree that many teams went on to acquire top players do not end there. I find myself torn between being a strong proponent of free market economics on one hand and the health and welfare of the NFL, now the only professional major league sport that I follow, on the other. On the flip side, a focus on the emphasis of individual players to the extent that they supercede the identity of the team also vexes me and is part and parcel of the former concern.

When Bledsoe arrived in Buffalo one would have thought that an announcement changing the name of the city and team to Bledsoe, NY and the Bledsoe Bills was imminent along with the changing of the zip code at Orchard Park to 11011. All was well because Bledsoe had arrived. Forget the fact that many of the same issues plaguing the team today existed then as well if not even worse. Forget the fact that he hadn't played a decent season in at least four seasons prior to arriving in Buffalo.

Major League Baseball, NBA basketball, and even the NHL have all in large measure already allowed the individual aspects of player appeal to transcend the team aspect(s). It is for that very reason that my interest in those sports evaporated completely years ago. Market economics should drive most (never say never) business dynamics and ventures in a market free society. Certainly the players are entitled to their share of the pie for their contributions to making the pie as large as it is in this case.

The fact that the salary cap was bumped by nearly 7% should be a strong indicator that the NFL and its owners are doing quite well however. So then why is it necessary for the NFL to step outside of the free market model with municipally-based interest free financing for many of its teams/stadiums, which is another issue altogether. Nevertheless, why should this increased profitability not aid in the NFL and its teams financing themselves entirely from their own business success? In other words, why should non-NFL market people be made to subsidize the NFL through their tax dollars when they are not a direct part of that economic model if the NFL is as successful as they are?

Perhaps the recent generosity of NFL front offices over the past week will be a "one time only" occurrence with a return to reasonability henceforth. However, with the salary cap rising the way it has been, that appears to be unlikely. It is common sense that of the $5 million or so that the salary cap has increased from last season to this will go primarily to the NFL elite players, not the average player(s).

As to the Bills, let's just hope that Donahoe is not to be found in the center ring of some later media circus focused on overpaying some totally unproven or aging beyond-his-prime vet at the continued neglect of the deep issues which exist in the trenches. So far so good however giving credence to rumors and reports that it was more Mularkey's influence than it was Donahoe's in orchestrating the Villarrial signing. In the meantime Bills fans should keep their fingers crossed that the Bills do not sell the farm for anyone and instead seek to put solid play at every position thereby diversifying both risks as well as performance upgrades.


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