Thursday March 18th, 2010

As we watch the names, faces and rosters around the league get reshuffled during an NFL free agency period that was supposed to be different, but really isn't, we tend to forget that every transaction we read about affects more than just a team's depth chart.

This is the time of year when the transient nature of the NFL lifestyle is on full display. Fans and media don't focus on it, but every signing means relocation for a player, and often a family. With a suddenness all its own, there's more than just a new playbook to learn in the switch of teams and towns occurring across the league this month.

I was reminded of the real-life impact of free agency this week when talking with new Browns linebacker Scott Fujita, who had barely stepped off a post-Super Bowl parade float when he signed with Cleveland on the opening weekend of free agency.

Nobody should weep for Fujita, who received a three-year deal worth $14 million, including $7.75 million guaranteed. He hit the jackpot. But there he was, exactly four weeks after enjoying the NFL's mountaintop experience with the Saints on Super Bowl Sunday, signing on the dotted line and bidding New Orleans goodbye.

Fujita, 30, was one of the first free agents Sean Payton signed (even before Drew Brees) in the spring of 2006 after taking over the Saints. Coming full circle, Fujita became the first member of New Orleans' first Super Bowl championship team to leave town.

The train does keep moving, always moving, in the NFL.

"Bittersweet is the most accurate word; in fact, it's the perfect word for it," Fujita told me just hours after returning from Maui, where he was elected to the NFLPA's executive board at its annual meeting last weekend. "I've never been quiet about my affection for the city of New Orleans. I pictured myself retiring there, and [the Saints management] knew that. But what are you going to do? Things change in this league.

"Everything did happen so fast, just coming off the euphoria from the Super Bowl. It was pretty well-documented that we probably partied longer than any Super Bowl champion ever had. But I remember a couple weeks into the celebration, I had the reality hit me in the face that I really might not be playing for the Saints any more. I kind of had to remove myself from some of the celebration and start preparing myself for the possibility of leaving in free agency. Getting my mind right for a potential change of that nature."

I was certain Fujita wasn't going anywhere in free agency. I thought there'd be interest in the eight-year NFL veteran, but I was convinced he would re-sign with the Saints, because in this case the marriage of player, team and city was so absolutely perfect.

Fujita was not only a productive four-year starter at strongside linebacker for New Orleans, but also a team captain and one of the most entrenched and popular Saints in the locker room and community. He was voted the team's man of the year in 2008 for his many acts of public service and philanthropy, and just last month gave away half of his $82,000 playoff earnings to New Orleans-area charities, focusing especially on coastal restoration of post-Katrina Louisiana. He and his wife, Jaclyn, and their twin daughters made New Orleans their year-round home, and even now they are committed to staying there, retiring there, and helping see the city's rebuilding to its completion.

But now he's an ex-Saint. While his former teammates were attending the release party for the team's Super Bowl video and bouncing around the country making appearances, Fujita was sitting out, getting ready for free agency and making plans for a future he knew might be elsewhere.

"I've changed teams enough before to know that it was possible," said Fujita, who's on his fourth club in nine NFL years (Chiefs, Cowboys, Saints and Browns). "The truth is, the Saints made the decision easy for me. [General manager] Mickey [Loomis] and Sean [Payton], they're really disciplined in what they want to do with their money, and they wanted to get younger at linebacker.

"Once the season ended and there was silence from New Orleans, the writing was pretty much on the wall. It's the reality of the game. Once they're willing to let you explore the market, they're usually willing to let you go as well. They've got to start thinking about some of the younger guys they've got to pay on that team. So it really wasn't a hard decision at all. The Browns made it clear they wanted me."

With the stroke of his pen, Fujita went from the top of the NFL standings to near the bottom. The Saints just completed a 43-year quest to win the franchise's first Super Bowl in storybook fashion. Neither the old nor new Browns have even reached the Super Bowl, and now, for the umpteenth time since re-joining the league as an expansion club in 1999, they're starting over.

It's yet another reminder of how swiftly a player's fortunes can change in free agency. From the penthouse to the outhouse, or whatever other analogy might fit best. In a couple weeks, in a scene that will be played out all over the league, Fujita will report to Cleveland for offseason workouts, and start the slow process of pushing another rock up another NFL hill.

"First of all, my wife and I are both embracing the new challenge," said Fujita, a former Cal walk-on who is one of the more intelligent NFL players I've encountered in two decades covering the league. "The idea of a turnaround program and being part of something new, something built from the ground up, we're excited about that part of it. That's what your career is, a series of experiences you have. It's not just playing the games. It's where you live, who you get to know and work with. We're signing on for the full ride."

I asked Fujita how much he really knows about the Cleveland area and playing for the Browns, and he admitted it's not a lot. He said he called a couple former teammates who had played in Cleveland, and talked to some friends who knew the city. But largely it sounds like new team president Mike Holmgren and new general manager Tom Heckert did a great sales job. A generous offer didn't hurt, nor did a revealing face-to-face with Browns head coach Eric Mangini, which helped persuade Fujita that Cleveland was a fit.

"I sat down with him and told him straight out that there were certain perceptions of him out there, and he knows them as well as I do," Fujita said of Mangini's reputation for being wildly unpopular in his own locker room. "I told him I had to have this talk, because part of your happiness in any job is where you're working and who you're working with and for. He walked me through every perception I had of him, showed me where the perception is not complete reality, and he answered my questions about who he is."

Fujita said he feels good about the Browns' other offseason acquisitions, citing the signing of Jake Delhomme and offensive tackle Tony Pashos, and the trade for Seneca Wallace. It takes both quality players and quality people to win in the NFL, he said, and his four-year stint with the Saints taught him that above all.

On April 5, Fujita will report to work with the Browns and begin the process of meshing with his new teammates. He'll turn that page and start a new chapter in his career without any regret or remorse about the whirlwind way his New Orleans chapter ended.

"In terms of my playing career, it couldn't have ended on a better note, to win a championship with those guys after four years of being together," he said. "Like I said, my roots are there in that city, and I'll always be friends with those guys. Drew [Brees] and I were talking about it all weekend [in Maui]. He said, 'Hey, we're going to always walk together now, for the rest of our lives, because of what we did together in New Orleans.'

"It was an emotional thing. We said our goodbyes [Sunday], me, him and [Saints defensive end] Will Smith, and Drew said, 'We'll see you in June at the ring ceremony.' But now that chapter's closed and I can move on to something else, something new, and quickly embrace it."

That's pretty much a player's lot when it comes to free agency in the NFL. Move on. Start over. Sign on for the full ride.

But don't expect anyone to tell you how long it's going to last.

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