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Friday, June 03, 2005

Let the Free Agent Signers Beware

One of the old saws in the NFL was that the bad teams would watch the waiver wires at the end of training camp, figuring that the last cuts of the great teams probably would be good enough to supplant some of the last players on their rosters, the "one man's junk is another man's joy" theory of NFL personnel. There are exceptions, of course, because the gimpy-kneed sixteen year veteran who is among the last cuts isn't likely to rejuvenate a young and bad team.

Another saw, as it were, is to sign unrestricted free agents from the good teams. Looking back on the Rams teams of the past five years and the Titans team that made it to (and barely lost) the Super Bowl, you'll see how other teams signed many of their unrestricted free agents. The theory, perhaps, is that winning begets winning, so if you inject guys who have made it to the ultimate game, they'll help teach the rest of the players of the commitment to excellence that's required to get there. Plus, they're very good players to boot, or else they wouldn't have helped take their teams to the Super Bowl in the first place.

Sounds logical, right?

There's a catch, however, that I'd like to point out to you (and perhaps I'm touching upon Occam's Razor to point it out -- that where there are two theories to explain something, choose the simpler one. Put another way, eliminate all unnecessary assumptions in drawing your conclusions). The basic assumption is that the great teams can't keep everyone and fall under the salary cap. That's a good assumption, but a secondary assumption is that everyone who a good team lets go is a good player who can help another team, presumably for a while. That assumption, though, isn't always as true as the first one. For example, it probably was the case that the Rams and Titans didn't manage their salary caps as well as the Patriots and Eagles, the two current poster teams for how to achieve perennial excellence. In the case of the Pats and the Birds, they certainly cannot afford to keep everyone. Yet, they've managed their caps in such a way that the players they cannot resign are players who probably don't have much left in the tank. That wasn't the case in either St. Louis or Tennessee.

The MSM and web are full of stories and posts (including mine) of the Eagles' perspicacity (in the ERA of the 2400-point SAT's, go look it up) in determining how to manage their cap and, correspondingly, which free agents to re-sign. For example, several years ago they let Jeremiah Trotter go to the Redskins because they couldn't afford him (Washington made him a very high offer), and they let Hugh Douglas, Bobby Taylor and Troy Vincent to go because others were willing to offer more than the Eagles. Were the Eagles penurious or perspicacious? As history has proven, the Eagles were the latter. Trotter was an overpriced overrunner of plays with the 'Skins. Douglas had little left in the tank. Taylor and Vincent had a little more left, but Taylor was cut yesterday after one year in Seattle.

So what does Occam's Razor tell us about the Eagles? First, most definitely that the Eagles don't re-sign free agents because they are commanding more money than the Eagles think that they are worth. They probably would have re-signed all of the players in question had their salaries reflected a parabola, meaning that they would have decreased as their value to the team decreased. That's the simplest explanation. Do the Eagles actions mean that the players they ultimately let go cannot play? I don't think that you can assume that (although you might be able to assume that the Eagles do not think that those guys can star for a Super Bowl team -- and get star money -- the way they once did).

But if I were a fellow GM looking to fill holes in my roster, I would take a long hard look at the players that the Eagles opt not to pursue at the prices they are commanding.

And I'd pass.

Unless, of course, in the off chance that drawing to an inside straight actually works, the one guy you sign for too much money just happens to be the guy who can help you deliver a championship that year. But realistically, in football, how many guys are like that?

Not many, and those guys are seldom, if ever, available as unrestricted free agents.

The Eagles and Pats win because they don't overspend on players and don't let them stay on the roster past their useful football lives. You don't need William of Occam to tell you that, when guys named Pioli and Banner have proven it.


Anonymous Chris said...

Vincent has proven to be the best of that lot that left the Eagles, and even he's had some troubles in Buffalo where we missed 3 or 4 games in 2004 (and when he broke Losman's leg in practice...oops).

However, when he came back, he teamed with Lawyer Milloy (hmm...does he fit into your article, too?) to provide excellent leadership and skill for the #2 defense in the NFL.

Our defense didn't really play any worse when Vincent was out, but when Milloy was out, he was really missed.

10:03 AM  

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