Stop me if you’ve heard this refrain before: During the NFL offseason, Team X goes out and spends a ton of money on a bunch of highly-valued players during free agency. They receive high grades for each of these moves from the so-called pundits who govern our collective thoughts on sports. Despite the fact that the team struggled during the previous year, with all of these new, high-quality players added to the mix, everyone concludes that Team X absolutely has to be considered a contender for the coming season.
Then, the season actually comes around, and Team X tanks in shambolic fashion. The new players regress badly, the existing players get jealous of the new players and fall apart too, the wheels come off the wagon, the coach and GM get fired and the cycle begins anew. This isn’t abstract theory anymore — year after year, time after time, this nonsense happens.
I’ve always believed this to be true, but I will state it now for the record: In the NFL, winning free agency can get you important pieces for a championship run, but it absolutely cannot rebuild a gutted team on the fly or immediately resurrect a moribund franchise. This is true for a number of reasons.
The first issue is cost and contracts. When players reach free agency, especially elite ones, they are looking for the largest contract they can garner. Given the length of an average career in the league, this makes sense. Rookie contracts have been severely deflated and a large free agent contract is often the only way for an elite player to assure himself of earnings comparable to his skill level.
From a team’s perspective, this means that to sign talent in free agency requires paying some premiums. Look at safety Devin McCourty’s contract with the New England Patriots, or cornerback Byron Maxwell’s contract with the Philadelphia Eagles, or even running back LeSean McCoy’s contract with the Buffalo Bills — each of these was definitely on the rich side for players of their caliber, but with so much demand for the cream-of-the-crop free agents, the cost of acquiring these players rose appropriately.
Repeatedly paying a premium for above-average and elite players is the fastest way to financial inflexibility, which can very quickly doom any franchise. The two teams that exemplify this are the Dallas Cowboys and the Detroit Lions.
The Cowboys have simply invested poorly and given fat contracts to middling players all over their offense and defense. Therefore, this offseason, when they really would like to bring their entire core back for another postseason run, they will have to let either All-Pro wide receiver Dez Bryant or All-Pro running back DeMarco Murray walk.
The Lions, through no fault of their own, have drafted two of the premier players in the league in Calvin Johnson and Ndamukong Suh and also house a ludicrously well-compensated player in Matthew Stafford. Between these three players, all their cap room was gone, and the team was forced to let Suh, the best defensive tackle in the league, go to Miami for no compensation.
However, Miami has historically fallen prey to the second reason free agency is a trap: It prices players based on past performance rather than future potential. When the Dolphins signed Mike Wallace to a hefty contract a few years back, they forgot that they would need someone elite to throw him the ball — he is now rumored to be on the chopping block. They gave Brandon Albert a massive contract to steal him away from Kansas City — he has been either injured or a disappointment since his arrival in Coral Gables. They traded for Reggie Bush and revitalized his career briefly before seeing him return to his unproductive, side-shuffling ways. Looking deeper into the past, they signed Daunte Culpepper to a princely deal, only to watch him fall to the ravages of time.
I could go on forever, but the point is clear — these lavish deals have a habit of looking into the past, not the future, and there often isn’t a way to escape them when a player’s productivity no longer matches his cost.
The real way to win an NFL offseason is to target inefficiencies in the market, much like Billy Beane has been doing with the Oakland Athletics for time immemorial. Look at the New England Patriots — they rarely make big splashes in free agency (McCourty excepted) and prefer to take low-cost, high-reward chances on players on the fringes of the market, often with staggering results.
Look at Wes Welker and Randy Moss, at LeGarette Blount and Corey Dillon, at Rob Ninkovich and Malcolm Butler. All were acquired at sub-minimal cost and all did perform or are performing at elite levels. Careful management of free agency is yet another reason why the Patriots have four titles and six Super Bowl appearances in the last decade and a half.
The tl;dr version: Build your team via the draft and build your team carefully. Don’t empty your piggy bank in free agency; it might bite you in the butt.
For next week’s stock market projections, contact Vignesh Venkataraman at viggy ‘at’ stanford.edu.