If you're counting on your favorite team winning the Super Bowl in free agency next week, think again.
Oh, there might not be the pomp and circumstance of the NFL draft, but free agency is inarguably a key factor in getting the right roster mix to make a leap in the standings. Just don't expect a Lombardi leap. Why? Because teams just don't win the Super Bowl months after acquiring multiple big-time free agents in the spring.
More competitive? Yes, if an organization approaches free agency as an asset, not a crutch.
As you might've heard by now, Big Blue won it all in Indy, but not because of any marquee free-agency signing. The biggest play made by a free agent was an interception by Chase Blackburn, a substitute teacher the Giants pulled out of quasi-retirement in late November to play out of sheer necessity. Punter Steve Weatherford was actually the club's most impactful signing in 2011. Don't laugh. The dude dropped 25 punts inside the 20, and didn't pull any Matt Dodges. Still, he wasn't even the 20th reason New York made it to the Super Bowl.
The Giants' championship team from five seasons ago was more of the same, relying on a core of guys they drafted or signed out of college to upset the undefeated Patriots. Newly minted general manager Jerry Reese felt he had the pieces in place and used free agency very little in his first year at the helm. The most impactful signing? Kawika Mitchell, a linebacker who started 16 games.
Kawika Mitchell < Big Free Agent Splash.
Meanwhile, the biggest free-agent contributor on the '07 Giants was Plaxico Burress, who had been added back in 2005 by former GM Ernie Accorsi.
Free agents often take time to mesh with a new organization. Even the biggest stars don't deliver championships in their first year with a new team. Exhibit A is the 2009 New Orleans Saints, who won it all with Drew Brees -- a free agent acquisition -- leading the way. Thing is, the Saints snatched Brees off the open market in the spring of 2006, not 2009. It was a multi-year process.
Obviously, free agency is helpful. The Saints certainly used it to their advantage. GM Mickey Loomis went out and acquired a difference maker in March of '09, signing Darren Sharper to a modest one-year deal. Sharper rewarded the club with nine picks, three touchdown returns, and a Defensive Player of the Year-caliber performance.
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The key with the Saints, as well as those Giants teams, is that they felt they were close. Neither franchise was using free agency to cover multiple major deficiencies, but rather a handful of minor holes. The Saints had a championship-level offense the previous season, but their defense -- particularly the secondary -- didn't make enough plays. Besides Sharper, Loomis signed Jabari Greer and Anthony Hargrove, who combined to make 14 starts between them that year. In fact, New Orleans acquired 16 free agents throughout 2009 (including in-season signings). But if signing a 33-year old safety on creaky knees to a one-year, $1.7 million deal is the most significant move ... that hardly constitutes making major waves.
One year later, the champion Green Bay Packers also signed a free-agent safety before their Lombardi run, the immortal Charlie Peprah. Here's the deal with Peprah: He was the only free agent Ted Thompson acquired that offseason. One. Guy. (And it was his second tenure with Green Bay.) Peprah started 11 games in 2010, and even made 43 tackles. Get excited.
Charlie Peprah < Kawika Mitchell < Big splash in Free Agency.
Thompson clearly feels free-agent feeding is not the best way to build a team. The Packers have picked up a piece here and there, most notably signing Charles Woodson to complete a formidable CB duo with Al Harris in 2006. But those moves are few and far between for Green Bay, an organization that grows its own talent.
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Ditto Pittsburgh, another Super Bowl champ from the past five years (2008-09) whose roster was filled with talent it had mostly drafted or acquired previously. Director of Football Operations Kevin Colbert acquired six guys that year, with the two biggest contributors being center Justin Hartwig and 36-year-old punter Mitch Berger. Both were out of the league by the end of the following season.
The bottom line is this: Using free agency to plug a hole, cover a depleted position group or add bodies to the roster is one thing. But making a major splash has not immediately paid off in recent history. (See: 2011 Philadelphia Eagles.) Handing out monster, Albert Haynesworth-esque contracts or rolling the dice by paying the unproven Kevin Kolbs and Matt Cassels of the world just doesn't translate into a championship months later. Even going back further, you'll find the Colts (2006) and then those Steelers again (2005) -- two franchises that draft and retain.
Ignore and refrain -- that's really been the top organizations' stance on free agency. Basically, watch other teams pay a Nate Clements $80 million, while you get that special teamer/linebacker and long snapper you need for $2 million. Considering these patient franchises are also the ones left standing with the Lombardi hardware, perhaps a discretionary dip of the toes into the free-agency pool is the better part of valor.