What Can We Learn from Former Free-Agent Duds?

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What Can We Learn from Former Free-Agent Duds?
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It's finally here! No, not the season. Not even the 2013 NFL draft. But we do have free agency. And that's something that we, as recovering football addicts, can hold onto while we brave another spring.

But don't encourage your favorite teams to go out and throw money around just yet. History has provided plenty of examples where holding onto the checkbook just a little tighter would have been much more prudent. 

So what lessons can be taken from past mistakes? Let's take a look. 

 

The Not So Curious Case of Matt Cassel

I'm not going to insult you by explaining the importance of strong quarterbacking play. You're here, reading an article about NFL free agency—I'm betting you get it.

So it's understandable when general managers and head coaches think they've found a franchise quarterback. Draft picks and veterans all become trade bait when in pursuit of the holy grail. 

For our first example, we'll look back on an era of hope that resulted in false, short-lived prosperity. In the heady days of 2008, Matt Cassel stepped into Tom Brady's shoes admirably. He led the New England Patriots to an 11-5 record, and the Pats just narrowly missed the playoffs.

The career year put Matt Cassel on the map in much the same manner as Matt Flynn last year, only Cassel did it over an entire season. He completed 63.4 percent of his passes for 3,693 yards, 21 touchdowns and only 11 interceptions. While not astronomical, Cassel was deemed a winner with potential.

In a bit of perfect timing, Cassel was set to hit the market as an unrestricted free agent that spring. He never quite got there since the Patriots, smelling an opportunity, slapped him with the franchise tag and started sorting through the trade offers. While this technically gets classified as trade since the Kansas City Chiefs gave up the 34th overall pick for Cassel and Mike Vrabel, the Chiefs signed Cassel to a six-year deal for $63 million.

While the deal isn't exorbitant for a franchise quarterback, that's not what Cassel turned out to be. Not to mention, they were betting the farm based on one season in a successful offensive system that he had been studying for three years.

While we can all agree that 2010 was a great year for the Chiefs (division title, home playoff game), the illusion was brief. Using the Pythagorean theorem, Kansas City should have only won at a 54 percent clip. Cassel did put up 27 touchdowns against only seven picks, so his role in the team's success was rock solid.

But one season isn't worth $63 million, and that season is the only one in which Cassel delivered. Outside of that one year, he has thrown 32 touchdowns and 44 interceptions. Obviously, that's not what the Chiefs had in mind. As his time in KC winds down after the arrival of Alex Smith, other teams would be smart to take caution of his and others' stories.

Player Contract Details Cash Per Start Cash Per Touchdown Cash Per Win
Matt Cassel  6 yrs/$63 Million  $1.31 Million $1.07 Million  $3.32 Million 
Matt Flynn  3 yrs/$19.5 Million N/A N/A  N/A
Kevin Kolb  6 yrs/$62.1 Million  $4.14 Million $3.65 Million  $8.87 Million 

These numbers are a little skewed, as each player could alter his numbers over the remainder of the contract. However, that isn't likely since not one of these guys is a certain starter moving forward. Kolb's future is hazy at best, Cassel is all but gone and Flynn was beaten out by a rookie just months after inking his deal. 

Scott Halleran/Getty Images

And this isn't a new trend. Remember Scott Mitchell? Lions fans do, and it isn't a memory that many cherish. Like Cassel, he parlayed a decent stretch of replacement play into a nice contract and gave back one fine season in return. Then he quickly declined and eventually gave way to Charlie Batch.

Teams have a tendency to get too excited about these players and skimp on their research before investing so heavily in quasi-unknown quantities.

They need to determine what caused the quarterback's success and if his particular skills translate to their system. They also need to conduct thorough interviews to ensure their paid-like-a-franchise-quarterback player can handle the everyday pressures that come with such contracts while commanding respect in the huddle and locker room.

For every Drew Brees, there are countless Kolbs, Cassels and Flynns. Don't fall into this trap, because it will set your franchise back years if you make the wrong call.

 

Comfort Is Not an Ingredient for Ambition

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After spending all that time solely on quarterbacks, you should have an idea of how much money is invested poorly in the position. But franchises don't limit their dumb decisions to signal-callers.

Exhibit A: The Washington Redskins—or perhaps more accurately, Daniel Snyder—decided they couldn't live without Albert Haynesworth and handed him a $100 million contract, which included $41 million in guaranteed cash.

The problems here are two-fold.

First, that's a ton of money. Once a certain type of player is handed a contract with numbers that large, an I've-made-it mentality sets in. They understand that their value has been recognized and the internal fire that drove the engine is partially extinguished. 

Second, Haynesworth was paid $32 million in the first 13 months. Basically, all of that hard work had paid off and now it's time to reap the rewards. And if you're busy reaping the rewards, you're not working out and focusing on what needs to be done for the upcoming season. You're too busy driving your new cars or flying to your next vacation spot to hit the gym.

Some version of this came to pass with Haynesworth. He lasted a total of two years with the Redskins. During that time, he played in 20 games and accumulated a paltry 6.5 sacks. That's two less sacks than he had in his last season with the Tennessee Titans. 

Again, it all comes back to the front offices doing their homework. Talk to former coaches and teammates, dig into his past and give yourself the best opportunity to make an informed decision. 

 

Sometimes Experienced Is Just Another Word for Old

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While the first two points should be easy to swallow, this last one will likely come with a debate. That's all right. Nobody respected everything Leonardo Da Vinci did during his lifetime either. 

But the lesson is drawn from the Kyle Vanden Bosch and Bruce Smith late-career signings. There was some value in those acquisitions, but, as you'll see, the return on investment doesn't measure up to the contract.

When Jim Schwartz took over the Detroit Lions, he wanted to bring along Vanden Bosch for two main reasons: production and leadership. Schwartz figured that while KVB was bringing down opposing quarterbacks, he could impart some wisdom to the rest of the Lions on how to play the game.

The truth is that we can't really measure his impact on his teammates. The anecdotes of him chasing down running backs in practice make for great stories, but they don't translate to production. During Vanden Bosch's three years in Detroit, he made roughly $20 million and accumulated a mere 15.5 sacks. 

Jamie Squire/Getty Images

And perhaps even worse, the locker room appeared to fall apart. KVB's intensity translated to a renegade defense that specialized in racking up penalty flags and misdemeanors. Is this his fault? Of course not. But when you're paid to be a leader and the team doesn't fall in line, that isn't a great return on investment. 

However, the main point is that these older players can't be counted on to perform up to the standard of the contracts. The drop-off in play will always be sharp in such a physically demanding game.

Just as KVB went from scurrying after quarterbacks to posting a horrendous negative-31.2 grade (according to Pro Football Focus), Bruce Smith's production fell quickly. After posting 10 sacks during his first year in Washington, he only racked up five the next season and never broached double digits again. 

There's a reason they say Father Time is undefeated. And without the help of unnatural supplements, his record will remain unblemished. 

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