If you're only reading headlines, then the saga of Rodger Saffold gets a bit confusing. As a top free agent, the Oakland Raiders met with Saffold, negotiated a big-dollar deal and even brought in his parents for the announcement. Next thing you know, there's no deal and Saffold is headed back to St. Louis, where he gets a reportedly smaller deal (via ESPN), but nearly equivalent in guaranteed money.
It leaves football fans in Oakland and St. Louis asking one question: What happened?
With the Raiders, it could be almost anything, but this is actually a common problem. Baseball fans will recall that something similar happened this offseason in Baltimore, as the Orioles failed Grant Balfour after agreeing to terms with the reliever. Balfour quickly signed with the Tampa Bay Rays and has shown no issues in spring training.
"Physical" is a term that we all think we understand, since we all get them (or should). For most people, our primary care physician looks us over, we take some tests and give a sample or two, and look a little deeper into anything unusual that may arise.
In sports, it's similar, but as with the physicals you or I get, there's not much that's standardized about them. In some cases, they're perfunctory. "Is he breathing? He passes," joked an MLB team doctor who puts hundreds of players through the process each year. "You don't go in blind. Aside from trades and free agents, you know these guys and you have records on them."
It's those records that really guide the process and give us insight as to why the Raiders and Rams seemingly disagree. "The athletic trainers will have gone through the records before I see the player," the MLB team physician continued. "And while I look him over, I'm only going to focus on the important things. If he's a pitcher, I'm looking at his arm. What really draws my attention are past injuries."
With Saffold, the medical records that the Raiders reviewed would have included recent injuries to his knee and shoulder. Saffold dislocated his shoulder during the 2013 preseason, which often leads to labrum damage. He missed a couple of preseason games, but played throughout the regular season.
Multiple reports, including this one from NFL.com's Mike Silver, and sources say it was the shoulder that caused Saffold to "fail" the physical. However, don't think that it's the final word. The Sports Network's John McMullen gives voice to the suspicion that Raiders owner Mark Davis is the one that halted the deal:
More than one has speculated that Mark Davis, fearful that his marquee free agent could be facing surgery, got rabbit ears and pulled the plug on the deal...
The Raiders likely got a look at the MRI on Saffold's shoulder and noted that surgery would be required to correct the damage. More damage than expected may have been visible on an MRI, though McMullen reported that Saffold's agents "allowed Dr. Frank Cordasco of the Hospital For Special Surgery in New York to study Saffold's MRIs, and his review indicated nothing was wrong with Saffold's shoulder." It could have been a simple manual test that elicited pain or weakness.
Saffold could have surgery today to correct that problem and be ready for the start of the season. Aldon Smith underwent similar surgery in March of last year and was on the field in time for training camp. While Smith had off-the-field issues that caused him to miss games last year, the shoulder was not the problem.
Instead of signing him conditional on the surgery, Davis and the Raiders canceled the deal, as is their right. Contract terms are agreed upon with the specific knowledge that the physical and league approval are necessary before it can be officially signed. Those pictures of a player putting pen to paper? They're for a reason, and very meaningful.
So how did the Rams clear Saffold so quickly? They probably didn't even do a physical. The Rams already have explicit knowledge of him and his condition. Saffold reportedly passed the exit physical performed after the season, so at most, the Rams likely did a cursory check or perhaps another test on his shoulder. With Saffold's agent calling upon a consulting surgeon for his opinion, the Rams could have essentially nodded and signed him on the spot.
Saffold's deal to return to the Rams should be official on Thursday, but this lesson in how teams handle physicals and why different teams get different results on the same player is a good one. It's not the first dispute like this and certainly won't be the last. As the dollars attached increase, the amount of risk teams will tolerate is more likely to come into play.
This saga is actually less about the doctors and their opinions as it is about Mark Davis' tolerance. It appears as though Davis wasn't willing to risk his big-dollar signing tanking, while the Rams were perfectly willing to let Saffold stay a Ram.