If you’re surprised that the Cleveland Browns have been essentially bystanders thus far in the NFL’s annual late winter game of musical chairs, you shouldn’t be. And if you’re planning on trying to find a way to squirrel away enough money now to pay for playoff tickets next season, you shouldn’t be. The lack of activity on the free agency front indicates more than anything else that general manager George Kokinis and head coach Eric Mangini feel this team is a lot further away than just one or two players. It’s a refreshing assessment.
For the last several seasons, former general manager Phil Savage conditioned fans to anxiously await free agency as he took generously from that well. Savage brought the Browns Eric Steinbach, but he also brought them Donte Stallworth. Then there were the heavy investments in LeCharles Bentley and Gary Baxter, both of whom suffered career-ending injuries before getting any real opportunity to make a meaningful contribution. For reasons both good and bad, the Browns spent more money than they have to show for it.
The point is that free agency is a high stakes crap shoot with the odds heavily stacked against the teams that see it as a way to get better quickly. In the first place, the high profile players don’t come cheaply or easily. Their contracts tend to be heavily front-loaded and eat up healthy chunks of the salary cap. It’s as much a devil’s pact where a team strives for redemption while playing salary cap roulette. More often than not, the bullet in the chamber ends up being Terrell Owens.
In the second place, the value of free agency has always been suspect anyway. It can be a nice payday for certain players, but the payoff to the team is often fleeting, at best. If you are a team that needs maybe one or two players to take that next step, it can be worth the gamble. If you’re a team that is 5-10 good players away, then throwing big money to one or two players isn’t the best use of the boss’ money.
As most fans will recall, Savage was fond of telling everyone how bare the cupboard was when he came to town. While true, his constant reminders were also self-serving. Private motives aside Savage was smart enough to know that free agency was often a sucker pin placement. That didn’t stop him from shooting for it anyway in attempt to make a sea change in the talent level on the team.
The problem was that there were just too many holes to fill and not enough cap space to go around. As a result, Savage was forced to make some decisions that in the end cost the team every bit as much as it gained in the process.
The best example was last year’s signing of Stallworth. To Savage, Stallworth represented another deep threat to complement Braylon Edwards. In Savage’s rose-colored view of the world, opposing defenses would not be able to stop Edwards, Stallworth and Kellen Winslow. That in turn would open up the running game and make the offense even more prolific. It was a case of hoping that the best defense was a good offense.
It was a nice thought. But Stallworth didn’t come cheaply. He got $35 million over 7 seasons with $10 million guaranteed. When Stallworth is eventually cut, be it this season or next, the cap hit the Browns will take a substantial cap hit because the remaining value of that contract will get accelerated. If either Kokinis or Mangini doesn’t eventually complain about this millstone, that would be something worth reporting.
The other, more immediate, problem the Stallworth signing caused was that it forced Savage to forego bringing in any credible veteran help in the secondary, leaving the team with Eric Wright and Brandon McDonald as the starting corners. That might have been an acceptable risk if the linebacker-centric scheme on defense had the requisite linebackers to pull it off. It didn’t. Wright and McDonald were constantly exposed last season and responded about how one would expect to raw cornerbacks to respond.
If the Browns already had been fundamentally strong on defense, the signing of Stallworth on a team that went 10-6 the previous season would make sense. But it wasn’t a fundamentally strong team looking for a missing piece. It was a team, like so many others, still in search of several missing pieces.
Mangini and Kokinis can see this as well as anyone. They seem to have rightly concluded that this is simply not the offseason to spend big again. The Browns weren’t players in the Bart Scott sweepstakes and they didn’t give Ray Lewis a second thought. They didn’t even pursue running back Derrick Ward. Put this all together and the only conclusion to reach is that the Browns are in a multi-season rebuilding project, the goal of which is to “build this team right.”
What that means is that you’ll see more deals like the trade of Winslow. Draft picks are a far cheaper way to rebuild. You’ll likely also see some “minor” signings of role players, like the recent signing of former Buffalo tight end Robert Royal. These are the kinds of players that give a team depth, something the Browns lack, even if they don’t necessarily improve the team in the short run. This will be the operating mode for the next few seasons.
The are only two real questions that will dictate whether this strategy will work and the questions are related: will the fans have the patience to tolerate another rebuild and will Mangini/Kokinis have the patience to stick with their plan when the fans lose their patience?
It’s easy to take the long view when you’ve just been hired. It’s a lot harder when fans are calling for your head after the team suffers its third loss in four games and is headed for another 6-10 season. There will come a point that Mangini and Kokinis will want to accelerate the process with high risk/high reward Stallworth-type transaction. When the heat is at its most intense, it’s the natural reaction. It would also be the worst reaction of all.
The time will come when a deal like that will pay off. It’s not this offseason. It’s probably not the next one, either.. If Mangini and Kokinis want a greater shelf life than Savage, they should lay the ground work for the fans now, gently lower the expectations to a more reasonable level and then actually go about building this team the right way. It may not be easy, but it is the right way.
Free agency in the NFL always did resemble a high dollar flea market. High priced veterans end up in the cut out bins as their former teams turn their attention to cheaper alternatives. This year’s poster child is the aforementioned Owens.
Owens is the most high profile of all free agents. He’s also the patron saint of loudmouth receivers, which is the blunt way of saying that he carries some baggage. Whatever his value as a receiver may still be, and it can be substantial, even Dallas doesn’t seem his as worth the effort.
A team, any team, will tolerate the occasional odd ball as long as he produces. But it’s a fine line. In the case of Owens, he’s averaged more than a thousand yards receiving every year. But it comes at the expense of team harmony. He’s an outsized personality with a raging sense of entitlement who will throw any teammate under the proverbial bus. It didn’t take Nostradamus to foresee his exit from Dallas, just as it won’t take Nostradamus to foresee his exit from the next team that places that sucker’s bet.
The object lesson of Owens’ recent plight is that it underscores why Kokinis and Mangini are proceeding so cautiously in free agency. At this point in the team’s arc, it’s simply too risky. The near term upside simply isn’t high enough to offset the depths of the long term downside.
It was with some glee, wasn’t it, that Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis overplayed his hand in free agency and had to crawl back to Baltimore to cash in? Lewis let it be known that he wanted to be anywhere but Baltimore, even telling the media that he wouldn’t give the Ravens a “hometown discount.”
But negotiation in anything is about leverage and Lewis, thinking he had it in spades, quickly found out otherwise. There simply weren’t any takers for a 13-year veteran looking for a $10 million for another three years. Consequently he and was “forced” to crawl back to Baltimore, tale between legs, for around $7 million in order to save face.
The truth is, Lewis may be an emotional presence, but that’s about it. His value has been overrated for years as others, like Bart Scott, have toiled in somewhat obscurity next to Lewis’ camera-mugging grandstanding. Despite his accomplishments, Lewis simply couldn’t convince anyone but his current employers that there was much mid to long-term upside to a 33-year old linebacker, at least at the prices he was expecting. Again, like Owens, it’s a case of teams believing that they can come close to replicating his productivity at a fraction of the price.
The real winners in all of this are the Browns and the rest of the AFC North. Lewis’ deteriorating play coupled with the cap space he occupies puts the Ravens in a bind they didn’t necessarily foresee when they first left Lewis to test the free agent waters. The best case scenario for the Ravens was that the Cowboys, for example, would way overpay for Lewis and thus relieve them with enough public relations cover for not resigning him themselves. But it didn’t happen. Instead, the Ravens were essentially forced into making a bad business decision out of a misguided sense of loyalty to Lewis because the Cowboys and the Jets suddenly got smart with their money.
The more bad business decisions the Ravens can make the better. Far better, I think, for the Ravens to cling to Lewis than keep Scott in the fold. Now if the Ravens can figure out a way to rid themselves of Ed Reed….
To this point, the conventional wisdom about Derek Anderson is that Savage blew it last offseason by not trading him when his value was highest. While that’s probably true, it’s also probably true that his value wasn’t nearly as much as fans believed. New England had to throw in Mike Vrabel with Matt Cassel in order to get even a second round pick from Kansas City. Cassel was good, but like Anderson, he was still a one-year wonder. All this leads to this week’s question to ponder: In light of the Cassel trade, what could the Browns really have obtained had they traded Anderson last off season? And for bonus points, in light of the Cassel trade, what could the Browns possibly obtain this offseason?