Defensive end Reggie White, whose contract expired with the Philadelphia Eagles, was on a wild 37-day journey that included visits to five NFL cities in his search for a new team.
As the story ends, perennial old loser Green Bay shocked the sports world by landing the 31-year-old White. His new contract with the Packers made him the third highest paid player in the league behind quarterbacks John Elway and Dan Marino.
The impact of that transaction helped turn around the fortunes of the franchise. They won a Super Bowl four years later. Green Bay's perception as "NFL's Siberia" had been squashed. Titletown was back.
Remarkably, the Packers have had just two losing seasons since signing White. But while the winning has been constant, the ways of building a winner have changed. Now, the Packers make more headlines in the offseason by acquiring players via the draft rather than unrestricted free agency.
In the past two decades, the Packers have signed 47 players from other teams during the unrestricted free agency (UFA) period and have lost 73 of their own players. Ron Wolf was the general manager when the current system of free agency was born. From 1993 through 2000, he was responsible for bringing 29 UFAs to Green Bay while current general manager Ted Thompson has been responsible for just 12 over the same amount of time.
Like Wolf hitting on White, Thompson's major get in UFA was Charles Woodson in 2006. Santana Dotson (in 1996) was probably Wolf's second-best signing just as Ryan Pickett (in 2006) was Thompson's second best. But after those four players, the limited value the Packers have gotten from the UFA market has been similar under both highly regarded GMs.
The average number of years played for the Packers per UFA signed under Thompson is just 1.8. The average number of games played per UFA is 25.4 and starts are 20.6. One out of every three failed to even play one game with the Packers while only one in four played more than one season. The only other player to play more than one season, besides Pickett and Woodson, was Brandon Chillar who played from 2008 through 2010.
Remember Matt O'Dwyer? How about Marc Boerigter? Or Duke Preston? Yeah, no one else does, either. These were some of the notable players signed by Thompson.
Under Wolf, the numbers, believe it or not, are even bleaker. The average number of years played for the Packers among his UFAs is 1.6. The average number of games played is 23.3 and starts are 14.6.
So, despite their reputations, Thompson by these measures has gotten more out of free agency than Wolf – even if the difference is minor.
Of Wolf's UFAs, however, only 20.7 percent failed to play in a single game and 34.5 percent played more than one season in Green Bay. In addition to White and Dotson, the Packers got six seasons (but only seven starts) out of Mike Prior, three seasons each out of Harry Galbreath and Sean Jones (as regular starters) and two productive seasons from Don Beebe and Desmond Howard (in more specialized roles).
For good measure, Mike Sherman's four-year run as GM in Green Bay produced like results, too. The averages for his six UFAs were two years, 26.3 games played, and 15.5 starts. Though five of the six played more than one year in Green Bay, only Grey Ruegamer played as many as three years.
Perhaps the biggest difference in free agency for the Packers — and the rest of the league for that matter — since White signed has been the salaries. Individual player costs have exploded while the salary cap has only steadily increased. As an example, White's contract back in 1993 (four years, $17 million) averaged barely more per year than pedestrian linebacker Brad Jones, who just re-upped with the Packers (three years, $11.25 million).
This was the type of challenge that the late Art Modell, then the owner of the Cleveland Browns, saw coming 20 years ago. Upon applauding the Packers' signing of White he said, "I can't even assess the turbulence these days in the NFL. I would hope it would stabilize next year with the salary cap. I'm in awe every day that I hear another signing."
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Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at email@example.com