Can teams vastly improve by adding more than just one or two free agents to their squad a season? Does that undermine the chemistry and ability to find greater success, or as many who follow the Pittsburgh Steelers argue, do teams that are more active signing free agents usually perform worse than those who do not?
Comparing the 2005 Super Bowl Steelers to the 2006 playoff teams, Pittsburgh certainly was at the bottom of the free agency activity chain. Pittsburgh had three free agent starters (Van Oelhoffen, Farrior and Hartings) - and three "key contributors" who played significant roles on the team (Wilson, Batch and Kierschke). This excludes kickers and punters.
In the 2006 playoffs, only one team had fewer free agents play roles on their team – the Indianapolis Colts – who had only two starters and one key contributor on their roster. The Eagles had one more free agent starter than Pittsburgh and one less key contributor.
Every other playoff team had at least twice as many free agent starters than Pittsburgh during its Super Bowl run. The team Indianapolis faced in the Super Bowl – the Chicago Bears – had nine free agent starters (and two key contributors.) The team Pittsburgh faced in the 2006 Super Bowl – the Seattle Seahawks – had seven free agent starters – plus four key contributors.
What does this tell us?
That teams can build through free agency as well as through the draft. Thirty one percent of all playoff team starters on average were free agent signings.
They key is not overspending for talent. But it's clear by the success of the teams mentioned – and that of others – that it's not necessary to overspend in free agency. Much like the draft, it's necessary to evaluate talent better, so teams can be assured they are getting what they pay for.
When every playoff team but one over the past two years has more free agent starters than Pittsburgh, the evidence shows Pittsburgh's way is not the best way – it's merely one way of finding success.
As for the next argument – that teams active in free agency mortgage their future for the present – there's simply no evidence of that either. Pittsburgh has been in the playoffs only four of the past nine years - many teams more active in free agency have had similar if not greater success..
And re-signing one's own talent may hold as much risk as signing talent away from other teams. It's no less possible to overpay for one's own players as to overpay for another's. Jason Gildon, Dwayne Washington and Chad Scott are good examples of this.
In the end, most teams find that the draft and free agency both are key tools to team development. Pittsburgh, by playoff team averages anyway, are much more inclined to use free agency as a means to supplement talent issues than most of the other teams – but its questionable as to whether that's made Pittsburgh the better team.
From the bleachers
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