Big spending a troubling trend

Ted Thompson wise to hold back on overpaying for free agents

NFL agent Ryan Toller knew there was no need to ask the Arizona Cardinals for a counterproposal. The Cardinals knew the truth.

Arizona didn't bother placing an initial bid, or even slapping the franchise tag on offensive lineman Leonard Davis in February. Why? Davis has accumulated zero all-expenses paid trips to Hawaii in six seasons; "anchored" an offensive line that has allowed 233 sacks in his tenure, and was partly responsible for Edgerrin James' career-low of 3.4 yards per carry last year.

Davis, the second overall pick in the 2001 NFL draft, is a mediocre, 6-foot-6, 366-pound space-eater. So after getting Jerry Jones and the Dallas Cowboys to bite on his client to the tune of $49.6 million over seven years, Toller and Davis took the money and bolted Phoenix without further questions.

Either Jones was cryogenically frozen over the past six years (which isn't so far-fetched considering the Terrell Owens fiasco), or a new free agency era has dawned in the NFL. This month has signaled a troubling shift in NFL player finances. A fairly weak talent pool, an increased salary cap, and the demise of parity have led to overspending throughout the league - a foolish game Green Bay general manager Ted Thompson refuses to play.

It's not a coincidence that the 2007 free agency season has turned into an asinine auction, in which an inconsistent cornerback (Nate Clements) becomes the richest defensive player in the history of the game with an eight-year, $80 million deal. Sure, Clements did succumb 101 yards and a touchdown to the pedestrian Brandon Jones in a do-or-die elimination game against Tennessee in Week 16. And he could be held solely responsible for Buffalo losing 20-17 to Detroit when Roy Williams caught 10 passes for 161 yards and a score.

But with a league-high $40 million in cap room, who else was San Francisco going to spend its excess dough on to shore up an anemic pass defense? Corners Tory James and Travis Fisher aren't much competition for Clements.

Such outrageous contracts for ho-hum players like St. Louis' Drew Bennett (5 years, $30 million) and Jacksonville's Dennis Northcutt (5 years, $17.5 million) become even more feasible considering the NFL hiked the salary cap to $109 million, an all-time high. Just nine years ago, the cap was merely $52.4 million. This increase certainly reflects the vast progression of the game.

On the surface it seems wise to give teams more money to spend. After all, it's the players that make the NFL a billion dollar industry. But an inflated salary cap kills parity - the exact element that makes the NFL so great.

The dramatic increase of the salary cap allows teams to safely lock up their best players long-term before they hit the free agent market creating a weak crop of free agents. Most of the perennially competitive teams avoid spending sprees by maintaining their core. Once a quarterback reaches Pro Bowl status, he'll most likely never change uniforms.

This trend prevents the league's cellar dwellers from landing new top-flight talent. That's why the Houston Texans are still spinning their wheels in the mud after five years of existence. Name Houston's five best players ever. Painful, ain't it?

The only way these teams can get out of this vicious cycle is by working miracles in the draft. Inevitably many coaches on poor teams lose this battle and are fired year after year. A huge salary cap thwarts talent from being distributed equally.

And the ridiculous cycle doesn't end there, either.

What do habitual Pro Bowl players do when they see no-names like defensive end Dewayne White cash in on a $29 million deal? You guessed it. They threaten to hold out, contesting they deserve more money than the guy behind them on the stat sheet.

Fortunately, Thompson hasn't allowed his team to swirl uncontrollably in this cycle. He is of the rare GM breed that avoids splashing into free agency, opting to build through the draft. Rather than fall victim to the current trend, Thompson tries to pay players as close to market price as possible, while keeping a steady eye on late April's draft.

But even this method can fall victim to a major rut. It doesn't take long for draftees to greedily exploit the NFL's growing salary cap. Remember, it took only one breakthrough season (and one wicked agent) for Javon Walker to demand a new contract.

Trading for Moss could be a steal
It appears Thompson is fighting this double-edged sword through a third avenue - a trade. If an Aaron Rodgers-Randy Moss trade comes to fruition, Thompson would be acquiring elite, freakish talent for a totally unproven commodity. The snatch on the deal at this point appears to be a conditional draft pick, depending on how well Rodgers does in the Black Hole.

At a restructured contract, Moss is the best value of the off-season by leaps and bounds. Amidst an era in which journeyman receiver Bobby Wade garnered a five-year, $15 million deal from Minnesota, landing Moss is a steal. Desperate for a wideout, the Vikes were forced to splurge on the four-year vet, whose career-high stat line reads 33 catches, 461 yards and 2 touchdowns. Moss has eclipsed 1,000 yards seven times and double-digit touchdowns six times.

The salary cap will only keep skyrocketing, so the chance to strike on a premier player via trade should be seized for Green Bay. The NFL has never experienced a financial boom quite like this.

Good luck commissioner Roger Goodell. Your league may be in the midst of a revenue revolution, but somehow you must curtail the salary cap. That is unless the league aims on someday replicating Major League Baseball where the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox make the playoffs almost every year and the Atlanta Braves win 14 straight division crowns.

Hopefully parity is reborn in a league where Tony Mandarich clones are granted $50 million contracts to teams stuck in the gutter. And hopefully Thompson snags Moss while the opportunity exists.

Tyler Dunne is a college student and frequent contributor to E-mail him at

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