Hey, NFL fans, I bet ya'll love free agency
This is the time of year where hope springs anew. Really, it's not. If this were A Song of Ice and Fire, they would call this period ‘the false spring’ because free agency always brings the promise of new and better things, but is really false. That hope usually only applies that to half a dozen lucky (or smart) teams.
It's fine to be excited right now. The NFL is great at making it feel exciting! It’s like getting mail! It's like Christmas morning! Mom and Dad got you that 6'4", 215 pound receiver you've been asking for! Santa gave you a linebacker with 4.4 speed and cover skills! Life is good.
Your favorite team jumps immediately into the FA pool. On day one they grab a new starting offensive tackle to cut down on that league-leading sack numbers, a third cornerback who can solve that pesky nickel package problem, and an edge rusher who can get your defence off the field on third down.
That’s NFL Free Agency!
Six months later, you'll realize that receiver is a knockoff model made in the Phillipines (not that fine quality made in China) and your linebacker is already obsolete cause teams have figured out they can run straight at him for five yards at a clip.
By seasons end, your new tackle missed the first six games and the injury follows them through a subpar season, that cornerback has to step in as a starter and, guess what, his 5’10” frame is ill-suited to cover a number one receiver, and that edge rusher gets three sacks – all in one game. You’ve already taken to Twitter, Facebook, and fan site message boards to rail about how much money they got, how long their deals are, how poorly the coach used them, and how terrible the GM is for signing them.
That’s NFL Free Agency.
We all make this mistake because we choose (we want) to ignore reality. Our team have been losers for five-plus seasons so when that new receiver shows up, they look twice as nice. We don't want to consider the position our team is actually in.
If your team been in the basement for more than a few years that means they have a lot of work to do to dig their way out. Think about the Oakland Raiders nine years ago. They were historically bad. Even worse, the team was bad and had contract issues like you wouldn’t believe. There was no quick fix for having bad players with big contracts that extended over multiple seasons. The thing had to be imploded, the whole foundation gutted, before things could turn around. Which is why it still took them four more seasons to turn that thing around. They couldn't even imagine building a good roster until all the dead money from bad players was gone. It's like being in debt to your schyster second cousin at a high interest rate.
The reality of the NFL, as much as they like to trot out the whole parity thing, is that in any given year your team is just as likely to suck as not suck. Because it is really hard to build, and even harder to maintain, a winning roster. Every year, there are 10-12 teams in position to make the playoffs. They have built their roster to a plan that positions them to compete for the Super Bowl right now. That’s what is called a ‘window’. The Minnesota Vikings are currently in their window. The Jacksonville Jaguars have opened their window.
Some teams are better at opening that window than others and keep it open for 4-5 seasons (New England, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, and Green Bay). Others only pop it open for two or three seasons (think Arizona, Dallas, and Baltimore). But most pop it open, get a breath of fresh air, then slam it in their own faces a season later (think Detroit, Carolina, or Indianapolis). And because this is the NFL, a lot of teams get a taste of success and lose their minds. Even though their roster isn't ready to compete, the team will overachieve with an outlier of a season, make the playoffs, and those in charge subsequently abandon any patient plan for a quick strike. Those teams almost always fall back into the mire because of their deeper issues. Can anyone say Houston?
Then there are teams that build steadily and strike when the roster is right. If you’ve read anything about the Philadelphia Eagles lately, you’ll see the word Moneyball thrown around. The Eagles are credited with maximizing a new approach to roster building, by taking advantage of the drastically rising cap to trade for proven players still on their rookie deals and then affording themselves the luxury of signing quality FA’s with the savings.
A team currently looking to do this is the Chicago Bears (full disclosure, the Chicago Bears have been an investor in this writer’s happiness for 15 years). In 2014, they coming off not just a bad season, but a horrendous season. They were stuck with bad contracts of Jay Cutler, Martellus Bennett, Brandon Marshall, Jared Allen, and others. They had a historically bad defence. The locker room was toxic. They had to tear it down. It was going to take a few seasons.
They hired Ryan Pace and he's slowly overhauled the roster without sacrificing some semblance of competitiveness. Even though the approach in 2014 had to be an overhaul, pundits and fans alike lost it last off-season when the team signed Mike Glennon to a big money contract. They caught flak for signing Markus Wheaton, Dion Sims, Marcus Cooper, and Quentin Demps. None of those players panned out. But guess what? Looking at the structure of these deals, they were all short-term moves. Most of the money (Glennon especially) came up front and the team would pay them out within two seasons. The Bears owe not a one of them a single guaranteed dollar this season and will pay out $5.8 mil in prorated guarantees - just shy of a million more than they have given Kyle Fuller to lock him up long-term.
The Bears are ready to strike now. They weren't two seasons ago.
If you were planning the trip of a lifetime, would you buy all your gear brand new? Or would you buy substandard items off Kijiji and then re-sell those substandard items off after the trip? For the trip of a lifetime you’d buy brand new. But if this was to be the trip before the trip of a lifetime, you’d go to Kijiji. That isn’t what the Bears did. It's not what rebuilding teams do.
So look at what your team did in free agency and look closely. Is your team releasing quality players to sign quality players? Maybe they value the free agent more. Is your team releasing quality players but signing subpar players in their place? Maybe your team has cap issues – in which case, don’t expect them to compete next season.
How long is the deal for? How much of the money is front-loaded in that first season? These are indicators of what your team is thinking and by extension, what there plan is.
If you look at it any other way, it's probably going to hurt in six months. Ah, screw it. Whose my team signing next?
Rhys Dowbiggin @Rdowb
Rhys is the host of The Hurt Take on Not The Public Broadcaster