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NFL free agency: History shows spending sprees equal fools gold

By Ira Miller, The Sports Xchange   |   March 10, 2016 at 11:27 AM
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The NFL's free agency season is upon us, and that means some players getting overpaid, fans over-promised, coaches getting angst, teams getting publicity and, when you come right down to it, little change in the NFL's power structure.

Really, how many times in a little more than two decades of free agency has it significantly altered the balance of power in the league, or really changed the fortune of teams?

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Changed, that is, for the better.

Yeah, you can find the odd case -- Deion Sanders among a significant haul to San Francisco in 1994 and then to Dallas a year later, or Peyton Manning to Denver four years ago, or Drew Brees to New Orleans a decade ago or Reggie White to Green Bay at the start of free agency, even Kurt Warner off the junkheap to Arizona ... but that's not much to celebrate after two decades and how many hundreds of millions of dollars -- billions, even -- squandered on free agent signings.

Interestingly, two of the three quarterbacks mentioned, Manning and Brees, were thought done by a lot of teams due to injuries before they orchestrated successful second acts with new teams. The message is teams can get lucky sometimes, but it's a crapshoot.

Brees, who joined the Saints a decade ago, is the last big dollar free agent (for a relative bargain these days at $60 million over six years) to earn the Super Bowl MVP award -- and he comes with an asterisk because his former team, San Diego, simply chose not to retain him.

NFL teams still are trying to emulate the 49ers from 1994, the dawn of free agency, when they overhauled their defense by signing Sanders, Ken Norton, Rickey Jackson and Gary Plummer in free agency. All four started for San Francisco in the Super Bowl at the end of that season.

A year before that, the Packers opened the vault for Reggie White, who helped get Green Bay to two Super Bowls. That was then. When was the last time you heard about the Packers opening the vault for a free agent? Julius Peppers, perhaps, but he was/is a short-term investment at the end of his career. Or the Steelers? Or the Patriots?

Yet, miracle of miracles, these teams are there, year after year, in the hunt for a championship.

This is heresy in a business that depends on big headlines, but that's really about all you usually get from the big signings. The process may have changed through the years but the formula remains the same: Winning starts in the draft, and the best-run teams have an advantage because they are the best run teams. It's not about money, it's about brains.

The late George Young, who as the New York Giants general manager built two Super Bowl championship teams, used to remind anyone who would listen that, "Anytime you think you're one player away, you're not."

Perhaps that is an over-simplification, but it's the thought that counts, and he was on the right track. Maybe this isn't the right year to bring that up, not with Denver still celebrating the glow of its Super Bowl victory, but then again, maybe it is. Because, for all of his career greatness, how much did Manning really have to do with that title?

Through the years, teams have gotten so much better at re-signing and retaining their core players, their quarterbacks, their key pass-rushers, cornerbacks and offensive tackles. For the most part, free agency in the NFL is like fishing in a polluted pond. Occasionally, you'll find a bountiful haul that someone overlooked or threw back by mistake, but you're much more likely to find a pufferfish.

For those of you inclined to get your fish only at the market and not out of the water, a pufferfish is considered the most poisonous fish in the world.

At any rate, this year is probably going to be one of the wildest because 20 of the NFL's 32 teams have more than $20 million available to them under the salary cap; 11 teams have more than $40 million. That's a lot of money to throw at a thin free agency class, but teams will spend it because (a) some of them have to because of the rules on minimum team salaries, (b) some will be trying to convince their fans they are spending in an attempt to win and (c) some will actually convince themselves they are making their team better.

The only guarantee is that you will not see Green Bay, Pittsburgh or New England throwing money away - and you will see the Packers, Steelers and Patriots playing meaningful games at the end of the season, too. For all the money teams throw at free agents, the game still is dominated by the smartest and best-run organizations.

--Ira Miller is an award-winning sportswriter who has covered the National Football League for more than four decades and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee. He is a national columnist for The Sports Xchange.

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