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No easy decisions: An NFL player reflects on free agency

For fans, free agency is all about the excitement of new faces in new places. It's different for players. Retired NFL defensive end Stephen White recounts his own experience with free agency and takes you behind the scenes of the nerve-racking process that players go through.

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With the beginning of free agency upon us, I decided to do something I've never done before: write about my own free agent experience back in the day.

I expect there are lot of people out there who have no idea how the process goes when a player gets "courted" in free agency. The funny thing is I had no idea how it would go either. It was all pretty nerve-wracking and, in my case, ultimately disastrous.


A little bit of background. I had been a Tampa Bay Buccaneers player for six years back in 2002. After being drafted in the sixth round in 1996 by the Philadelphia Eagles, I was cut before the end of training camp, but then quickly signed to the Bucs practice squad to start the season.

I lasted on the practice squad for six weeks before being called up to the active roster, and, aside from one quick cut and re-signing later that year due to injury needs at another position, never looked back. My career to that point had been a little up and down. A backup my first three seasons, I earned a starting position coming out of training camp in my fourth season, 1999, beating out a former Bucs first-round pick who was a member of my same draft class.

This should have been my opportunity to shine and parlay all my hard work into a nice contract extension. Instead, I suffered through an assortment of injuries from the first game onward that year. It was frustrating to be on the sidelines so much, and every time I thought I was almost back at 100 percent, it seemed like I hurt something else.

Eventually, I was healthy enough to perform well in the playoffs, getting two sacks in the Divisional round against Washington, including a sack that caused a fumble and helped us win that game. I was named Defensive Player of the Week for that performance. I went on to intercept St. Louis Rams quarterback Kurt Warner on a screen pass on the first play of the NFC Championship game the next week. I like to think that play set the tone for a team defensive playoff performance -- against the so-called "The Greatest Show on Turf" -- that amazed most outside observers.

We ultimately lost that game, but the nation had to sit up and take notice of what we were building down in Tampa and see that we were going to be hell to deal with going forward. And my playoff performance had probably salvaged what had been, up to that point, a wasted season for me.

Or so I thought.

No easy decisions

The next year I was beaten out by a different Bucs former first-round pick who also came out in 1996 with me. I couldn't be mad about it because he was a friend of mine and while this guy had a slow start to his career, he had really come on in the previous season while I was in and out with injuries. He went on to get something like 14 sacks that year, and he was rewarded with the big contract that I thought I was going to be in line for at the beginning of the 1999 season.

I was a backup again that season and the next, but after being a starter in 1999 I really wanted to have the opportunity to start again. It just so happened that I was up for free agency at that point, which could possibly afford me that opportunity if another team decided they wanted me.

What in hell would they do once they thought I was no longer of use?

Don't get me wrong, I actually wanted to stay in Tampa, and I would have done so if things had gone differently. A few things were working against me returning. One of the major issues is that the Bucs unceremoniously fired my head coach, Tony Dungy, that year after we made the playoffs but were eliminated for the second year in the row by the Philadelphia Eagles.

It was bad enough that the team had to put up with a loudmouth in our own ranks who insisted at the end of the regular season that the owners had already reached out to his former head coach and were going to fire Coach Dungy and hire him after the season was over. To have the first part of that scenario actually happen in such a classless fashion (with Coach Dungy finding out he was fired from media reports initially rather than directly from the owners) was a lot to digest.

I was still around the facility before free agency started, and I got to meet our new head coach (who thankfully wasn't the loud mouth's former head coach). He did impress me quite a bit, but it still bothered me how the stuff with Coach Dungy went down. I thought in my head if they would treat the man who turned around the franchise and only had one losing season in six years this way, what in hell would they do with little old me once they thought I was no longer of use to the team? So, I was still a little bitter about the whole situation.

I also came to realize that after I was beaten out in 2000 to start in training camp that the coaching staff only saw me as a backup going forward. This would end up being a huge factor in my decision to leave. At the end of the day, I didn't feel like I would get a genuine opportunity to win a starting job again if I stayed. Or if I did happen to start, they would never pay me like a starter.

Having said all that, after six years I had made Tampa my home. I was comfortable here, and I loved our fans. I felt like if I stayed I would have other job opportunities to work in the media once I was done here. And my family was here. So there were plenty of other reasons to want to stay as well.

The business side

As the opening of free agency crept closer and closer, I was getting more and more freaked out because the Bucs hadn't even made me an offer yet. I had played my best football in 2001 and notched five sacks, which is a pretty good number for a backup. That's why I couldn't understand why they wouldn't at least offer something before I got to the open market. Turns out, they just didn't want to bid against themselves.

With no offer from the team who knew me best after six years of playing for them, I started to panic a little wondering if anybody would want me. Those are the kinds of things that go through your mind when you aren't the big fish who is about to hit the market. When you are heading into free agency as a backup there simply are no guarantees.

I was comforted by the fact that several former assistant coaches who had once worked for the Bucs during my time there had moved on to become head coaches and defensive coordinators for other teams around the league. My hope was that one of them would come calling, and if I had to leave for another team I could at least be coached by someone I knew. Turns out that's exactly what happened.

My first, and what would turn out to be my only, free agent visit was to the New York Jets whose head coach Herm Edwards had been the secondary coach in Tampa with me for several years. I honestly had no idea what to expect before I got off the plane. They hadn't made a contract offer to that point, but it was clear that their interest was legitimate. So I packed my bags and got on a plane hoping that we could hash something out in short order one way or another.

That first night I ate dinner with the defensive coordinator and defensive line coach at a nice steak house and we mostly made small talk. The little bit of football that we did talk was about the role they thought I could fill on the team. It all sounded great to me. They said they had some young guys starting at defensive end, but they were looking for someone to come in and compete for a starting job and push them. That is all I was looking for, an opportunity to start, so I came away very impressed after that conversation.

The next day I met with Coach Edwards and some of the front office people and they expressed their desire to sign me right then and there. They made a very strong offer to my agent. He then called me and walked me through what they had proposed. It was more money than I had dared believe I would be able to sign for and it was going to be a four-year deal which, I thought, showed they were committed to me. I was all ready to shout "YES," but we promised the Bucs that we would give them a chance to match whatever we were offered. So we did.

You're fighting your ass off against your friends for a roster spot

Here is where my belief that they only saw me as a backup came into play. You see, the guy who had beaten me out in 2000 didn't have that great of a year in 2001. He caught a bit of the injury bug, and the team quickly soured on him because they had just given him a big contract. I happened to be in the training room one day before free agency started when that guy came in and confided to someone else that the Bucs had already told him they were going to release him that offseason. I wasn't eavesdropping; he just said it where most of the people standing in that general area could hear him. I also didn't ask him about it because, hell, what would I have said? We were friends, but at the same time every year you're fighting your ass off against your friends for a roster spot. Such is the business side of the NFL.

I just filed this information away in the back of my mind in case it became useful. During contract negotiations certainly seemed like a useful time to me, so I decided to test my theory about the Bucs only seeing me as a backup. They could say they wanted me back, but money talks and bullshit runs a marathon as they say.

The first counter offer from the Bucs was disappointing on the face of it; they were offering me less money than I had made in 2001. Still, I was willing to see if we could find a way to work around that because I really did like being in Tampa and wasn't necessarily gung ho about leaving. So I asked my agent to counter their counter offer by accepting the terms but adding in incentive money if I started X amount of games over the first couple of years of the contract. That would allow the team to pay me like a back up if I never earned a starting position, but would push my compensation up closer to what the Jets were willing to offer if I earned a starting spot. I actually thought it would be an easy compromise that we could quickly agree to and I would be a Buccaneer for the rest of my career if I held up my end of the bargain.

That didn't happen.

Part of the problem is that you have to remember that the Bucs didn't know I was privy to the information about them planning on cutting the guy who had been starting over me the last two seasons. They evidently thought they could offer me a backup contract as a take it-or-leave-it deal because I would be thinking that I was going to be stuck behind the other guy. It was an eye opening experience and one that made my decision relatively easy.


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Signing on the dotted line

I was still at the Jets facility when all of this was going on, and I had a plane to catch. However, nobody from their side was trying to rush me into a decision because teams don't like you to leave town without saying yes. They would just let me miss my flight and get me a later one if that meant I would end up signing on the dotted line.

After hearing the Bucs final offer, there was no reason to beat around the bush anymore so I said yes. We signed the paper work and I was on my way back home to Tampa with the kind of contract I never imagined I would ever be offered. Yet, I wasn't all that hyped in the aftermath. I felt like I might have made a mistake by not seeing if there were other teams who might have been a better fit.

The 2002 season was a disaster for me personally. After signing me, the Jets also decided to take a defensive end in the first round that year. Talk about shots fired. I didn't understand the move, but what was done was done. Then I had one injury after another, much like the 1999 season. It was frustrating, but we were making a playoff push so I just tried to get healthy enough to contribute. Unfortunately, by the time I was healthy again, the Jets were ready to start playing their first-round rookie more which meant less time for me. By the end of the season, I wasn't even active for a few games. I was released that next March. I didn't know it at the time, but I would never play another down of football in the NFL.

Something to keep in mind

You couldn't have told me in the Spring of 2001 that I would only play one more season in the league. I was finally healthy and coming off the best year of my career. One bad season was all it took for my stock to plummet to the point where I couldn't even get many workouts to try out for a new team. That's the nightmare scenario for any free agent; that the team they end up signing with turns out to be a bad fit and they're stuck in limbo or, in my case, shown the door for good.

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It didn't help my self esteem that my old team, the Buccaneers, went on to win the Super Bowl that same season, 2002. They did it with a guy starting at my position who signed for pretty much the same contract I rejected. They did him almost the same way I imagined they would have done me: refusing to renegotiate his contract after he became a starter and helped them win a ring. I at least felt vindicated about that.

Still, he will always have that ring though. And I won't.

So there you have it: that was what free agency was like for me. It's not a happily-ever-after story, but it is real. And that is something to keep in mind when free agency starts this year. Some of these guys will be home runs for their new teams; some of them will be disappointments. Just understand that nobody will be more disappointed than the players if things don't work out. These decisions to leave one team for another are generally not easy, and are usually a lot more complex than most realize.

Keep that in mind if one of your favorite players ends up elsewhere for the 2014 season.