Recent History Shows 'Winning' NFL Free Agency Hardly Equates to Winning Games

Michael Schottey@SchotteyNFL National Lead WriterMarch 10, 2015

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

What if none of this matters?

Pardon my existentialism here, but NFL free agency has a tendency to bring out the wistfulness in me, as I remember all of the "winners" and "losers" of free agency over the years.

Let's set aside—for the moment—the incredible shortsightedness in even discussing such things. We love the horse-race aspect of just about any new story, and the 24/7 echo chamber of NFL coverage demands it.

Yet, while there's nothing wrong with well-meaning, well-informed opinions about teams that were able to find the "right player" for the "right price," far too much emphasis is put on teams that are active in free agency when some of the most successful organizations would rather dip their toes into the pool of available players rather than make a big splash.

Remember the 2014 offseason just a year ago? Oh, how quickly we forget…

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers made a bevy of shrewd moves, including bringing in defensive end Michael Johnson, who seemed like a perfect fit for new head coach Lovie Smith and his Tampa 2 defensive scheme. They also secured "top" free-agent quarterback Josh McCown, who was never a long-term fit for the Buccaneers but could certainly be a fine placeholder, right?

This year, Tampa Bay will draft first overall after notching the NFL's worst record.

Not convinced? Still mad your favorite team hasn't made any bigger moves in free agency? (Looking at you, Oakland Raiders Nation.)

Let's stay in 2014. Heck, let's stay in the NFC South.

CHARLOTTE, NC - SEPTEMBER 14:  Ndamukong Suh #90 of the Detroit Lions pass rushes against Ryan Kalil #67 of the Carolina Panthers during their game at Bank of America Stadium on September 14, 2014 in Charlotte, North Carolina. The Panthers won 24-7.  (Pho
Grant Halverson/Getty Images

The prize of last year's free-agency session was safety Jairus Byrd. He signed with the New Orleans Saints, then had a terrible season in part thanks to his poor play and subsequent injury. He seemed lost in Rob Ryan's defense, and as many people blamed Ryan, it seems unlikely Ryan was calling plays that required Byrd to wander around looking lost.

Maybe last year was just a fluke, you'll say, and I counter with the 2011 Philadelphia Eagles.

After signing cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, running back Ronnie Brown and a host of other players you may or may not remember existing today but were totally excited about just a few years ago, quarterback Vince Young, when speaking with the media, dubbed them the "Dream Team."

They went 8-8.

Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune looked at this phenomenon of free-agency winning as it pertains to the Chicago Bears over the past couple of seasons:

Ownership signed off on the franchise's direction, and the Bears got progressively worse in a three-year stretch of 23 wins and 25 losses. They also got more free agent-driven as drafts failed to supply enough starters in a division in which the primary competition, the Packers, is the most draft-driven team in the NFL.

To the delight of the fanbase, the Bears were hailed as major winners in March each of the last three years. Last year, free agency brought a haul on the defensive line with Jared Allen, Lamarr Houston and Willie Young, as well as safety Ryan Mundy.

The Bears added two big pieces in 2013 in left tackle Jermon Bushrod and tight end Martellus Bennett, and they made a major trade in 2012 for receiver Brandon Marshall while giving top-of-the-market deals to backups in running back Michael Bush and quarterback Jason Campbell.

That's a couple of hits and a whole lot of misses.

In general, free agency is a risky way to build a team.

Think about it: The NFL draft is perfect. It is an enterprise that is meant to restrict the flow of talent into the workplace, and the league even has a nice little rookie-salary slotting process that means the first-year players aren't just available talent, but they're available cheap talent.

This season, the Cleveland Browns signed McCown after the Buccaneers let him go, and Cleveland will be paying him at least $6.25 million guaranteed over the next three seasons. Compare that to the draft, where a quarterback like the Seattle Seahawks' Russell Wilson is only costing his team $1.5 million in 2015 (pending an extension), and it's clear where the safer bets are placed.

Josh McCown
Josh McCownCliff McBride/Getty Images

Free agency is a high-risk game with few long-term potential rewards.

This year, the Miami Dolphins are reportedly in line to sign defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh at the very moment free agency opens thanks to hashing out numbers during the pre-free-agency "legal-tampering period."

Now, before free agency started, I told Bleacher Report Radio's Jeff Rickard that Suh is the one free agent in this class who had blank-check status on my board. In essence, there isn't a team that shouldn't have been looking at Suh, and no amount should have been too much.

Top NFL Free Agents in 2015
NamePosition2014 Team
Ndamukong SuhDefensive TackleDetroit Lions
Darrelle RevisCornerbackNew England Patriots
DeMarco MurrayRunning BackDallas Cowboys
Randall CobbWide ReceiverGreen Bay Packers
Devin McCourtySafetyNew England Patriots

Indeed, the Detroit Free Press' Dave Birkett reported that the Detroit Lions tried as hard as they could to bring the big man back to Motown, while teams like the Oakland Raiders, San Diego Chargers and others were also linked to him.

Suh's ability to singularly impact a game from the defensive tackle position is shared with very few people in the league today—maybe Tampa Bay Buccaneer Gerald McCoy and St. Louis Ram Aaron Donald—and he still looks like the same man among boys on Sunday afternoons as he once looked as a Nebraska Cornhusker.

GREEN BAY, WI - JANUARY 01: A penalty flag flies over the head of Ndamukong Suh #90 of the Detroit Lions as he sacks Matt Flynn #10 of the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field on January 1, 2012 in Green Bay, Wisconsin. The Packers defeated the Lions 45-41.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Against the New England Patriots last season, Suh had a quarterback hit and two hurries on Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, according to Pro Football Focus. That may not seem like a huge impact, but when Suh's hits on Brady over his career have looked like this, you can imagine the Pats QB will be investing in some extra Icy Hot before his two matchups against the Dolphins this year.

It's easy to see how Suh is a prized free-agency target and why the Dolphins and their fans are excited to have him.

In reality, though, what makes Suh different from Johnson or Byrd last season?

What makes this different from the 2013 Dolphins' spending spree that was supposed to save then-general manager Jeff Ireland's job but ultimately cost him it?

That offseason, Miami spent an incredible amount of money on players like wide receiver Mike Wallace, safety Chris Clemons, linebackers Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler, tight end Dustin Keller and wide receiver Brandon Gibson.

The Dolphins crushed it.

Then they got crushed, winning only eight games.

Dannell Ellerbe
Dannell EllerbeStreeter Lecka/Getty Images

The game is not played in March. The game is not played on paper, nor are free-agency signings touchdowns. There are no bonus points for spending the most cap money. There are no awards handed out to the team that makes the most deals or secures the most headlines.

In fact, there might be data backing up why this move is bad for the Dolphins. Jason Lisk of The Big Lead mined salary-cap data and found that teams spending an inordinate amount of money on the defensive line (as Miami is now doing) have fared relatively poorly.

It's hardly a definitive study, but it's informative.

This isn't just about the Dolphins, though, and this isn't just to throw cold water on their excitement. No, this is to throw cold water on all of our collective excitement over the next days and weeks. We will assess the moves, grade the moves, pan the moves and praise the moves, but what do we really know?

We know there's a great chance some of these offseason "winners" will be losers in the upcoming season and will regret spending their money in ways that seem so foolish in hindsight yet appeared so promising at the time.

It's OK to get excited, but let's make this the year that we all promise not to start anointing Super Bowl champions in March.

Michael Schottey is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report, a writer for Football Insiders and an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff on his archive page and follow him on Twitter.

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