After eight years of unfettered free agency, NFL teams should have learned two things: 1) The most successful clubs sign a handful of middle- and low-tier free agents to fill various roles; and 2) despite what it may think, a team is never one star free agent, or even two, from a title.
The road is littered with ambitious teams that erred big time in free agency. They paid dearly for stars who they thought could take them to the next level, men spent years trying to recover from those mistakes. Exhibit A: The Browns went 11-5 in 1994, thought they were one deep threat from the Super Bowl and gave free-agent wideout Andre Rison a five-year, $17 million deal. He was released after one season, a 5-11 campaign during which he caught three touchdown passes. Exhibit B: Convinced they were one impact defender from getting back on the NFC championship track in 1998, the Panthers signed overrated tackle Sean Gilbert to a seven-year, $45.4 million contract and gave two first-round draft picks to the Redskins as compensation for their franchise player. Carolina, which had played for the NFC championship in 1996, is 19-28 since signing Gilbert and hasn't been back to the playoffs.
Washington is the latest poster boy for free-agent lunacy. After winning the NFC East last season with a 10-6 record, the Redskins added four high-priced free agents. They vastly overpaid declining cornerback Deion Sanders, 33, giving him an $8 million signing bonus as part of a seven-year, $56 million contract; signed quarterback Jeff George, 33, to a four-year, $18.25 million deal after reneging on a promise to negotiate an extension with Pro Bowl signal-caller Brad Johnson; signed defensive end Bruce Smith, 37, for a last hurrah at $25 million over five years, even though rising stir N.D. Kalu appeared ready to crack the lineup; and gave 32-year-old safety Mark Carrier, considered beat up by most teams after 10 seasons, a $3 million signing bonus as part of a five-year, $15 million pact.
The upshot: "We are in disarray," defensive tackle Dan Wilkinson said, after a 24-3 loss to the Steelers last Saturday dropped the Skins to 7-8 and eliminated them from playoff contention. Sanders is already talking about retiring. George has been mediocre in mostly cameo appearances, and Washington will probably lose Johnson to free agency this winter. Smith has played well, but his presence stunted Kalu's development. What's more, Washington probably won't be able to afford Kalu, 25, when he becomes a free agent after this season. Carrier has been adequate but not spectacular enough to justify such a big signing bonus.
"In baseball, if you get a couple of good pitchers, you'll win a lot of games" Titans general manager Floyd Reese says. "In the NFL, with the cap, you can't afford to fill more than a couple of starting spots with quality players. Also, probably two thirds of the time you're going to be wrong [about the free agents you sign]. You can count on your fingers the number of stars who have been stars with their new teams."
So why do teams keep throwing away their money? For one thing, the dearth of trades means that other than the draft, the free-agent market is virtually the only way to acquire major talent However, the biggest reason for the excessive spending is win-now owners like Washington's Daniel Snyder, plus the pressure on teams to make a splash in the off-season. "If you don't do something during free agency, you get labeled as a team that's not trying to improve, and that bleeds over to your fans and your locker room," says Reese. "They wonder, Why aren't we trying to win?"
Instead of trying to win with marquee signings, teams would be wise to follow the lead of the Saints or the Buccaneers. After coach Mike Ditka dealt eight draft choices to select running back Ricky Williams in 1999, New Or leans had no choice but to approach free agency from a new direction beginning last February. "We needed a draft," says first-year general manager Randy Mueller, "so that's how we treated free agency this year. We hoped to get a bunch of third-round quality players out of it." By spending $9.28 million in 2000 cap money on seven middle-tier free agents, the Saints got quality at quarterback ( Jeff Blake), defensive tackle ( Norman Hand), wide receiver ( Joe Horn) and tight end (Andrew Glover).
Tampa Bay, for the most part, has turned away from the free-agent market "I have learned not to love it," says general manager Rich McKay. Going into Monday night's game against the Rams, the Bucs' defense ranked eighth in the league, and nine of the 11 starters were drafted by the club. "The other two, [linebacker] Shelton Quarles and [safety] Damien Robinson, were signed after being cut [by other teams] at a young age," says McKay. "When we were faced with losing one of our longtime starters, Hardy Nickerson, in free agency this season, we didn't panic and pay him a lot of money. We knew we had players behind him who could play."
Nickerson's replacement, middle linebacker Jamie Duncan, a third-round pick in 1998, returned an interception for a touchdown in Tampa Bay's crucial 16-13 win in Miami on Dec. 10. "If Hardy sticks around, Jamie never gets to play and maybe leaves as a free agent," says cornerback Ronde Barber. "It stinks to lose Hardy, but we know we can win with what we have. That's our formula, and it has worked well for us."