Just how free is NFL free agency?

Harry How

The NFL might have the most unique system in place for free agency, allowing teams to maintain dominant control over their best players. Is this what free agency is supposed to be?

Last season, Drew Brees was a "free agent" that absolutely no knowledgeable fans of other teams with a need at quarterback dreamed of having. Once Brees was given the franchise tag, he was guaranteed a deal of at least $16.3 million to play for New Orleans in 2012, but in July he ended up signing a contract worth $100 million, $40 million of which was paid in the first year.

Peyton Manning, on the other hand, was a free agent without quotation marks. The Colts released him and declared without doubt they did not want him anymore and would move on with Andrew Luck. Fans of other teams could dream of Manning, and if you didn't get him, the next best option was Matt Flynn. The second-best free agent quarterback had two career starts.

This year, Joe Flacco was a "free agent" as well, and though it is said that Flacco took a risk by not signing a contract extension before the year, he was probably never going to leave Baltimore even if he didn't win the Super Bowl. What was the Ravens' alternative? The best free agent quarterback right now is Jason Campbell. Even if Flacco had been positively average and lost in the playoffs, the Ravens knew just how hard it is to find that "positively average" quarterback that gets you to the playoffs to begin with.


Or maybe I am being too short-sighted. After all, the Ravens could have let Flacco walk and then waited a year when Matt Ryan, Jay Cutler, Tony Romo, and Josh Freeman all flood the free agent market. Or in 2015, when they could sign Aaron Rodgers, Matt Stafford, Cam Newton, or Colin Kaepernick. Those are eight pretty damn good free agent quarterbacks, so what's the worry?

Well, probably that zero of those guys are likely to be let go by their teams, with maybe one or two possible exceptions and that's only if the quarterback has a red flag go up during or before free agency. Who are the best quarterback free agent signings of the last 10 years and why were they allowed to walk (yes, starting quarterbacks must be allowed to) by their teams?

Letting go

Kurt Warner was a free agent signing by the Rams because he was a nobody and they let him go because he couldn't stay healthy and Marc Bulger seemed capable to do better. He was let go by the Giants because he was considered too old and Eli Manning was the future. Of course, Warner wasn't completely done and that's why the Cardinals were willing to give him another shot. The quarterback position is so important and so hard to find, that teams are going to spend more money, take more risk, and hold out for more hope when it comes to adding a quarterback.

Brees was an inconsistent San Diego Charger, but he probably would have never been allowed to leave had they not drafted Philip Rivers and/or if Brees hadn't had a concerning shoulder injury at the end of the season. Despite that injury, the Saints gave him $60 million.

Peyton Manning was an aging player who had just missed an entire season and if the Colts were picking third instead of first, he probably still would have been given the franchise tag at least. Despite his age and injury concern, the Broncos gave him $100 million.

Brett Favre was practically kicked out of Green Bay because of Rodgers in waiting and an organization fed up with the waffling. At 39 and coming off of a terrible finish with the Jets the prior year, the Vikings still signed Favre to be their starter and he almost took them to the Super Bowl.

These quarterbacks are the limited examples of when a franchise quarterback is allowed to leave that franchise and go on to have some success. They left with question marks, they were still treated like stars by a team starved for a starting quarterback, and then they had something left in the tank. It's rare to see it ever happen though, because of that little invisible tag sometimes placed on their jock strap with the team's name written on it.

The franchise tag

Take the principle of the "franchise tag" and apply it to the NBA for a second and think about how different the landscape would be at this very moment. "What do you mean you're taking your talents to South Beach? You aren't going anywhere, LeBron." The NBA is practically the league most in need of something like a franchise tag simply because franchises are typically built around one single player; except that James left Cleveland, Shaquille O'Neal left Orlando, Dwight Howard pushed his way out, Chris Paul got out of New Orleans, Pau Gasol got out of Memphis, Chris Bosh bolted the Raptors, Carmelo Anthony peaced out of Denver, Kevin Garnett exited Minnesota, Carlos Boozer fooled his way out of Utah, and Elton Brand left the Clippers at a time when we thought that really meant something.

Now think about what the league would have been like with a franchise tag and a chance to not be penalized financially for retaining your franchise player. Players might be upset with playing for a losing team, but they might not care if they were getting paid. The NBA's system allows players to be kept, for a while, but even James managed to hit free agency and leave the Cavaliers when he was only 26 years old. Is that his right? Sure. But then the question becomes, if it's James' right to leave the Cavs after seven years of service and give Miami fans a possibly dynasty, then what about the rights of an elite quarterback and the fans of terrible NFL franchises?

How come we know for certain that Aaron Rodgers will be a Green Bay Packer for as long as he's good, but the only compensation for losing Albert Pujols to free agency is a baseball draft pick (yawn)? The amount of elite talent that changes hands in baseball is insane thanks to the fact that: there is no salary cap, that the Yankees can afford anyone, that any player can opt to leave after six years of service time if they want to, and that the penalty for signing a premier free agent is hardly noticeable. There's an odd balance between what's fair and what's right.

Are we looking out for the good of the players, the good of the fans, or the good of the league?

On one hand, there's something special about a player who spends more than 90% of his career with one team. LeBron James is a better basketball player than Reggie Miller, but Miller will forever be associated with a single franchise and a single city. Alex Rodriguez was once a better baseball player than anybody, and the Mariners were willing to make him the highest-paid player in baseball because of it, but without any restrictions on player contracts he honestly had no choice but to take the most ridiculous offer he got.

In the NBA, a player can get a "max contract" from a number of teams, meaning that whether he signs with the Cavs or the Heat, he's getting basically the same. So then it's a matter of preference but there's no financial incentive to leave the city that had hoped to invest in your entire career, not just the start of it.

In MLB, it's a free-for-all. The first six years of your career are like the first 15 seconds of a Harlem Shake video, and you know how that ends. But baseball teams are also aware that they still hold the cards during what are usually the most productive years of a player's career; most players make a relative pittance (I bet you wish you had a $500,000 salary and still felt like you were getting ripped off because of it) on their rookie deals. Even if you were the best prospect in the draft and got a huge signing bonus of $10 million, that's still less than half of what Albert Pujols makes in a single year. Pujols earned the right to be one of the highest-paid players in the game, but he wasn't nearly as valuable as teammate Mike Trout last year.

Trout was paid $510,000 in salary. Pujols was paid 24 times that much, and it's only that low because Pujols' contract is increasingly backloaded and gets bigger every season. By the final year, he will be paid $30 million.

So for that reason, the Angels can go to Trout today and say, "You're not happy getting paid 4% of what Pujols makes even though you're better than him? Well, we can give you a new deal, if you agree to take a fraction of what you might be worth and stay until you're 30." Of course, these deals can backfire for the team, but a baseball franchise can take a financial hit much better than a single person can.

Sport monopoly

Almost every business makes an employee earn his or her keep and move up the ladder, even if he or she is the most talented and intelligent person in the company, but not every business holds you to a contract that says you aren't allowed to work for anyone else. Can you imagine being the most talented person at Wells Fargo and then when you feel disrespected and want to go to Bank of America, where they are offering you a salary three times as large as what you are making now, you can't do it because A) You're under contract to not do that for six years and it could be much longer than that if we decide to keep you in the basement for two extra years until you reach Super 2 status and B) Bank of America doesn't exist because Wells Fargo is literally the only game in town?

If you are a baseball player, and you want to play baseball, and you want to get paid for it, you're playing in the MLB. There's no serious alternative.

Sports are the monopoly that's not a monopoly because it's sports.

Then again, if we are allowing sports to be a monopoly and to retain players on a contract, and have league rules that don't allow certain players to leave that team for as the long as the team deems it, then are we robbing the fans of parity? Significant free agents in baseball can often be elite players, the best of the best, because players are willing to risk hitting free agency since the money is so absolutely, ridiculously good. Ryan Dempster, a 35-year-old pitcher who went to the AL last year for the first time and got hit relatively hard (69 innings, 10 HR allowed, 5.09 ERA) is worth... $26.5 million to the Boston Red Sox for two years? Not only an AL team, but a team in the best-hitting division in baseball. If you can make almost $30 million at the tail end of your career, then players will do what it takes to hit free agency because teams have no restriction on how stupid they want to be with their money.

Protect the quarterback


That won't happen in the NFL for as long as the team doesn't want it to happen. The funny thing about football, free agency and the franchise tag? That the quarterback is generally the most important player on the field, and there's only one of him, and you get one tag to use. That's how we get to a point where the best quarterback you can sign is Matt Moore Jason Campbell or some other player that is either not a proven starter or is a proven non-starter. And what if a quarterback even "puts the team in a position where they must use the tag on him"? Then he's the dick because it's his job as team leader to not be selfish and now they can't use that tag on another player that is also important.

At least the player usually gets to benefit because Flacco knows that he's got leverage of doing business in a system that makes him very hard to replace. It is so hard to find a quarterback in fact, that you see backups with almost no real game experience getting traded for good draft picks and signed for contracts with eight figures guaranteed.

Player A: 4 years, $22,000,000

Player B: 3 years, $26,000,000, $10 million guaranteed

Player A is Cam Newton and the good news is that all of his money is guaranteed. Player B is Matt Flynn. Newton was the top overall pick, is young, incredibly talented and a franchise quarterback. Flynn gets paid more per year and he was 26 when he signed with Seattle, he was a 7th round pick, and he had two career starts. That might not seem ridiculous to most of us, but that's only because our minds have been trained to have an understanding that quarterbacks are paid a lot and it doesn't seem that bad after the contracts that were given to players like Kevin Kolb, Matt Schaub, and Matt Cassel. But it is ridiculous.

What if I walked into a Baskin-Robbins and said, "I want a job" and they said, "Can you scoop, kid?" and then I get behind the counter and do some really fantastic scoops but only did it for 15 minutes. Would it make sense for me to then say, "Please pay me a salary of $100,000!"?

With Flacco the free agent, there wasn't a bidding war against other teams like you get in baseball, but there was a bidding war against the possibility of having an upset Joe Flacco or no Joe. This also makes negotiations easier because both sides know that at some point they'll still be working together anyway, so might as well keep it civil and try to find a good place. Luckily for Flacco, I think the Ravens were still sitting on that Super Bowl high and Flacco probably didn't need to negotiate much.

The have-nots

But what about all of those teams that have garbage at quarterback? Teams with a franchise quarterback are typically good for a while, and teams without one find themselves fighting for contention for a while. If it wasn't for the franchise tags, how would these teams look now:

- Since the retirement of Dan Marino in 1999, the Dolphins have consistently struggled. In their only playoff appearance since 2001, they had to resort to offensive witchcraft. Marino played in the league for 17 years, and the Dolphins finished under .500 one time in that span.

- The Jets flip through quarterbacks like a 12-year-old in 1998 flips Pogs. Mark Sanchez likely won't be the first New York Jets QB to start for more than four years in a row since Ken O'Brien (1985-1991).

- Rob Johnson, Alex Van Pelt, Drew Bledsoe, Kelly Holcomb, JP Losman, Trent Edwards, Ryan Fitzpatrick. Starters for the Bills this century, zero playoff appearances.

- Do we even need to get started on the Browns? Eleven different quarterbacks have led the Browns in passing over the last 18 years. And that doesn't even include Seneca Wallace.

- The Jaguars went to the playoffs in four of their first five seasons under Mark Brunell. They have made the playoffs twice this century, once with Byron Leftwich, once with David Garrard.

- The Oakland Raiders have collapsed since Rich Gannon retired (a free agent signing out of Kansas City that was a great find) and the high-powered offense went away. Six different passing leaders in nine years, including Andrew Walter, Daunte Culpepper, and Campbell.

- The Chiefs might be an interesting example of a team that has succeeded or failed despite its quarterbacks, not including last year when everyone was a failure. In the 90s they went to the playoffs under Steve DeBerg, Dave Krieg, Joe Montana, Steve Bono, and Elvis Grbac. In the 2000s, they went to the playoffs with Trent Green, Damon Huard, and Matt Cassel. They've fallen short in all of those playoff runs, but incredibly had success throughout.

So just in the AFC over the last 13 years you can see how important it is to have a QB, while the Dolphins, Jets, Bills, Browns, Jaguars, Raiders, and Chiefs have had some major struggles. It's not like they haven't made efforts to find a quarterback; it's just that it's incredibly hard to find one. Why is it incredibly hard?


Because elite quarterbacks are almost never a part of free agency, even though free agency is supposed to be one of the main cogs to turning around any sports franchise.

Next year, Cutler, Ryan, Romo and Freeman likely won't be free agents. If they are, it's because something went wrong. Perhaps the Cowboys draft a quarterback or Romo gets hurt and the young guy steps up. Even then, they might still franchise Romo so they can trade him. The likely top available quarterbacks will be players like Matt Hasselbeck, Chad Henne, Shaun Hill, Colt McCoy, John Skelton, and Joe Webb. Unless any of them do good next year, then they won't be free agents.

Are the Raiders going to release Carson Palmer, knowing that they are going to have to find a balance between paying Palmer or risking a year of something much worse than him at starter? And even if Palmer and Matt Cassel hit the free agent market on lows in their careers, don't be surprised when a team thinks they might see a player capable of starting because look at the alternatives. Palmer still might have some "Rich Gannon" in him yet and that's all a team will see if they're still spinning at quarterback.

The franchise tag seems specifically designed to keep the league's stars, their quarterbacks, from leaving the team that brought them to the prom. That protects fans of good teams and in a way harms fans of bad teams, but for the players in the NFL that have proven to be the very elite, the ones deemed too special to let walk away, it simply begs to ask one very simple question about NFL free agency:

Is it okay that some players are not free to leave at all?

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