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  Money Can't Buy a Ring in the NFL
    | Home | News Wire | Roster | Depth Chart | Schedule | Links |  
         

by Chris Shashaty, Phins.com Columnist

Click Here To Contact Chris

 

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Here, at the start of Free Agency 2007, we are once again reminded that trying to buy a championship in the NFL just doesn’t work.

 

In baseball, money often rules. Why? No salary cap nor the consequences thereof. This is why George Steinbrenner has been able to buy so many championships. Sign a bad player? Trade him. You may eat his salary but there’s no punitive cap to keep you from throwing good money after bad.

 

In all fairness, explaining away what the Yankees do simply by citing a bottomless cash pit is not telling the whole story. You have to pick talent, of course, but you must have chemistry; guys with egos that coexist productively rather than destructively.

 

You also cannot rely solely on free agency to fuel your team. Steinbrenner’s big dollar signings get the press but it’s the Yankee farm system, the development of key young players like Derek Jeter that made the difference in championship seasons. Oh, and having good leadership in Joe Torre didn’t hurt.

 

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In recent years the Yankees forgot that lesson, relying too heavily on free agency. Not surprisingly, they have gone six years without a World Series championship.

 

In the salary cap era of the NFL, the draft is the unquestioned secret to success. Teams that draft wisely and employ a strategy of building primarily via the draft will win. Those that don’t, won’t.

 

The reason is simple. Good young players cost less than high priced veteran free agents and are a better long term investment. They also tend to be less injury-prone (on the whole) and the rookie cap keeps most teams from hurting themselves with large, cumbersome signing bonuses. A younger player is also easier to indoctrinate into a team’s culture than a veteran set in his ways.

 

This is not a new lesson. If we look back to 1995, we’ll find the first team that learned about the dangers of free agency: the Miami Dolphins.

 

At the time, Don Shula felt as though owner Wayne Huizenga’s millions could bring him a championship in the twilight of his career. He signed expensive free agents he felt would plug holes on the Miami roster. What Shula really got were overpaid players with large egos and poor chemistry that badly underachieved. The end result was ugly as The Don resigned in the wake of a disappointing 9-8 season and a playoff blowout in Buffalo.

 

Miami was burdened by salary cap issues many years thereafter and could not protect some of their best players from leaving via agency (Marco Coleman, Troy Vincent, Bryan Cox). Today, the 1995 Dolphins are a case study used by the league in how not to manage the salary cap.

 

Another classic case study in cap economics is the 2000 Washington Redskins. Owner Dan Snyder spent lavishly on free agents, handing out multimillion dollar deals to older guys who didn’t earn their keep. In the aftermath of those poor spending decisions, Head Coach Norv Turner got the axe and the Redskins were burdened for many years with bad contracts, losing records, and old players whose best years were behind them.

 

Lessons learned, all. Today, there are several tenets to free agency that most teams abide by. Here are some of my favorites:

 

First, place a high priority on keeping your own good players. Good players are very hard to find. Don’t lose the ones you have, if you can help it.

 

Second, use free agency to fill holes rather than build the foundation. It is amazing and frightening how quickly free agent contracts and signing bonuses can blot out the balance sheet for years to come.

 

Third, never give a substantial signing bonus to a low character guy. Never. And, if you do, make sure you at least have some legal protections in the contract to recover the bonus if/when things turn sour.

 

Four, several up-and-coming talents are worth more than one elite superstar…unless you are convinced that the elite superstar is the difference in winning a Super Bowl within a year or two.

 

Five, hire staff (business and legal) totally dedicated to managing the cap. They know the market value of players, and they know what the ramifications will be of making a personnel decision.

 

Six, never let good players walk away without compensation. Tag players and tender them to a level that compels an interested party to make a deal that brings value in a trade on terms that you dictate.

 

When the gun goes off signaling the start of free agency, you can expect today’s Miami Dolphins to be smarter in how they approach the market.

 

First, they protected their best free agent (Vonnie Holliday) from hitting the market.

 

Second, they will shop to fill holes on the offensive line. Look for them to be especially active in bidding for the services of the top guards available (guys like Cincinnati’s Eric Steinbach, San Diego’s Kris Dielman, and Washington’s Derrick Dockery).

 

Three, they already have a policy in place that they do not give out big bonuses to bad guys. Wayne Huizenga’s hand is personally in that.

 

Four, GM Randy Mueller has already said that “quantity over quality” and up-and-coming talent will be the theme.

 

Five, the Dolphins have one of the best cap staffs in the NFL in Bryan Wiedmeier and Matt Thomas. And Huizenga will be prodding the conservative Wiedmeier from time to time when things bog down.

 

Six, the Dolphins have tendered key free agents (e.g. Wes Welker, Yeremiah Bell) at level that requires high compensation. The tenders came before the opening bell, before the market could set the price.

 

The Dolphins know that free agency isn’t free. They also know that spending lavishly on the wrong guys is a recipe for disaster.

 


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