The NFL will try to turn anything into must-see TV, because — well, fans will eat up just about anything football.
Earlier in March, the league televised a coin flip between the San Francisco 49ers and Oakland Raiders. It was held on a makeshift stage that allowed fans to cheer on players doing the bench press at the NFL Combine.
The league can sell just about anything, so it made an effort a few years ago to turn free agency into a game show. The solution was a legal tampering period, and for a while it worked. Now it’s clearly broken.
Legal tampering used to prime free agency for an explosion of news
Prior to the legal tampering window, players and agents could not have contact with prospective teams until their contract expired. That meant when free agency began players learned what the market thought of them, scheduled visits, and signed a day or two later.
For NFL fans, that made for a fun week of waiting to see how things would shake out. But it’s a whole lot easier to sell commercials and market free agency when it’s condensed into a television spectacle. That’s what legal tampering aimed to provide.
By giving teams a few days to show their interest and make their pitch to players about to hit the market, the first hours of free agency became a signings extravaganza. Particularly, because teams weren’t allowed to discuss contract figures or agree to a deal.
The new rule was at its best in 2014 — the second year of the tampering period — when about 30 of the top free agents flew off the market within the first couple hours of the new league year.
But then NFL teams ruined it
Attempts to skirt the rules are inevitable. There’s little doubt that tampering occurred to some degree before the additional negotiating period was added, but with teams given explicit permission to speak with players they couldn’t help but talk contract numbers.
It became a problem in 2015, when a few free agents reportedly reached agreements before the beginning of the new league year.
NFL sent memos to specific teams today, telling them to hold on to phone records; investigating agreements announced in three-day window.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) March 10, 2015
Among the teams investigated were the Miami Dolphins, who signed defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh to a six-year, $114 million deal, and the Kansas City City Chiefs, who signed wide receiver Jeremy Maclin to a five-year, $55 million contract. The Dolphins weren’t punished by the league, but the Chiefs were docked a third-round pick in 2016 and sixth-round pick in 2017 for tampering.
With teams pushing the limits, the NFL hedged its bets and allowed teams to discuss “all aspects of an NFL player contract” during the tampering period beginning in 2016.
Now the tampering period is just a mess
Allowing teams to discuss contract figures just means that, at this point, free agency begins a couple days before the new league year starts.
There was no explosion of news Wednesday, when the league year technically began. Contract agreements had already trickled in throughout the day Tuesday. By the time free agency started, the market had been picked clean.
The crown jewel of free agency in 2018 was Kirk Cousins and news broke Tuesday morning that he agreed to a three-year deal with the Minnesota Vikings. Other top-tier players like Andrew Norwell, Sammy Watkins, Allen Robinson, Star Lotulelei, and Case Keenum all reached agreements well before free agency began.
Wednesday was mostly just a day of formalities. Deals and trades — some of which had been brokered all the way back in January — were finally made official. The only intrigue was to see if any player went back on their deal. So far, none have.
The only thing the tampering period is doing now is:
- Keeping players from making free agency visits and touring the facilities of their new prospective teams.
- Keeping teams from announcing their new additions until they’re made official and pen can be put to paper.
The free agency frenzies of the first few years of the legal tampering period were fun. But NFL teams adjusted, jobbed the new system, and left us in a place that was worse than where we started.
The legal tampering period has become pointless now. It’s time for it to go.