There Ought Not To Be A Law


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Jan 22, 2006
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Mar 08, 2006, 5:12:14 AM by Rufus Dawes - FAQ

The bill came due for the Chiefs past dalliances in free agency – the favorite feeding ground for media everywhere – and the first thing our scribes could resurrect were thoughts of Ty Law coming to town. I suppose we shouldn’t have been surprised. Free agency continues to be the football media world’s affaire d’etat this time of year and no one sparks the locals’ interest more than Law.

The date they all have been waiting for has yet to come due to the ongoing negotiations on the collective bargaining agreement between management and players. When it does finally arrive it will signal all NFL teams to get under the league mandated salary cap. But even before that date the Chiefs have jettisoned four players including one starter and two former starters and it’s likely more will follow. While all teams – the Chiefs weren’t alone, remember – look to get under the cap the eyes of media and fans everywhere have focused on who their favorite team might be looking to add.

Amazing, isn’t it given that 39 starters were already cut from NFL teams by March 6th. That’s more than one entire starting lineup. By the way, sports fans, Ty Law had the honor of being the first to be cut. What teams have learned – if some media haven’t – is you don’t get better holding onto 30 plus year old veterans with a decimal point in their contracts.

Matters won’t improve if there is no new collective bargaining agreement since there will be little salary cap room for teams to use on free agents. Furthermore, there will be less room for creativity since teams won’t be allowed to prorate signing bonuses over more than four years, thereby slashing the amount of upfront money teams are going to give free agents. Back-loaded deals to players will also be history. So will option bonuses, which at one time could be prorated over the remaining years of a players contract.

And our media are talking about signing players?

The problems Kansas City and the other 31 teams in the league face in free agency are complex, but the press and the public have little patience for complexity, particularly in the competitive marketplace of player procurement. Just as any story loses its subtlety when adapted by Hollywood, so the difficult issues in salary cap management are reduced to simple, easy to remedy matters when processed by news media and absorbed by fans. And one of the simplest ways of looking at free agency is to sort it out as who signed and who got away. As soon as free agency opens there suddenly appears an arsenal of clichés and stock expressions located somewhere inside too many media word processors, so that they have only to touch the keyboard for one of them to spring abruptly onto the page. What they always seem to be saying is if you really wanted a player – or wanted to keep one – all you need to do is fuss around a little with the money and it’ll all work out.

Winners and Losers

This sorting is a familiar part of coverage in the early days of free agency. Such tallying promotes a culture of winners and losers and teams are constantly faced with playing up those players they sign and minimizing those that sign elsewhere.

In such an atmosphere and with their hopes riding on what they believe to be the benefits of free agency, the press and public are primed for disappointment when visits – or a lack of same – don’t turn into signings at a quickened pace. Only last year the Kansas City Star could write with less than a week gone into free agency: “The free-agency score – now reading Opponents 3, Kansas City 0. The Chiefs are no closer to filling their need for a starting corner than when free agency began last Wednesday.” (Kansas City Star, March 8, 2005) “Boy, were we wrong,” lamented a reporter at another local paper. “Are the Chiefs just offering us window dressing, and not making an attempt to bolster their defense?” (Independence Examiner, March 9, 2005)

Last Wednesday?

That this sort of rhetoric could exist only after a week of free agency is some indication of just how crucial media continue to believe free agent help to be.

Both national and local media heavily influence the way in which the public have come to understand free agency. They typically have functioned as rather harsh critics of the teams that do not actively participate in free agency, insisting that losing teams must engage in procuring players quickly, overstating the process’s impact, and placing too much emphasis on marquee names who become free agents each off-season. In effect runs a common argument, the work of these writers, talk show hosts and television commentators, extended and strengthened by player agent commentary, self-consciously have created an inaccurate version of free agency that has gained wide acceptance and remains remarkably durable.

Perpetuating the myth

Helping to perpetuate this myth is a fan base that is not the most rational of evaluators. They understandably want victories and as they see other teams adding players, seemingly at will with little regard for the restrictions of a salary cap, they quickly grow impatient when their team does not act in a similar manner. Forget, that upon closer inspection the Chiefs’ record in free agency is quite good. Indeed, the team would likely rank among the NFL’s top ten in successful free agent acquisitions. Marcus Allen, James Hasty, and Priest Holmes, for example, were Pro Bowlers after joining the Chiefs in unrestricted free agency.

Look at the composition of the Chiefs roster a decade removed (2003) from the first year of free agency (1993): more starters who were unrestricted free agents, off-the street free agents and trades than drafted players or signed right-out-of-college free agents. All totaled, six unrestricted free agents (or, as it was known in its earlier version: “Plan B”) the team has signed since 1989 have gone on to become all-pros while playing in Kansas City (a total of 11 if you include players who were all-pros after they re-signed with the team), six have become team MVPs and going into last season I quit counting at 39 major team records held by unrestricted free agents. Now, look at the Pittsburgh Steelers 2003 roster, and follow it up with a look at their Super Bowl roster.

Pittsburgh had 37 players on their roster who were drafted players or college free agents, (63%) in 2003, a marked contrast from Kansas City that year. Of that group 13 were starters. Staying true to form, the Steelers’ roster of their Super Bowl champion team this year again had 37 players acquired the same way. But this time, the champs had 19 starters who came from the draft or were college free agents! More than 77% of Pittsburgh’s starting lineup was comprised of drafted players. Go back a season to the champion New England Patriots and look at their roster. Same story: 55% of the roster came via the draft or were college free agents and 14 of the 22 starters were drafted by the Pats.

Most of these facts have gone unnoticed or ignored. Truly, the media’s lack of history and their evocation of the process has become unintended parody. But if you still remain the most rabid promoter of free agency, you can easily make the point that Kansas City has perhaps been too active in free agency, even with good results. The money spent can be said to have been well spent on most occasions and yet the public perception continues. More perplexing, there is very little carry-over. The enthusiasm for free agents signed one year does not diminish the public’s or media’s enthusiasm the next. Washington routinely draws kudos from its fan base as it reloads year after year, even as it is dumping former signees from its midst a year later. There is always, or seems to be, a new excitement, but at least Washington Post columnist Tony Kornheieser, for one, has found occasion to sarcastically note: “Oh, free agency has really worked out so far for the Redskins, hasn’t it?”

But if you still don’t have a sense of how a winning roster is built, you should at least have a sense of history. The media too often has neither. Hey, wasn’t that Ty Law I saw out at KCI today?

The opinions offered in this column do not necessarily reflect those of the Kansas City Chiefs.
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