Analysis  

 

NFL free agency has empowered players but ruined rivalries

National Football League
When Reggie White rumbled his way over to the Green Bay Packers 20 years ago, it signaled the start of a new era.

Twenty years.

A lot's changed in the past 20, no? Laser discs came and went. Axl and Slash pulled a Kim and Reggie. The same can be said for three-year rebuilding plans.

The biggest sea change in the NFL over the past two decades has been marked by the impatience -- that most unattractive of human qualities -- that now spills over in nearly every NFL general manager's office, save for an extraordinary few. Teams used to have time to improve; now there's downright jumpiness for 5-11 squads to turn into 11-5 winners overnight. So what precipitated that shift?

Free agency.

Yes, pro football's great flea market celebrates its 20th birthday on March 12.

Which gives us reason to ask: What has been free agency's ultimate impact? Has it made our game -- arguably America's greatest sports enterprise -- better? The NFL is more popular than ever. But was free agency -- which gave subpar teams the ability to make themselves over so that they could compete now -- the catalyst? Did it improve the NFL as a product?

No.

That doesn't mean the pro game is terribly worse, but the changes free agency has induced are both positive and negative.

To be fair, let's look at both angles, the good and the bad. Feel free to make your own assessments (@Harrison_NFL is the dropbox).

THE GOOD

» Teams can turn things around quite quickly through the shrewd use of free agency and available cap money. The New Orleans Saints went 3-13 during their Hurricane Katrina-plagued 2005 season. Then they signed quarterback Drew Brees the following spring. In 2006, they went 10-6 and advanced to the NFC Championship Game.

» The year-round news cycle gets fed. Let's face it, free agency has made the NFL relevant in the months following the Super Bowl. That was not the case before 1993. (Of course, the NFL draft has done its part, too.)

» Football RX. Your team needs a decent pass rusher, but one can't be had in the draft? Free agency, baby. In 1994, the Buffalo Bills missed the playoffs for the first time in seven years. They needed someone to take the load off Bruce Smith. Enter Bryce Paup, a free-agent signee (care of the Green Bay Packers) who delivered 17.5 sacks in 1995.

» It's beneficial to the players, who, like the rest of society, can go where their services are most valued.

THE NOT SO GOOD

» While being beneficial to the players, it can hurt teams, particularly those whose coaching staffs helped developed a guy's skills, only to see him walk and make more money with a team that has larger cash reserves.

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» It hurts fans, too. What sucks more than rooting for an All-Pro who is part of the backbone of your team, only to see him leave town for greener pastures or for ancillary reasons? (See: Reggie White, Curtis Martin, Nnamdi Asomugha.)

» The divorce rate between players and teams is almost as bad as the real divorce rate in this country. Don't worry, it's still not that bad.

» Huge contracts often de-motivate players and cripple teams' rosters. When one position becomes a financial sinkhole, seventh-round draft picks end up at the others. Albert Haynesworth, anyone? Andre Rison? Javon Walker? Adam Archuleta? Scott Mitchell? T.J. Houshmandzadeh? Alvin Harper? Please don't make me type more.

» Rivalries -- as those of us who grew up in the 1970s, '80s and early '90s knew them -- are almost dead.

That's the killer, if you ask me. Free agency -- along with its oft-ugly offshoot, the salary cap -- has laid waste to NFL rivalries. You can't have hatred between teams when Jeremiah Trotter is playing middle linebacker for the Philadelphia Eagles one day and middle linebacker for the Washington Redskins the next. 

If you grew up a Green Bay Packers fan in the 1980s, you hated Dan Hampton, Mike Singletary and Steve McMichael ... everyone on the Chicago Bears' defense. Then one morning you woke up to see that Mongo was playing for your team. What?! Yes, McMichael signed with the Pack the year after Reggie White did. This was after years of blasting Lynn Dickey, Don Majkowski and other '80s-era Packer non-greats into the Soldier Field carpet.

With 20 to 30 percent of clubs' rosters (and sometimes much more, as we recently saw with the Indianapolis Colts) regularly turning over, fans are increasingly rooting for the decals on their team's helmets and against the decals on the other teams' helmets. The truest loyalty in the player-fan relationship is of the fantasy football variety. You can thank free agency for that.

In the '80s, Redskins fans hated the Dallas Cowboys. They hated their stars. They hated the role players, too: Dudes you've probably never heard of, like John Dutton, Bill Bates and Doug Cosbie. If those three had played today, they would have finished their respective careers in Indy, Denver and probably, well, Washington.

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The only rivalry in the NFL that is truly thriving is the one between the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers. New England Patriots-New York Jets is OK, although Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez can single-handedly make Pats love him with a dropped snap, so that doesn't really count. Cowboys-Redskins got a nice boost in 2012 because those two played for the NFC East title on the last day of the season. But by and large -- save for a decent slugfest between the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears or the Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants -- every game in the NFL, every week, has similar juice.

If -- and it's a big if -- the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers can keep most of their core players together, the rivalry between those two teams will turn into the most physical bout this side of Ravens-Steelers. We can hope.

Now, this is not to say free agency has been a total bust. A pretty cool byproduct has been seeing veteran players get a second life and another shot at a ring.

Former NFL safety (and current NFL Network colleague) Darren Sharper is an all-time example of how free-agency capital can be used smartly. Going into his 13th pro season in 2009, Sharper signed a one-year, $3 million deal with the Saints. Boy did he deliver, to the tune of nine interceptions and three touchdowns. Put bluntly: New Orleans doesn't win Super Bowl XLIV without Darren Sharper. Period.

Pats fans will tell you their three Super Bowl-winning teams wouldn't have been the same without free-agent acquisition (via Pittsburgh) Mike Vrabel. So would Bob Kraft.

Truth be told, much of the bad weeds that grew out of the fun of free agency have been salary-cap related. The cap was introduced in 1994, and the limitations it forced on teams have led some guys who never would have become free agents otherwise to hit the market.

"Thurman Thomas playing for the Dolphins was, like, the grossest thing I've ever seen," said Bernie Kim, a friend of mine in the business who is, of all things, a Ravens fan. Bruce Smith to the Redskins ... Emmitt Smith to the Arizona Cardinals ... all brought to you in part by the salary cap. Get excited.

Perhaps the most important effect of the past 20 years of free agency has been its non-effect. Basically, it's a bit overrated. If you look at the past 20 Super Bowl winners and their top three players -- their core -- you'll find very few big-name free-agent signees, aside from Brees with the Saints.

The 1994 49ers (Deion Sanders), '96 Packers (Reggie White), '00 Ravens (Rod Woodson) and '10 Packers (Charles Woodson) would be the other title winners with the most notable free-agent additions -- guys who were top-three players on those championship clubs. Sure, there are those that added major contributors -- like the '07 Giants, who had Plaxico Burress -- but by and large, the best teams of the past two decades have been built through the draft, by signing no-name free agents (like Vrabel or James Harrison) or, in rare instances, through trade (Marshall Faulk).

For all the heavy media buzz about big-name guys on the free-agent market, there's usually an even heavier Haynesworth-esque fall in reality. There are many reasons that this happens. Motivation, age and the issues that can come from trying to fit players into new systems all play a role.

So while free agency has given us all something to talk about -- and while it's sometimes been a bright spot -- over the long view, it has not necessarily equated to a higher-quality game. That's the long and the short of it.

Follow Elliot Harrison on Twitter @Harrison_NFL.

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