The start of free agency is officially upon us, and to understand the way some teams will approach it, we have to go back to the days of grunge music, "Seinfeld" in its prime and telecommunications technology that predated widespread voicemail and caller ID, when every ring was an adventure.
Fifteen years ago, during the NFL's first bona fide free-agent frenzy, the late Reggie White was the crown jewel. The Philadelphia Eagles' dominant defensive end, an ordained minister, was considering the most unlikely of destinations – Green Bay – when he got a message on his (time warp alert!) answering machine from Packers coach Mike Holmgren.
"Reggie," Holmgren intoned, "this is God. Go to Green Bay."
Even White had to have laughed at that one.
White did heed the call to Titletown, and in 1993 the Packers promptly made their first playoff appearance in 11 years. Three seasons later, they won Super Bowl XXXI with White sacking New England Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe a record three times.
The message to the rest of the league, besides the foreshadowing of a certain coach's god complex: Pluck the crown jewel, and a ring shall follow.
That conventional wisdom lasted eight years, until the Patriots stunned the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI. The Pats, like the New Orleans Saints the previous season, had instigated a dramatic turnaround after signing 17 mid-to-low-level free agents. The staggeringly large group, which I later dubbed the Discount Dudes, included team-oriented players like Mike Vrabel, Roman Phifer, Antowain Smith, David Patten and Larry Izzo.
The message to the rest of the league: Don't break the bank for big names; it's better to find relatively affordable role players who fit your system.
Six years later, in the wake of another massive Super Bowl upset, I wonder if we've come full circle. Though the Patriots didn't complete the second perfect season in NFL history, they did come within 35 seconds of pulling off the feat, following a regular season in which they set several league offensive records.
New England accomplished all of this after one of the more aggressive offseasons in recent memory, one in which the Pats signed perhaps the biggest name on the free agent market, Adalius Thomas, and traded for a marquee receiver in Randy Moss. Since it's a copycat league, I fully expect many teams to attempt to make a similar splash in '08.
The question is, should they?
I'll answer that in a moment, but first let me address the query many of you are now shouting at your screen: Didn't the New York Giants win Super Bowl XLII, and why won't everyone copy them?
To which I say: Why, sure, at this very minute many general managers are painstakingly plotting a course in which the autocratic coach stuns his charges by mellowing slightly, the decorated defensive end skips training camp while contemplating retirement (or awaiting a big raise, depending upon what you believe), the wildly inconsistent franchise quarterback suddenly morphs into a star late in his fourth season, and the team somehow fights its way out of every jam imaginable and pulls off the most improbably gritty triumph since the prisoners beat the guards in "The Longest Yard."
Back to the Patriots, who reacted sharply after blowing a big lead in the '06 AFC Championship game and losing to the Indianapolis Colts. Reasoning that the roster's deficiencies at wide receiver and linebacker – mostly the former – had likely robbed the franchise of a shot at a fourth Super Bowl title in six seasons, the Pats' powers that be (coach Bill Belichick, owners Robert and Jonathan Kraft and vice president-player personnel Scott Pioli) were determined to attack those weak spots.
First they signed the versatile Thomas. Then they did their best to enhance quarterback Tom Brady's reality, trading for slot receiver Wes Welker, signing free agent speed threats Donte' Stallworth and Kelley Washington, and ultimately swinging the deal with the Oakland Raiders that sent Moss to New England on the second day of the draft.
Beginning four months later, the Patriots were unbeatable – until the Super Bowl. I have no doubt that there are many teams that would like to approach their current offseason the way the Pats did in 2007. And the advice I would give to virtually all of the people running those franchises is: Unless you are the Patriots or something very similar, do not try this without adult supervision.
Exhibit A would be the San Francisco 49ers, who went all-out in free agency a year ago, throwing millions at cornerback Nate Clements, defensive tackle Aubrayo Franklin, safety Michael Lewis, outside linebacker Tully Banta-Cain and wideout Ashley Lelie. That got a lot of people buzzing about the Niners, who'd finished strong the previous season (while ending up 7-9), and legendary coach Bill Walsh was among those picking them to win the NFC West in '07.
But San Francisco, lacking the foundation of shrewd drafting and a proven system that were present in New England, backslid to a 5-11 season that led to coach Mike Nolan being stripped of his GM responsibilities, and nearly his coaching duties as well.
"No matter what approach you take, you still have to draft well, and you have to have stability," says Randy Mueller, who was the Saints' general manager in 2000 when the team signed an NFL-high eight free agents – most of them of the Discount Dude variety – and ended up pulling off the first postseason victory in franchise history. "The Patriots have drafted well, especially with their first-day picks, and they have a pretty good nucleus of young players. That allowed them to go out and pick up a bunch of guys to shore up one position, and to take some risks."
Mueller helped facilitate New England's success last March. As the Miami Dolphins' GM (he was fired after the season when Bill Parcells took over as vice president of football operations), Mueller traded Welker for second- and seventh-round selections in the '07 draft. It seemed like a steep price for New England to pay for a 5-foot-9 wideout who, in three seasons with the Dolphins, had scored just one offensive touchdown.
Welker caught 112 passes for the Pats in '07, tied for the NFL lead, including eight TDs. That gave him 15 fewer touchdown catches than Moss, who broke Jerry Rice's 20-year-old league record. Moss' 23 TDs were 12 more than he caught during two underwhelming seasons in Oakland.
"Tom Brady gives the Patriots license to take a lot of risks, where other teams can't," Mueller explains. "In their offense, compared to what we had in Miami, Wes Welker is a different player. And how does (acquiring) Randy Moss apply to other teams? You saw what he did in Oakland. Eighty percent of the teams couldn't take him on. You'd get killed on all fronts. But there, with Tom Brady in command, he's going to fall in line. When you have stability and you have leaders in the right places, it allows you to handpick guys that might not fit in other situations."
In other words, unless you've already built a foundation for success, the quick fix or big splash is almost certain to let you down.
So, which teams might actually be able to replicate the Patriots' 07 model this offseason? Let's examine the other franchises that, based on the way this past season ended, seem well-positioned enough to make an aggressive push for a difference-maker, or several key difference-makers:
• The Cowboys, Chargers, Colts and Packers, barring some serious misfortune over the next few months, are all teams that seem capable of winning with what they've already got. The Cowboys and Chargers have young quarterbacks who should improve with experience; the Packers, depending on what Brett Favre decides to do (and, if Favre retires, Aaron Rodgers' ability to keep performing like he did in Dallas last fall), had the league's youngest roster in '07 and expect across-the-board maturation; the Colts, who won it all in '06, simply crave better injury luck.
• The Giants kept a low profile in free agency a year ago and had a terrific draft under first-year general manager Jerry Reese. They have no reason to deviate from that approach.
• The Buccaneers, Seahawks, Titans, Browns and Redskins all have flaws in more than one area, and a concentrated influx of outside talent alone won't necessarily push any of them to elite status. The Titans, with a ton of cap space, are the most intriguing up-and-comer of this bunch, but everything hinges on quarterback Vince Young's development, which stalled in '07 after an impressive rookie campaign.
• There is one team that bears at least a passing resemblance to the Pats a year ago: The Jacksonville Jaguars. This is a team that is strong in most areas, with the glaring exception of wideout. The team's front office honchos and coach Jack Del Rio seem determined to bring in some playmakers – they've reportedly worked out a trade for Vikings wideout Troy Williamson, and there's another report that Raiders deep threat Jerry Porter is due for a free-agent visit. That's a start, I guess, though Williamson, the No. 7 pick in the '05 draft, has yet to prove he's anything more than a fast guy who consistently fails to make big catches.
If the Jags are following the Patriots' blueprint, they won't stop at Williamson and Porter – they'll try to acquire four or five players and see who sticks. And though it's a longshot, I wonder if they'll go after the most decorated name among the '08 free agent class of 429 players.
Let's put it this way: If Moss checks his cell-phone voicemail and hears a guy who sounds like Del Rio pretending to be a higher power, he can surmise that the Jags think he's the answer to their prayers.
TAKE IT TO THE ATM
Moss will re-sign with the Patriots – or heretofore be referred in this space as the World's Biggest Con Artist. … The Chargers, who waived veteran fullback Lorenzo Neal on Thursday, will miss the perennial All-Pro in the locker room as much as they do on the field. … While assessing this year's winners and losers in free agency, most writers, broadcasters and columnists who cover the NFL will forget that the current Super Bowl champions were exceptionally passive a year ago.
LIES, LIES, LIES
1. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is really, really eager to talk to former Patriots video assistant Matt Walsh.
2. While sitting courtside for last Saturday's Cal-Stanford women's basketball game at Haas Pavilion (as part of a Pac-10 record crowd of 10,525), my friends Jim and Dan and I were exceptionally polite to Cardinal star Candice Wiggins and refrained from expressing our opinions to the fine officiating crew.
3. When it comes to breaking news, packers.com is in a class by itself.
OXYGEN-DEPRIVED THOUGHT FROM ABOVE
Either Eagles defensive tackle Mike Patterson is auditioning to play Jeff Spicoli in a "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" remake, or he's one of the biggest fools ever to wear a uniform – not just an NFL jersey, but any uniform. Given the police report that accompanied Patterson's Feb. 16 arrest for possession of marijuana, it's hard to conclude anything else. According to the report, police came to investigate a minor car accident at about 6 a.m. and, lo and behold, smelled what appeared to be burning marijuana coming from the car Patterson had been driving. Inside the vehicle the cops indeed found weed – as well as Patterson's brother, Tyrone, who had several outstanding arrest warrants. There was no mention of a "Please Handcuff Us" sign on the vehicle's hood, but I wouldn't rule it out.
LET'S DO SOME DON JULIO SILVER SHOTS FOR …
Sidedoor Pullman Kid, the illustrious Hobo who was immortalized in Rick Telander's brilliant piece on traveling through the NFL's "Cheese League" for Sports Illustrated in the summer of 1994 – and who was a vital part of Rick's motley posse during our impromptu bender to Key West while covering Super Bowl XXIX for SI in Miami the following January. Sidedoor, as they say in his world, "caught the Westbound" earlier this month in Phoenix, less than a week after Super Bowl XLII. Shots are also in order for the late, great Myron Cope – a fantastic sportswriter who launched a second career as the Steelers' iconic radio announcer, creating the Terrible Towel and coining a hundred expressions along the way. Cope, an exceptionally nice man, passed away Wednesday at 79. To put his career in perspective, I can only say, "Double Yoi!" Finally, The Gameface mourns the passing of legendary drummer Buddy Miles, who jammed with Jimi Hendrix in the Band of Gypsys and never let up on the skins. He was 60.
YAHOO! SEARCH WORDS OF THE WEEK
Charlie bit me
ROLLIN' WITH THE ROYALS
The misery continued for Reading, as the Royals dropped a 2-1 decision to Aston Villa at Madejski Stadium Sunday to remain winless in '08 and below the Premier League's relegation line. Now a point behind 17th place Birmingham with 11 games to play, Reading hits the road to face 12th-place Middlesbrough on Saturday, with the Royals still seeking their first away victory of the season. I'd write more about my adopted team, but like the English weather this time of year, it's too damned depressing.
LYRIC-ALTERED SONG DEDICATION OF THE WEEK
Last week Y! Sports' Jason Cole broke a story that the NFL is investigating an accusation by the Bears that the 49ers violated the league's tampering laws by making overtures to Chicago linebacker Lance Briggs in the fall of '07. Here is what we would imagine to be San Francisco general manager Scot McCloughan's response, to the tune of Naughty By Nature's classic "OPP":
Army with harmony
MC McC drop a load on 'em
OPP, how can I explain it?
I'll take you frame by frame it
It's a new dance craze and everybody's doin' it
O is for Other, P is for People scratchin' temple
The last P … well … that's not that simple
It's sorta like South African golfer Gary Player
It's five little letters that are missin' here
The last one of them is the letter A-uh
We're all tryin' to acquire 'em so please don't be a damn hater
You ever meet an agent in an Indy hotel lobby?
You talkin' 'bout his clients and then you feelin' real saucy
You get home, wait a day, he's what you wanna know about
Then you call up and start to hammer contract numbers out
It's not a front, F to the R to the O to the N to the T
It's just free agency ain't here (Boy, that's what is scary)
It's OPP, time other people's what you get it
This ain't Spygate scandalous because we all got down and did it
How many GMs out there know just what I'm gettin' at?
Who thinks it's wrong 'cos I'm splittin' and co-hittin' at?
Well if you do, that's OPP and you're not down with it
But if you don't, here's your membership
You down with OPP? (Yeah you know me)
You down with OPP? (Yeah, you know me)
You down with OPP? (Yeah, you know me)
Who's down with OPP? (Every NFL team)