How Free Agents are Like Used Cars, or How to Build a Championship Team, Part Two

I had planned on posting this article several days ago, but came down with the flu and so I apologize for the disconnect between Part One (which can be viewed here) and Part Two.

Can a team buy a championship? Sports history is replete with examples of teams that did. Pick any number of Yankees teams, the Miami Heat and so on. History is equally replete with teams that have tried to "buy" championships and utterly failed. Dan Snyder’s Redskins is probably the most famous and well-known case as year after year they brought in high-priced free agents to fill their ranks and yet stayed mired in mediocrity. They signed, in almost every case, veterans who were past their prime. Sometimes by quite a bit. Or guys who were one year wonders or stat stuffers. Albert Haynesworth, Mark Brunell, Jeff George, Dana Stubblefield, Deion Sanders, Donovan McNabb, Bruce Smith, Antwaan Randle El and Adam Archuleta are examples.


Albert Haynesworth via

Philadelphia’s "Dream Team" is another recent example. In 2011, the Eagles went on a spending binge snapping up CBs Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodger-Cromartie, DE Jason Babin, RB Ronnie Brown, DT Cullen Jenkins, TE Donald Lee and WR Steve Smith. Vince Young then made the mistake of opening his big mouth and proclaiming the Eagles a "Dream Team" and they subsequently clawed their way to 8-8 before plummeting to 4-12 in 2012.

However, teams that were very close to winning it all and chose to shore up an area of liability have often been rewarded with the Big Prize. I want to cover some of the Lombardi Trophy winners over the last couple of years. There are a few teams that added virtually no one of merit to their teams on their way to the big game, but for the most part, each team added a player or two that made all the difference.

In 1994, the 49ers had just lost to the Cowboys for the second straight year in the playoffs. They decided that they needed a couple of ringers to fill the holes. They brought in CB Deion Sanders and LB Ed Norton, Jr. The 49ers subsequently went 13-3, knocked off the 2-time Defending Super Bowl champion Cowboys 38-28 and thrashed the San Diego Chargers in the Super Bowl.


Deion Sanders vs. Michael Irvin via

In 1995, the Cowboys wanted the Lombardi trophy back and signed CB Deion Sanders from the 49ers. They went on to win their third Super Bowl in 4 years.

Back in 1993, after a 9-7 season the year before, Ron Wolf courted DE Reggie White away from Philadelphia. With the addition of White, the Packers went on a streak of 6 straight seasons with playoff appearances, 2 Super Bowls and a Super Bowl win in 1997.

Most of you will remember that after Jacksonville’s upset of the Broncos in the 1996 playoffs, the Broncos stole Neil Smith away from the Kansas City and he was instrumental in helping Denver win the next two Super Bowls.


Shannon Sharpe via

In 2000, Baltimore signed away 4-time All-Pro TE Shannon Sharpe from the Broncos. Sharpe caught 50+ yard passes in each of the Ravens playoff games, in the AFC championship game against the Raiders, he caught a short pass from Trent Dilfer on 3rd and 18 and took it 96 yards to the house, sealing a 16-3 win and catapulting the Ravens into the Super Bowl.

The Patriots are always loaded with talent cast off or bought away from other teams. In 2001 they won the Super Bowl with RG Joe Andruzzi (drafted by Green Bay, picked up on waivers), LG Mike Compton (free agent from Detroit), LB Bryan Cox (FA from Jets), RB Antowain Smith (Buffalo), LB Mike Vrabel (underrated in Pittsburgh, flourished in NE), LB Roman Phifer (FA from Jets), DT Anthony Pleasant, CB Terrell Buckley (former Bronco signed by NE), TE Jermaine Wiggins (FA Jets), CB Otis Smith (FA Jets), LB Larry Izzo (FA Miami) and WR David Patten (FA Cleveland). Vrabel, Phifer, Izzo, Cox, Pleasant, Smith and Patten were the outstanding signees from the 17 free agents that Belichick signed that spring.

2002 heralded the Great Gruden Trade with Oakland in which Tampa Bay bought their new head coach for 2 first round draft picks, 2 second rounders and $8 million in cash. Talk about going all in. Gruden arrived to find a defensive juggernaut but a suspect and sluggish offense. He promptly signed WR Keenan McCardell (FA Jacksonville) and RB Michael Pittman (Arizona). Michael Pittman was the leading rusher in the regular season as well as the leading rusher in the Buc’s Super Bowl win.


Rodney Harrison via

Rodney Harrison came to the Patriots rescue in 2003. As much as Tom Brady is the face of the New England offense, Harrison was the impact player on the defense for the next 5 years. His leadership and attitude were vital in their back to back Super Bowls in 2004 and 2005. They also signed LB Rosevelt Colvin from the Bears who put up 26.5 sacks over the next couple of years in New England and CB Tyrone Poole. The next year they traded for RB Corey Dillon (who rushed for 75 yards and the go ahead touchdown in the SB) as well as signed Keith Traylor who only spent one year (10 games) as a nose tackle, but his mentorship with rookie Vince Wilfork spoke volumes as Wilfork went on to become one of the premier nose tackles in the league.

After the Colts were eliminated from the first round of the 2002 playoffs, K Mike Vanderjagt (who, ironically, is the most accurate field goal kicker in NFL history) gave an interview in which he criticized head coach Tony Dungy and QB Peyton Manning. This led to Manning referring to Vanderjagt in an interview as "our idiot kicker who got liquored up and ran his mouth off." He continued, "The sad thing is, he's a good kicker. He's a good kicker, but he's an idiot." A few years later in the 2005 playoffs, against the Steelers, Colts down 21-18 with 18 seconds remaining and overtime and their season hanging in the balance, Vanderjagt jogged onto the field and made a rubbing fingers "money" gesture at the Patriots sideline and then missed the 46-yard field goal attempt wide right. Adding insult to indignity, as he was walking off the field after the kick, he ripped off his helmet and threw it to the ground which added a 15 yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. The next year, Bill Polian let "the idiot kicker" go and signed ex-New England Patriots kicker Adam Vinatieri who had kicked several last-minute winning field goals against the Colts. Vinatieri would go on to kick 14 field goals in 4 games en route to a Super Bowl victory over the Bears.

For the 2012 Ray Lewis Farewell Tour, Baltimore upgraded their roster with players such as FS Sean Considine, CB Corey Graham and WR Jacoby Jones. Jones did an excellent job as a #2 WR as well as the designated KR/PR. With less than two minutes to go in the first half of the Super Bowl, Jones made a diving catch deep down the field, jumped up and escaped two pursuing 49ers en route to a 56-yard touchdown reception, making the score 21–3. On the second-half kickoff, Jones fielded the kick and promptly returned it 108 yards for the longest play in Super Bowl history, making the score 28-6. In the Ravens SB win, he returned 5 kickoffs for 208 yards and a touchdown, two punts for 28 yards, and caught a 56-yard touchdown pass.


Cliff Avril harrassing Peyton Manning via

Seattle went "All In" in 2013. John Schneider snapped up Cliff Avril for 2 years, Michael Bennett on a one-year "Prove It" contract, (resigning him again this year for four years) traded with Minnesota for Percy Harvin. The Seattle pass rush became one of the best in the NFL, destroying their competition all season long and into the playoffs, culminating in a Super Bowl win over Denver in which Peyton Manning was visibly shaken as he had little time to throw with Avril schooling Orlando Franklin all day long.

When John Elway took over in January 2011, the Josh McDaniels experiment had left the Broncos in tatters. They had finished 4-12 in 2010, McDaniels had engineered the departure of Pro Bowl QB Jay Cutler, WR Brandon Marshall, WR Brandon Stokley, TE Tony Scheffler, C Casey Wiegmann and RB Peyton Hillis among others. His two drafts were a little schizophrenic, hitting on Knowshon Moreno, Demaryius Thomas, Zane Beadles and Eric Decker but whiffing bit-time trading up to take Tim Tebow one year and Alphonso Smith the next (who he subsequently traded away to Detroit for TE Dan Gronkowsi; as a side note, the first rounder Seattle received in 2010 was used to take Pro Bowl S Earl Thomas).

The new administration cut ties with a boat load of McDaniels signees and were left with massive holes that a single draft or even two was not going to fix. He brought in Willis McGahee to fill the starting RB slot, DT Ty Warren (who spent most of the next two seasons on IR) and DT Broderick Bunkley. After a season under their belt and being able to evaluate who they had on the team, they brought in S Mike Adams, DT Justin Bannan, LB Keith Brooking, WR Andre Caldwell, TE Joel Dreessen, WR Trindon Holliday, C Dan Koppen, S Jim Leonhard, CB Tracy Porter, WR Brandon Stokley, TE Jacob Tamme and QB Payton Manning. Most of the signings other than Manning and the two tight ends were on one or two year deals. They filled the holes with mid-level quality guys until we could draft our own replacements and/or find long term solutions via free agency.


Peyton Manning, Louis Vasquez (#65) and Manny Ramirez (#66) via

2013 was much the same, still with holes to fill, John signed MLB Stewart Bradley, S Michael Huff, CB Quentin Jammer, OT Winston Justice, DT Terrance Knighton (one of the only multi-year deals), LB Paris Lenon, DE Jeremy Mincey, LB/DE Shaun Phillips, CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, G Louis Vasquez (another mulit-year) and slot receiver extraordinaire Wes Welker. Knighton, Vasquez and Welker were viewed as long-term additions and the rest to "Prove It" one-year contracts. Decent drafts and great free agent signing got us all the way to the Super Bowl despite massive injuries across the board.

The question we need to ask ourselves is, are we nearly Super Bowl ready like the teams listed above? Are we only needing a couple of pieces to round out our roster? The Super Bowl game against Seattle certainly pointed out some deficiencies. Our offensive line got mauled by the Seahawk pass rush. Even with the extensive injuries to the defense, our defense held in there for a half but didn’t have the pass rush or the defensive backs to stop the Seattle offense. So this off-season, John signed up DeMarcus Ware to shore up the pass rush, let DRC walk due to his reluctance to sign a good offer and signed Aquib Talib, a physical CB who is a better fit for the scheme the Broncos run, WR Emmanuel Sanders to replace the departing Eric Decker and S T.J. Ward who gives us the first physically punishing safety we’ve had since John Lynch retired. Last week they re-signed OT Winston Justice to a second consecutive one-year contract, perhaps to replace Orlando Franklin should they decide to slide over to left guard.

They’ve sewn up the major holes (other than MLB and they may figure that’s already handled with guys already on the roster) and can go into the draft to take the Best Available Player without having screaming needs to address.

I read an interesting article by Jeff Dominitz entitled "NFL Free Agents: A Market for Lemons" In it, he suggested that free agents are similar to used cars as detailed by Nobel Prize winning economists George Akerlof, Michael Spense and Joseph Stiglitz. The asymmetrical information that leads to owners with good cars keeping them off the market because they can’t get the value of their "good" vehicle, leading to a larger quantity of poorer quality vehicles on the market which pushed the value of a used car down further which continues to escalate to more owners keeping the good vehicles off the market.

This seems to happen in the NFL. Teams find ways to sign their best players (unless you're Oakland) whether it be by signing extensions, using the franchise or transition tag or ponying up large sums of cash. But Player A comes on the market. He has been a Pro-Bowl All-Pro Player for a number or years. Why is he available? Is he a lazy malcontent aka Albert Haynesworth? Does he have off-the-field issues such as DeSean Jackson (or any other of other NFL free agents in the last few years)? Is he on the downward slide as he ages such as RB Maurice Jones-Drew, WR Steve Smith, DE DeMarcus Ware, DE Jared Allen, CB Carlos Rogers or CB Charles Tillman? Or is it simply a salary cap casualty as the team cuts and slashes to get under their cap and still have some room to maneuver in free agency? What is wrong with this guy? Something must be wrong with him or the other team wouldn't have let him walk. Some teams jump on the big names every year and get hammered as their new signee does nothing now that he has had his big payday (Albert Haynesworth), shoots himself off the field (sometimes quite literally as Plexico Burress did) or his play is declining rapidly as he ages (Champ Bailey).

One of the surprising things about the Broncos the last couple of years is their ability to select quality inexpensive veterans to supplement the teams without taking the massive hits so many teams have in this market. Perhaps a guy who ran a bunch of car dealerships is just who we needed to maneuver the free agency market. Maybe Jeff Dominitz was right. Free agents are like used cars. Maybe that’s why John Elway is so good in free agency.


DeMarcus Ware sacking Jay Cutler via

Just one more thought. I loved the T.J. Ward signing. We needed a hard hitting safety back there. I think the Talib signing will be fantastic as well (a little concerned about how much money we are paying, but we would have paid about the same amount whether we re-signed DRC or picked up Derrell Revis (I don’t like Revis, not a team-first guy). But I was very reluctant to embrace the signing of DeMarcus Ware for the amount of money we are paying. And then I ran across this little tidbit:

At the age of 31 Reggie White left the NFC East for the Midwest and was signed as a free agent by the Green Bay Packers. At that point in his career the future Hall of Famer had recorded 124 sacks, he was the third player in NFL history to lead the NFL in sacks two different times and the only player in the NFL to record 10+ sacks in seven straight seasons. He led an up-and-coming Green Bay team into the playoffs as detailed earlier and to a Super Bowl victory.

At the age of 31 DeMarcus Ware left the NFC East for the Midwest and was signed as a free agent by the Denver Broncos. At this point in his career the former Cowboy has recorded 117 sacks, he is one of five players in NFL history to lead the NFL in sacks two different times and he is one of three (White and John Randle) NFL players to record 10+ sacks in seven straight seasons. I hope Ware can emulate his inner Reggie White to lead us to the Promised Land.

I think the Broncos have done amazingly well navigating the pitfalls of free agency the last 3 years and are enroute to another Super Bowl visit. What do you think?
Stay tuned for Part 3 in a week or so.

This is a Fan-Created Comment on The opinion here is not necessarily shared by the editorial staff of MHR

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