Chicago was willing to send linebacker Lance Briggs to the 49ers for an unspecified draft pick. The 49ers were going to get a player they coveted, and Briggs, who the Bears expect to lose in free agency this offseason, was finally going to get a long-term contract.
Briggs was willing to give San Francisco something of a discount on the deal for two reasons: First, he wanted the security of a long-term pact. Second, he grew up in Sacramento, Calif., located roughly two hours from San Francisco.
The deal worked for all parties. But before it could be finalized, the new contract had to be approved by the NFL. That's where it hit a snag, according to two NFL sources. That snag may prove to be a catalyst for change this offseason in some of the rules regarding trades.
San Francisco couldn't give Briggs a new contract because he was a franchise player during the 2007 offseason. Under league rules, a franchise player can't sign a long-term contract after July 15 of a league year – neither with the team that franchised him nor another team. Briggs reported to Bears camp this season after that deadline and without a new deal.
"You can't change the rules during the season," a league source said. "It's pretty clearly stated, even if it was for a deal that made sense to everyone."
Briggs' agent, Drew Rosenhaus, steadfastly declined to comment on the potential trade. Similarly, Chicago general manager Jerry Angelo and San Francisco vice president of player personnel Scot McCloughan declined to comment.
The bottom line is that a deal that seemed to make perfect sense fell apart. To many NFL executives who are hoping to increase the viability of trades, it's an example of how they would like the rules to be altered. That starts with, but is not limited to, moving the trade deadline to later in the season.
Specifically, a number of general managers are hoping the NFL, starting with the recommendation of the competition committee, will eventually move back the trade deadline, which is currently after the sixth week of the season. By that time, many teams have played only five games, making it hard for some franchises to know if they are in the playoff hunt or looking to rebuild.
"I think it would be really useful to move it back," Cleveland Browns general manager Phil Savage said. "If you're in a race and you get a key injury, you've got a chance to go get a proven player rather than leaning on maybe a fifth-round draft pick who is just learning."
Furthermore, a later deadline might help teams that aren't in the playoff race begin rebuilding earlier. Over the past two seasons, there have been two such trades: the Tampa Bay Buccaneers sending defensive tackle Anthony "Booger" McFarland to the Indianapolis Colts last year and the Miami Dolphins trading wide receiver Chris Chambers to the San Diego Chargers this season. Both deals were for second-round picks, and McFarland became an important cog to the Colts' defense as Indianapolis went on to win the Super Bowl.
Where baseball and basketball usually have a flurry of trades and discussions before their trade deadlines, movement or even talk of significant trades during the football season is rare.
The main reason: Working a new player into a team is far more difficult in football because of the timing and practice required. Second, most teams are hesitant to trade away draft selections, coveting picks like family jewels.
Still, many general managers would like more options, as Savage and other general managers said.
"If you want to rebuild your team under the current system, you kill yourself with the fans," one team executive said. "After five games, unless you're 0-5 or you already have a ridiculous number of injuries, you have no chance to remake your team. Fans would crucify you for (trading away marquee players). But if it's at the end of October or first week of November, it's different. Fans would be more understanding."
Historically, the NFL has wanted to keep the deadline earlier. According to Colts president Bill Polian, the early deadline is football's version of a "Johnny Mize Rule."
In 1949, Mize was purchased by the New York Yankees from the New York Giants for $40,000. Mize was 36 at the time and winding down a Hall of Fame career. He went on to play in five straight World Series with the Yankees before his career ended after the 1953 season.
While the stance by the NFL may be noble in some respects, the parallel is questionable. First, the Mize trade was largely irrelevant because he was mostly a non-factor following the trade to the Yankees – hitting a total of 44 home runs and getting more than seven at-bats just twice in five World Series.
Ultimately though, a player's contract and longevity remain stumbling blocks in facilitating NFL trades. It's rare for a team to trade a veteran player early in a contract because the salary cap rules make it prohibitive. In the case of McFarland and Chambers, both had two years remaining on their contracts when they were dealt. And given that careers only last four years on average, the notion that some player could change teams so late in his career and still play for five years with a new team is, at best, a stretch.
For example, in 1992, Miami signed standout tight end Keith Jackson as a free agent after the fourth week of the season. Polian, then with the Buffalo Bills, complained to the league about the impact of Jackson's signing so late in the season. While Jackson helped the Dolphins reach the AFC Championship game that season, Buffalo easily beat the Dolphins in that game to go to the Super Bowl. Jackson was traded after the 1994 season when the Dolphins became smitten with Eric Green.
Thus, while there was much complaining about Jackson, he ended up having only a minor impact on the history of the league.
Perhaps that approach will lead to some new thinking on the subject.
"I've always been open to the idea of moving the trade deadline back," said Baltimore Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome, who is also a member of the league's competition committee. "But I know that there are historical reasons that we consider. It's always something we discuss and I'm open to listening."