Roger Goodell must be pissed. But then again so are a lot of agents. In the annals of NFL free agency, which really aren’t all that far reaching anyway, this is easily the most pedestrian, indeed most boring, free agency period on record. Put it this way, when the most exciting story in all of free agency starts and ends with a fax machine (a fax machine!), then it may be time to rethink the whole approach.
Goodell is pissed because in NFL World, there isn't supposed to be this kind of down period. The whole point of creating a preseason, a regular season, a playoff season, a scouting combine, a free agency season, a draft season, and then off season workout season is precisely to advance the perception that the NFL is always in season. The NFL Network is a 24-hour a day, seven day a week operation and it needs programming like the plant in Little Shop of Horrors needed humans. The appetite is insatiable and yet all effort must be expended to quench it, sanity be damned.
But Goodell, in a rare act of self-sabotage, snuffed out any possibility of an active NFL free agency season when he put both the Washington Redskins and the Dallas Cowboys, and by extension their impetuous, maniacal owners on the sidelines for acting all petulant and maniacal during 2010’s uncapped season. By loading up salary in that year (and then getting nothing but dead money and no Super Bowls for the effort) despite the strong and probably illegally collusive suggestion that they not do that, the Redskins and Cowboys were fined millions in salary cap hits, effectively putting them out of business during this off season. And a million player agents cried and the rest of the world paid attention to something else, like the wife of Florida Gulf Coast's basketball coach and Aaron Craft's hovering right foot.
Because the two biggest, free spending franchises have basically sat out free agency, agents are finding suckers in short supply. Daniel Snyder and Jerry Jones usually use free agency as a way of measuring their manhood, at least since actual manhood measuring was outlawed by Paul Tagliabue at the 2004 Winter Meetings after an unfortunate incident involving a bottle of Captain Morgan and an electronic tape measure. In their view, big always trumped quality and so they spent themselves silly so many times that they made George Steinbrenner look like an absolute model of restraint by comparison.
But without their participation this year, free agency has been boring with most teams following the example long established by Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots—let the market come to them. Even now, the free agent market is still flush with inventory as one owner after another sees how far they can drive down the price of free agents.
Cleveland’s own Josh Cribbs may be the poster child for this year’s free agency class. Not only has there been virtually no competition for his services, but the only team that’s even thinking about signing him, the Arizona Cardinals, said to check back in the next several weeks to see how that knee has heeled. Meanwhile absolutely no other team has jumped into the fray. It’s almost as if Cribbs couldn’t get signed if agreed to work for incentives only.
Behind Cribbs are literally dozens of other similarly situated free agents. Most of them aren’t brand names but some of them are. They either are players that once were something but are old and/or banged up (you know, free agents that, if this were baseball, are exactly the kind favored by the Cleveland Indians) or younger players who for a variety of reasons didn’t pan out with their original teams.
In any case, this new found restraint within the NFL was brought about mostly, and perhaps unintentionally, by Goodell. As a result, most teams are still in decent shape with respect to their salary caps while agents who were counting on big commissions to finance that new Porsche are finding that they may have to settle for a Nissan.
It's not what Goodell had in mind when he decided to punish Snyder and Jones for acting like Snyder and Jones.
Something else, too, is happening this free agency season. It's finally dawned on most owners and coaches that players are far more fungible than they originally thought. Unless there’s an elite quarterback on the market, which happens about as often as players like Peyton Manning switch teams, free agency isn’t the place to cure what ails your franchise. It’s the place to supplement your overall player acquisition strategy, not define it.
Let’s start with a few basics.
The conventional wisdom of NFL general managers is still that teams are best built through the draft. But is that really still true? Certainly it was in the days when free agency didn’t really exist, the days when a team signing, say, a Cribbs, would have to part with a couple of first round picks for that privilege. Not coincidentally, the draft was 12 rounds, or nearly double what it is today.
What makes it less true today has been the growing importance of undrafted free agents. There isn’t a NFL roster these days that doesn’t include at least 10 and sometimes as many as 13 or 14 undrafted free agents on its roster. It’s those kinds of players that really are the backbone of the league because it’s on their backs that salary caps are managed.
A disproportionate amount of cap space is typically allocated to the quarterback position, unless you’re a team like Cleveland perpetually looking for a quarterback on whom to lavish too much money. From there, a few skill players (including tough to find left tackles, for example) fill up another, smaller, but still disproportionate share of cap space. Finally, the rest of the cap space is allocated among the 40 or so players, many of whom are either young, undrafted free agents (rookies, first or second year players) or aging veterans on cheap, one year deals.
What teams then do on an almost daily basis is assess their cap space by player and by that player’s overall value against the space his contract occupies. When cap space exceeds value (as measured, generally, by a formula that takes into account the production of other similarly situated players in the league and their contracts) a player usually is asked to renegotiate. Players that balk at the suggestion are cut. In a few cases, generous soles like Tom Brady will voluntarily renegotiate a contract to something more cap friendly. The bottom line though is the bottom line. Teams live and die by their cap space. Indeed there’s no one more important to a franchise than the cap specialist.
Because of the ever present black cloud that is the salary cap the NFL shrunk its draft in order to push more players onto the undrafted free agent market because it’s cheaper. Such free agents rarely command any sort of bonus, they tend to sign relatively long, cap-friendly contracts, and they do all the dirty work, from carrying equipment to running down the field at break neck speed on special teams. It’s also as cheap to cut those kinds of players as to keep them which is why so many are on the market every off season.
What this all says about NFL economics is that teams aren’t built through the draft nearly as much as they used to be. Teams are really built through the draft and the free agency market that follows the draft. Meanwhile the free agency season that precedes the draft, the one populated with veterans looking for a new home, is the place to plug holes n order to finalize your actual draft/post draft free agent strategy.
The Browns, for example, have spent the free agent season loading up on the defensive side of the ball. They have needs at nearly every position but focusing at least on one side of the ball gives them a change to better manage the next two phases of their player acquisition strategy—the draft and post draft free agency. That’s where the Browns will turn to offense so that when it’s all said and done the new regime, in relatively short order, will have put its mark on the franchise while simultaneously extricating it from the mistakes of the last regime.
This isn’t to totally minimize the draft, by the way. It’s still as important as it ever was to hit on players in the first three rounds. Players drafted in those positions are far more likely to become the blue chip cornerstones of your franchise than players drafted later or signed as undrafted free agents.
Sure there are plenty of brand names in the NFL today who started as late round picks or undrafted free agents but not surprisingly the hit rate on them is far less. You only need to look at the struggles of the Browns to understand how important the first few rounds really are.
Despite having almost unprecedented opportunities to improve through the draft, the Browns have mostly stayed in exactly the same place instead. You could go year by year or simply map today’s hole-ridden roster against their draft position to see the unmistakable trend. The Browns suck at the draft and have for more than a decade. As it stands today they have exactly one cornerstone player, Joe Thomas, to show for their efforts.
Argue all you want for Brandon Weeden and Trent Richardson and maybe a few others, but until they actually perform like superstars they aren’t actually in that category. Teams may pay on potential but games are won on performance and Weeden and Richardson both have to make significant improvement before they get simply lumped on the mile high pile of failed early round draft choices.
In other words, the Browns can improve by finding quality free agents but they can't take an incremental step forward without improving their early round drafting and not just intermittently but for the next several years.
I started to write a column last week about how the Cleveland Browns’ brain trust decided not to take my advice and let the free agent market come to them. But then I got the flu and lost interest. The flu is better, my interest still lost. Ultimately the Browns should have been market reactors not market makers but on the other hand they seem happy with who they signed. They always do.
What did occur to me through the fog of the flu and the drugs meant to suppress its symptoms was that the Browns may be actually improving. It’s less related to the guys they’ve signed and more related to those they haven’t.
Let’s talk about Phil Dawson for a moment. Who doesn’t love Phil Dawson? I’ll tell you who, Joe Banner. I doubt it’s personal. Banner looks at Dawson’s age, ignores his accomplishment, and consults a ream of statistics all of which tell him that 38 year old kickers are a lousy investment. The fact that a Browns regime, any regime, is willing to make cold blooded decisions on players who are as beloved as Dawson might be a sign of progress, indeed improvement. Forget about the players for the moment, another thing the Browns have to do to improve is take sentimentality out of the question and start making better business decisions.
Not to reopen old wounds, but let me do so for purposes of a small illustration. Mike Holmgren, who knew the instant he was hired he didn’t like Eric Mangini, refused to make the right business decision and set Mangini adrift after one failed season. For pure sentimentality’s sake, a “there but for the grace of God go I” calculation, Holmgren kept Mangini around for another year and then fired him for the offense of performing just as poorly in year two as year one.
That decision set the franchise back and not just a year but several. The Browns acquired players and made all sorts of personnel moves during that year based on the schemes Mangini was running. That blocked any progress on the schemes Holmgren and his crew wanted to run instead. We can speculate on the players passed over during that lost year who could have been contributing now but that will just make me want to blow my brains out. The point is that running a football team isn’t merely a year by year endeavor. A franchise as lowly as the Browns can’t afford to take a year off like it did when Mangini was granted an additional year to show just how easy it is to win 4 games a year.
So in that sense watching Banner make no effort to sign Dawson is a sign of progress for the franchise. That may seem counterintuitive when you consider that it was the 49ers, last season’s other Super Bowl participant, that signed Dawson. But actually that it was the 49ers and not, say, the Kansas City Chiefs, actually makes my point.
The Browns have nearly as many holes on the roster as roster spots available. The 49ers need improvement on the margins. They don’t have much cap space left or much need but certainly kicking was a need. Getting Dawson on a one year deal takes care of the problem for now. The Browns have more gaping needs and the cap space they have must be used to take care of those far bigger problems—like the rush defense, for instance, and the team’s overall depth at virtually every position.
There are more kickers available than jobs and even though Dawson signed cheaply (less, actually, than he made last season for the Browns), his age still counsels against him being anything more than a stop gap anyway. The Browns need a longer term solution and, remember, better to release a year too early than a year too late.
That isn’t to say that whoever the Browns find to do the kicking next year will be more effective than Dawson was last season. In all likelihood that will be impossible. But all they need is someone relatively close and finding him won’t be that big of a problem. Teams may suffer for a season with a kicker they don’t like but it’s not like a lack of kicking game tends to be a lingering problem for any team. Again, supply outstrips demand. A new kicker will emerge and at a cheaper price.
The Browns’ complete lack of effort in re-signing Cribbs is much the same thing. The willingness to move on from a player that did so much for the franchise is a sign that the Browns are progressing past sentimentality and toward the business of actually putting together a winning brand.
As for Cribbs, I predicted the interest in him would be muted but I’m a little surprise it’s been almost non-existent. Maybe the recent knee surgery made teams nervous, but I doubt it. In the first place, it was a simple clean up of a torn meniscus. As knee injuries go it’s about the mildest. Indeed if Cribbs’ agent is to be believed he’s already passed an Arizona Cardinals physical even coming off of knee surgery.
It’s not the knee but Cribbs’ age and effectiveness as measured against the cost of getting someone who can do the same thing, just more cheaply. The kick return has been significantly diminished by the NFL and teams are not now going to pay much money for someone just to take a knee three or four times a game. The punt returner is more valued these days and Cribbs was 7th in the league last year in average yards/return, but at his age, his injury history and his salary is he really the better choice than Travis Benjamin? That’s the question Banner asked and we know how he answered.
Arizona seems to have interest in Cribbs but they told him to check back in 5 weeks. Ostensibly they are concerned about his knee but I wonder. The Cardinals are using cornerback Patrick Peterson to return punts and in his two years his average per return is actually a yard more than Cribbs’ career average. That’s not significant certainly but it doesn’t suggest an area of need for the Cardinals, either.
What’s likely going on can be found in the words of Bruce Arians, their head coach. According to Mary Kay Cabot’s story in the Plain Dealer last Thursday, Arians could hardly contain himself when thinking of all the possible ways he could use Cribbs. The last time I heard a coach get all warm and runny about a muti-threat player was a year ago when Rex Ryan went all in, during the off season, on Tim Tebow. Eventually he found out what the other teams already knew. Tebow’s effectiveness is as a diversion and not a steady diet. The same is true with Cribbs. He’s not without skills on offense but even in his prime, which he’s now well past, he was never good enough to be a quality starter. That isn’t going to change just because Arians is talking extemporaneously about a player he won’t even consider signing for another month.
I’m not suggesting that the Browns gained by losing either Cribbs or Dawson. What I am suggesting though is that by not giving in to the sentimentality of resigning two players who helped keep this franchise afloat for the last several years Browns fans may actually have a reason to believe this front office knows what it’s doing.
Long column this week but still a question to ponder: James Harrison, like Cribbs, is still looking for a team. Is this karma or just the inevitable outcome of a very soft free agent market?