What Nate Clements' 49ers Contract Proves About the NFL

Bryan GoldbergSenior Writer IMarch 6, 2007

Has the football world gone nuts?
Anyone opening up the sports page or logging on to his favorite sports news site would have trouble denying that NFL free agent spending is out of hand.
Or so it would seem.
Indeed, the numbers are compelling in their grandiose scale. Nate Clements—generally considered to be a "pretty good" cornerback—inked a deal with the 49ers that will pay him $10 million per year well into his thirties. Even if he doesn't hang around until 2015, the former Bills defensive back will take home a guaranteed $22 million.
Not bad money for a B+ performer.
Several other eyebrow-raising agreements have lead many pundits to liken the league's big-name agents to highway robbers, while the teams that draft the contacts are portrayed as suckers. But is it right to criticize NFL franchises and the league that governs them?
Absolutely not.
The truth is that these "out-of-control" signings point to something that most sports fans know but rarely talk about: The NFL is easily the most effectively managed league in professional sports.
In fact, those who appreciate the league's excellent governance should view the first week of the free agent period as a feather in the NFL's proverbial cap.
Why all these kind words? 
Because a team makes a huge economic statement by shelling out $80 million for a player who is good but not great. In the NFL, there's no way to buy a championship. Heck, there's almost no way to buy a superstar—or even a regular star, for that matter.
Most people cite the salary cap as the killer app driving a competitive league. But that's only part of the equation. The NFL succeeds because even when teams do have more money than sense, as seems to be the case with the 49ers this winter, there's really no great place to put it.
Here's the deal: The "franchise tag" rule, even though it only applies to two percent of the league's players, manages to halve the star free agent pool. It forces players to negotiate fair contracts with their home teams, and prevents them from making the common mistake of ditching a loyal fan base in favor of a few hundred thousand dollars.  
The NFL also seems to have a culture of staying put. Virtually every major star in the sport's history is directly associated with a single team. The same goes for today's biggest names: We know what uniforms Peyton Manning and Brian Urlacher will be wearing when they enter Canton, and both still have great years ahead of them.
If the Nate Clements signing proves anything, then, it's that the NFL has the right formula. Let the 49ers pay through the nose to get a competent defender. The Champ Baileys of the league will eventually get the money they deserve, and they'll likely do so while retaining their current team affiliations. San Francisco, on the other hand, will still struggle to make the playoffs—and if they do succeed, it will be on the shoulders of homegrown talents like Frank Gore.
In short, every sports fan should celebrate the fact that the NFL free agent period is, at best, a tempest in a teapot. Few great players switch teams, and high prices prevent any organization from making too great a splash.
Don't we wish we could say the same about Bud Selig's league?