Fan Noise - "Intangibles in Free Agency"

There are a lot of factors to consider when contemplating free agency moves. Some are obvious, some not so obvious, and then there the "unknowns" that every team must face.

At the end of every season, teams look toward free agency to fill gaps in their roster, or to shoehorn in the “one last piece of the puzzle” to build that elusive dynasty.

The most obvious considerations are the player’s age, size, talent, and cost in cap space. Some of the lesser things to think about are injury history, leadership, and personal history. Finally, a team looks at potential, misuse (asked to play in the wrong position, scheme, or role), and misleading stats – a team leader in sacks may simply be a byproduct of fellow linemen, and on a different team may turn out to be more mundane.

But the big question marks in free agency – and ones that can hurt the most – are the ones no one can predict accurately. These question marks can come from the most interesting angles.

Everyone that is a football fan knows Terrell Owens. The media manages to insert clips and discussions about this gentleman (odd choice of words, sorry) just about every 15 minutes, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, so he’s hard to miss. Yes, he’s a playmaker, and an offensive threat. He’s also sitting on the sidelines wearing a cast on his leg. Philadelphia paid out some serious cash for this free agent, and when it matters the most – the playoffs – he can’t do anything but become fodder for even more discussion by talking heads.

Or, take last year’s big free agency signing for the Seahawks, Norman Hand. When signed, everyone worried about his weight, but in the end, it was an injury partway into his season that ended his tenure. It was a shame, as he was actually contributing and was a good pickup.

Then, there’s Grant Wistrom. Was grossly overpaid, and promptly gets on the injured list not once, but twice.

Even outside of the NFL, there are always the Ken Griffeys of the world (for example) who sign huge multi-million contracts, only to spend more time with pulled hamstrings and other ailments than actual game appearances.

A common thread (arguably) among all of these players is one thing – overachieving.

The root cause is usually money and higher expectations by the player, the coaching staff, or both.

When Grant Wistrom was first injured, it wasn’t a freak accident. Watching the replays, it was obvious he was not only trying to block his assigned block, but stuck his leg out to trip the offensive lineman next to him.

Now, I’m not going to get on some high horse or make excuses – the fact is, dirty plays happen on just about every single NFL down – and 95% of them get unnoticed by the officials.

What I’m really trying to get to, here, is that when you throw a pile of money at a player, most (if they have a shred of pride at all) will try and live up to their contracts – to their own detriment. Guys like Grant Wistrom are such high intensity players that they feel the only honorable thing they can do is make your team, the coaches, the fans, and peers all say “He’s earning his pay”. After all, everyone expects them to.

But what if they were paid too much? Are their own personal perceptions of what they are expected to do result in sometimes giving everything they have, and more, at the real risk of injury?

I think so. And in the end, it costs everyone much more than they bargained for. When Michael Vick broke his leg in 2003, the Atlanta Falcons had one of their worst seasons ever as a franchise. He is such an important part of their offense that the Atlanta Falcons' season is always one sack away from being over. When Marc Bulger went down during the 2004 season, the Rams suddenly went on a mini losing skid until he returned. Everyone is aware that injuries at key positions can be devastating to teams, but it’s even more amplified when big money is at stake.

Because each NFL roster is limited to the number of players on a team that can actively suit up on gameday, each injury can have a ripple effect across the entire roster – and the bigger the splash, the bigger the ripples.

Your leading pass rusher goes down, and suddenly your above average defensive line becomes pedestrian. Because back-ups must now fill in for the injured player, your special teams pool is depleted a bit as well. Decisions must be made – place the player on injured reserve, bring up someone from the practice squad, release some other position, or just try and struggle with what you have until the player can come back? Shuffle players around from position to position? Move your left DE to the right?

You sign big name, high ticket free agents for a reason – to be playmakers. When injuries occur, it’s easy for the fans and the media to argue that there shouldn’t be a drop off in production with a backup, but players aren’t stamped out of a mold. Each one is unique, and each brings something different to the game. That’s why salaries can vary wildly not just within each team, but across the league. Even as players age, their performance differs.

So, next time you’re suggesting the Seahawks sign that high priced free agent, remember that the price could be higher than you think.

Glenn Geiss writes the Fan Noise column for Seahawks.NET every week. Feel free to send him feedback at awpilot@wavecable.com.



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