INDIANAPOLIS – In February 2006, an assistant coach from an NFL team located along the Eastern seaboard and below the Mason-Dixon Line took a vacation to Hawaii. It was an odd time of year for a getaway given that most coaches were studying tape of potential free agents.
It turns out this assistant coach was doing his study up close and personal, even if it violated NFL tampering rules.
Upon arriving in Hawaii, the coach stayed in a hotel only a few miles from prominent soon-to-be free agent defensive lineman Maake Kemoeatu of the Baltimore Ravens. The assistant coach proceeded to spend much of his free time getting to know Kemoeatu, who went from relatively unknown player to one of the top-paid free agents at the time with a subsequent five-year, $23 million contract from the Carolina Panthers.
And just to be clear, the Panthers weren't the team that dispatched an assistant coach to get to know Kemoeatu.
As the NFL gears for its annual free-agent spectacular starting at the stroke of 12:01 a.m. ET Friday, the reality this time of year is that some negotiations have conceivably long been done, even if they're not supposed to have even started.
The NFL has a lengthy policy on tampering that touches on 12 categories. Free agency is among those 12 sections. However, the guidelines haven't prevented teams and players from jockeying for position prior to the official start of the signing period.
Take Tennessee Titans defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, the No. 1 free agent in this year's class. As of last week, at least 10 teams had expressed a strong interest in Haynesworth, according to a source. The list of strong suitors who weren't blinking at paying Haynesworth upwards of $15 million or $16 million a year was at four or five, supposedly led by Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder.
As much as it's not supposed to happen, there's really not much the league can do about it, Indianapolis Colts president Bill Polian said last week.
"I don't know if there is a remedy for it that's enforceable, it just may be human nature," Polian said. "I wish it were otherwise but I don't know of any way to make it change."
Likewise, Philadelphia Eagles president Joe Banner tacitly acknowledged the existence of tampering last week when he told the Philadelphia Daily News that the only reason a player doesn't re-sign with his team is that the player "knows he wants to leave, or there's a better deal somewhere."
The rumored stories of tampering are long and illustrious in the NFL, a sometimes humorous array of situations where coaches and executives feign innocence in the facing of obvious evidence to the contrary.
In 2006, the same year that Kemoeatu signed with Carolina, the beginning of free agency was delayed twice because of negotiations over an extension of the collective bargaining agreement. That created an awkward situation for one free agent.
"We ended up having an agreement on a deal three days before free agency started," an agent said while attending the NFL scouting combine last week. "The player is at the hotel, meets with the head coach in the lobby, they shake hands, everything is agreed to and then the whole deal gets put on hold. It was crazy."
While tampering charges are rarely filed in the NFL, especially regarding free agency movement, some deals are consummated in an incredibly short period of time.
Last year, the Miami Dolphins and Bill Parcells had an agreement in place with guard Justin Smiley only 17 minutes after the start of free agency.
In 1993, Parcells tried to pull the same midnight ride through free agency when he was the head coach and ran personnel in New England, according to published reports at the time. In the very first year of free agency, Parcells had the Dolphins nervous that the Patriots were about to steal kicker Pete Stoyanovich.
When the Patriots finally made their pitch to Stoyanovich in the wee minutes after the opening of free agency, the Dolphins finally capitulated to the demands of agent Drew Rosenhaus.
Not to be outdone, the Dolphins under coach Don Shula reportedly pulled their own maneuver in 1994 when free agent safety Gene Atkins just happened to be staying at a hotel a few blocks from the Dolphins training facility the night before free agency began.
It's the same hotel where the Dolphins used to stay during training camp.
There are even times when alleged instances of tampering happen and they work to a team's benefit.
In 2006, quarterback Chris Simms re-signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers before the end of the season. His season had been cut short by a spleen injury and Simms re-upped with the Buccaneers after it was clear he wasn't going to get much action on the open market as a free agent.
The rules against tampering are flaunted so obviously that when the league punishes teams for it (as the NFL did last year by taking a fifth-round pick away from the San Francisco 49ers after they tampered with Chicago Bears linebacker Lance Briggs), the punishment comes off as almost absurd.
Or as one general manager put it: "What the league did to the 49ers was laughable."
Then there was a text message from an agent last week. In attempting to set a time to meet with a reporter, the agent said he'd be done "tampering" around 9:30 p.m.
As agents such as Rosenhaus have pointed out time and again, there are no rules that bar agents from talking to teams about players. The rules only apply the other way. It is only tampering if teams talk to agents about players.
Proving such conversations exist is nearly impossible. In the case of the 49ers, the league was able to prove tampering only after a check of phone records and internal memos with the 49ers organization. Even then, San Francisco management was flabbergasted that its internal discussions about a player constituted tampering.
Interestingly enough, an argument can be made that talking before the beginning of free agency ultimately hurts teams more.
As one prominent agent pointed out this month: "The most leverage you have for a player is before the start of free agency because the teams don't really know who else is interested."
After the start of free agency, visits by free agents are officially reported to the NFL and are listed for all teams to see.
In other words, by getting a head start on courting and negotiating, teams are often pushing the price even further than if they would simply wait.
That said, waiting is difficult, if not impossible.
"What do you want me to do, tell my owner after I get stuck without a right tackle, 'Hey, I played by the rules.' Yeah, that's going to help me keep my job," a team executive said last week.
Some people have suggested that the NFL simply alter the rule that bars contact before the start of free agency, moving the date for contact to the day after the Super Bowl. As in the NBA, that would allow for open contract talk, but simply keep the date of when signings could begin.
"Yeah, that's a good idea, but we're already talking before that," one agent said with a laugh.