Whether they're taking the slow route by developing players
through the draft or trying the fast track to success by
spending big money in the free-agent market, some NFL clubs
clearly play the game of team building better than others. Here
is Peter King's evaluation of the construction efforts of all 30
franchises since the free-agency era began in 1993. (Teams are
listed in order of overall winning percentage, including the
postseason, from 1993 to 1996.)
DALLAS COWBOYS Winning percentage since 1993 .733
Record since '93: 55-20, four playoff appearances, two Super
Architects: Coach Jimmy Johnson (1989-93), owner Jerry Jones
July 15, 1997
Best move: Tying up promising kids like DT Leon Lett, T Erik
Williams and CB Kevin Smith before they hit the free-agent market.
Worst move: Crippling all future cap maneuvers with a
seven-year, $35 million contract for CB Deion Sanders.
Comment: Dallas has lost 19 starters to free agency in the past
five years but still ranks among the NFL's top three teams. That
counts for something, doesn't it?
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS [Winning percentage since 1993] .699
Record since '93: 51-22, four playoff appearances, one Super
Architects: Coach George Seifert (1989-96), VP Dwight Clark
Best move: Landing talented young pass rusher Roy Barker for
four years, $7 million in 1996. He had 12 1/2 sacks last year.
Worst move: Failing to spend liberally to retool the rickety
offensive line, which could get QB Steve Young killed this fall.
Comment: Incentive-laden contracts still can help attract
players, but San Francisco hasn't been a free-agency star
recently. Without Bill Walsh running the show, the front office
GREEN BAY PACKERS [Winning percentage since 1993] .662
Record since '93: 49-25, four playoff appearances, one Super
Architect: G.M. Ron Wolf (1992- ).
Best move: Spending $17 million for DE Reggie White. The Pack
got the league's alltime sack leader and sent a message that
black players are welcome in Green Bay.
Worst move: Failing to pay Bryce Paup $2.5 million per year in
1995. He's a steady sack producer--for Buffalo now.
Comment: If Brett Favre stays healthy, the Packers will be
better than San Francisco and Dallas over the long term. Green
Bay simply drafts better.
PITTSBURGH STEELERS [Winning percentage since 1993] .639
Record since '93: 46-26, four playoff appearances, one Super
Architects: VP Tom Donahoe (1992- ), coach Bill Cowher (1992- ).
Best move: Not panicking when some marginal-to-good starters hit
the market. The Steelers have lost 17 such players but still win.
Worst move: Two, and they'll be felt this year--not trading for
Jeff Hostetler to repair a bad QB situation when they had the
chance this off-season, and not signing LB Chad Brown in '96
before he struck gold.
Comment: Three straight division titles despite so many starters
leaving? Great coach, great front office.
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS [Winning percentage since 1993] .638
Record since '93: 44-25, three playoff appearances.
Architects: G.M. Carl Peterson (1989- ), coach Marty
Schottenheimer (1990- ).
Best move: Stealing a secondary (James Hasty, Mark Collins,
Brian Washington) for nothing to make a mid-'90s title run.
Worst move: Failing to buy a good passing game to supplement
Marcus Allen's productive twilight.
Comment: Beating Seattle twice a year doesn't get it done. The
Chiefs are 2-3 in the playoffs in the free-agency era, and
they're headed sideways.
BUFFALO BILLS [Winning percentage since 1993] .600
Record since '93: 42-28, three playoff appearances, one Super
Architect: G.M. John Butler (1993- ).
Best move: Rebuilding the front seven with Bryce Paup, Chris
Spielman, Ted Washington and Jim Jeffcoat, and getting them to
play at their peak.
Worst move: Not tying up DE Bruce Smith sooner. The Bills could
have signed him last year for a sensible $3.5 million per; he'll
hold them for ransom now.
Comment: Buffalo brass is forward-looking and unsentimental.
That's how teams must play the free-agency game.
CAROLINA PANTHERS [Winning percentage since 1993] .588
Record since '93: 20-14, one playoff appearance.
Architect: G.M. Bill Polian (1994- ).
Best move: Buying four linebackers--Kevin Greene, Sam Mills,
Lamar Lathon and Micheal Barrow--who are perfect for the zone
blitz that keys Carolina's stifling defense.
Worst move: Overpaying the likes of Derrick Graham and Mike Fox
in the team's first year, limiting free-agency maneuverability
Comment: No team south of Green Bay has a better G.M.-coach duo
than the Panthers have with Polian and Dom Capers.
DENVER BRONCOS [Winning percentage since 1993] .561
Record since '93: 37-29, two playoff appearances.
Architects: G.M. John Beake (1985- ), coach Mike Shanahan (1995-).
Best move: The twin signings of LB Bill Romanowski and DE Alfred
Williams for $4.2 million, total, per year. Brilliant.
Worst move: Paying pouting, underproductive WR Anthony Miller $3
million a year from '94 to '96. Ed McCaffrey is better.
Comment: Shanahan is in the Jimmy Johnson league in talent
evaluation, and his free-agency coups have revitalized a
franchise that was teetering before his arrival.
SAN DIEGO CHARGERS [Winning percentage since 1993] .559
Record since '93: 38-30, two playoff appearances, one Super Bowl
Architect: G.M. Bobby Beathard (1990- ).
Best move: The bold dumping of problem DLs Leslie O'Neal and
Chris Mims, even though the defensive line is weaker without them.
Worst move: Paying DE Marco Coleman--a guy who's never had seven
sacks in a season--$3.2 million a year is inexcusable.
Comment: A succession of failed high picks has tarnished the
Beathard-as-draft-genius image and put more pressure on him to
save the team via the free-agent market.
MIAMI DOLPHINS [Winning percentage since 1993] .552
Record since '93: 37-30, two playoff appearances.
Architects: Coach Don Shula (1970-95), coach Jimmy Johnson
Best move: Handing the free-agency reins to Johnson after Shula
set the team back three seasons in 1995 with horrendous signings.
Worst move: Signing TE Eric Green for $2.75 million a year in
1995. The Dolphins tied themselves to an injury-plagued player
Comment: Johnson's first two free-agency seasons have been
handicapped by the cap; and signing WR Charles Jordan and CB
Corey Harris for significant money won't win him any executive
of the year awards.
MINNESOTA VIKINGS [Winning percentage since 1993] .537
Record since '93: 36-31, three playoff appearances.
Architects: President Roger Headrick (1991- ), coach Dennis
Green (1992- ).
Best move: Re-signing Brad Johnson for $3.9 million a year. He's
still shaky, but that's a decent price for a moderately good
Worst move: Letting Kirk Lowdermilk, one of the top three
centers in the league, go to the Colts in '93 for $2 million a
year. Since then the Vikes have rarely spent to retain quality.
Comment: As long as 10 co-owners continue to knot the purse
strings and bar competitive bonuses, Minnesota will toil in
PHILADELPHIA EAGLES [Winning percentage since 1993] .537
Record since '93: 36-31, two playoff appearances.
Architects: Coach Rich Kotite (1991-94), coach Ray Rhodes (1995-).
Best move: Signing DE William Fuller in '94 for $2.8 million per
year. He has 35 1/2 sacks in three seasons.
Worst move: Passing on then Packers backup Mark Brunell in a
gimme trade in '95, which left Philly little choice but to sign
inferior QB Ty Detmer in '96.
Comment: The guts of a strong defense were ripped out in the
early days of free agency, and Rhodes has had to struggle
mightily to get lesser players to perform at a playoff level.
Oakland Raiders [Winning percentage since 1993] .530
Record since '93: 35-31, one playoff appearance.
Architect: Owner Al Davis (1963- ).
Best move: In three seasons with the Raiders at $1.5 million a
year, CB Albert Lewis has been one of the league's best cover
men. Worst move: The Raiders signed two of the Cowboys' lesser
defensive lights, DT Russell Maryland and CB Larry Brown, for a
combined $31.5 million.
Comment: Davis goes after free agents as if they were trophies.
Desmond Howard is a nice return man, but he isn't worth $1.5
million a year.
DETROIT LIONS [Winning percentage since 1993] .507
Record since '93: 34-33, three playoff appearances.
Architects: G.M. Chuck Schmidt (1989- ), coach Bobby Ross (1997-).
Best move: Signing QB Scott Mitchell.
Worst move: Signing QB Scott Mitchell.
Comment: Mitchell has immense potential, which at times he seems
on the verge of fulfilling--but then he slips back into his
inconsistent ways. Plus, his big contract has made Barry
Sanders, the team's real star, unhappy. For the Lions to rise,
Mitchell must become the reliable complement to Sanders that
Detroit sorely needs.
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS [Winning percentage since 1993] .500
Record since '93: 34-34, two playoff appearances, one Super Bowl
Architects: Coach Bill Parcells (1993-96), VP Bobby Grier (1995-).
Best move: You've got to look pretty hard to find one. At $1.5
million per year, S Willie Clay was no bargain, but he has
contributed big plays.
Worst move: Parcells's attempt to make the Pats the Giants
North. Ex-New Yorkers S Myron Guyton, G Bob Kratch, DB Reyna
Thompson, DE John Washington and RB Dave Meggett collectively
receive a D-minus grade.
Comment: Free agency has been all but nonexistent in Foxboro,
which makes the Patriots' Super Bowl appearance pretty amazing.
CHICAGO BEARS [Winning percentage since 1993] .500
Record since '93: 33-33, one playoff appearance.
Architect: Coach Dave Wannstedt (1993- ).
Best move: Signing T Andy Heck in 1994. He has allowed just 1
1/2 sacks over the past two seasons, best among NFL left tackles.
Worst move: Re-upping DE Alonzo Spellman for $3 million a year.
Wannstedt says the sky's the limit for this guy, but he has 30
sacks in 78 NFL games.
Comment: The Bears have done well in free agency with Heck, LB
Bryan Cox and S Marty Carter; the .500 record under Wannstedt
indicates how ineffective the Bears' drafts have been.
NEW YORK GIANTS [Winning percentage since 1993] .485
Record since '93: 32-34, one playoff appearance.
Architect: G.M. George Young (1979- ).
Best move: None, unless you count the 1996 contract extension
for very good CB Phillippi Sparks.
Worst move: RB Rodney Hampton had perhaps two good years left
when the Giants matched a six-year deal the Niners handed him in
1996; even though Tyrone Wheatley looks like a bust, that was
still a dumb move.
Comment: For a big-market team that free agents should crave to
join, the Giants have stuck their heads too deep in the sand.
INDIANAPOLIS COLTS [Winning percentage since 1993] .471
Record since '93: 32-36, two playoff appearances.
Architect: G.M. Bill Tobin (1994- ).
Best move: With failures of high draft picks Steve Emtman and
Trev Alberts staring him in the face, Tobin had to match LB
Quentin Coryatt's $3.5 million a year offer by Jacksonville,
though it hinders future cap spending by the Colts.
Worst move: Losing two productive NFL corners, Ashley Ambrose in
'96 and Ray Buchanan in '97.
Comment: Free-agent losses of the past two years (Ambrose,
Buchanan, DT Tony Siragusa) have made a once good defense
TENNESSEE OILERS [Winning percentage since 1993] .446
Record since '93: 29-36, one playoff appearance.
Architects: G.M. Floyd Reese (1994- ), coach Jeff Fisher (1994- ).
Best move: That'll come in 1999, when the Oilers can recruit
free agents to a permanent home in a new stadium in Nashville.
Worst move: The dissolution of the defense is nearly complete
with DLs Sean Jones and William Fuller, LBs Eddie Robinson and
Micheal Barrow, and CB Cris Dishman gone for big money. Comment:
Given their lame-duck status in Houston and the worst practice
facility in the NFL, give these guys a medal for trying to lure
JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS [Winning percentage since 1993] .429
Record since '93: 15-20, one playoff appearance.
Architect: Coach Tom Coughlin (1994- ).
Best move: Dumping WR Andre Rison and letting anonymous Keenan
McCardell and Jimmy Smith carry the mail. The two had 168
catches in '96.
Worst move: Last year the Jaguars failed to make restricted free
agent CB Todd Lyght an offer big enough to prevent the Rams from
Comment: They've failed in free-agent negotiations a number of
times--with Lyght, Quentin Coryatt, Aeneas Williams--but have
gotten the most out of lesser names and smart drafts.
BALTIMORE RAVENS [Winning percentage since 1993] .424
Record since '93: 28-38, one playoff appearance.
Architects: Coach Bill Belichick (1991-95), director of player
personnel Mike Lombardi (1989-96), VP Ozzie Newsome (1994- ),
owner Art Modell (1961- ).
Best move: Signing QB Vinny Testaverde and saving his career.
Worst move: Modell just had to have WR Andre Rison in 1995, and
his rash overspending on the deal (including a $5 million
signing bonus) is a symbol of what's wrong in personnel
acquisition with this team.
Comment: "NFL club in search of strong G.M. with scouting
SEATTLE SEAHAWKS [Winning percentage since 1993] .422
Record since '93: 27-37, no playoff appearances.
Architects: Coach Dennis Erickson (1995- ), VP Randy Mueller
Best move: Are you kidding? Signing LB Chad Brown to a
franchise-altering six-year, $24 million deal on the first day
of '97 free agency.
Worst move: Banking on CB Nate Odomes to shore up the mediocre
secondary, then watching him wreck his knee in the off-season
two years in a row.
Comment: With aggressive free-agent spending this year, the
Seahawks have joined the land of the living. Now Erickson must
produce, or else.
ARIZONA CARDINALS [Winning percentage since 1993] .406
Record since '93: 26-38, no playoff appearances.
Architects: Coach Buddy Ryan (1994-95), coach Vince Tobin (1996-).
Best move: Dumping Ryan, who was more interested in defensive
intimidation and signing players he liked than in winning.
Worst move: Losing sack specialist LB Ken Harvey to Washington.
Comment: This was supposed to be the team to get rich off free
agency, because all players want to live near golf courses and
play in warm weather. The Cards must have been pretty
incompetent to have screwed this up.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS [Winning percentage since 1993] .391
Record since '93: 25-39, no playoff appearances.
Architects: Coach Jim Mora (1986-96), G.M. Bill Kuharich (1996- ).
Best move: Um ... uh ... well, we'll give them credit for
signing CB Eric Allen, but that hasn't exactly turned the
franchise around--it's 10-22 since.
Worst move: Shunning K Morten Andersen and LB Sam Mills when
both still had prime seasons left.
Comment: Aside from Atlanta and perhaps the Jets, the Saints may
have the longest climb to the reach Super Bowl. And they're
bedeviled by the salary cap. New coach Mike Ditka has some dark
days ahead in Voodoo City.
ATLANTA FALCONS [Winning percentage since 1993] .385
Record since '93: 25-40, one playoff appearance.
Architects: VP Ken Herock (1987-96), coach Dan Reeves (1997- ).
Best move: The Falcons turned former Jets backup Terance Mathis
into a productive wideout, with 111, 78 and 69 catches from '94
Worst move: The 1993 signing of DT Pierce Holt to a guaranteed
three-year, $7.5 million deal grounded the Falcons.
Comment: There's a black cloud over the Falcons: They could have
signed bright LB prospect Eddie Robinson in '96, but he spurned
them for the Jaguars. Atlanta then paid $800,000 more for
declining LB Cornelius Bennett.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS [Winning percentage since 1993] .375
Record since '93: 24-40, no playoff appearances.
Architects: Coach Sam Wyche (1992-95), G.M. Rich McKay (1994- ),
coach Tony Dungy (1996- ).
Best move: Signing (in 1993) and re-signing (in 1996) one of the
best playmaking LBs in football, Hardy Nickerson.
Worst move: With the defensive front seven a crying need, in '95
the Bucs wasted money on a No. 2 receiver, Alvin Harper.
Comment: Give defensive wiz Dungy time to build a defense
through the draft and free agency, and the days of 10-loss
seasons will end.
ST. LOUIS RAMS [Winning percentage since 1993] .344
Record since '93: 22-42, no playoff appearances.
Architects: President John Shaw (1992- ), coach Dick Vermeil
Best move: Handing the authority to Vermeil, even after his
15-year NFL hiatus. He has watched more college tape than any
other pro coach around.
Worst move: Losing LB Kevin Greene to Pittsburgh while he still
had great years left. In his four post-Rams seasons, Greene has
Comment: Money can't buy a division title. The Rams have been
one of free agency's loosest teams with the wallet, but they're
still a six-win club that must build an offensive line, a
backfield and a linebacking corps.
WASHINGTON REDSKINS [Winning percentage since 1993] .344
Record since '93: 22-42, no playoff appearances.
Architects: G.M. Charley Casserly (1989- ), coach Norv Turner
Best move: Stealing LB Ken Harvey from Arizona (in '94) and RB
Terry Allen from Minnesota ('95); signing no-name Bob Dahl and
turning him into a very good NFL guard ('96).
Worst move: Multiple tie--Signings of Tim McGee, Carl Banks, Al
Noga, Leonard Marshall, James Washington, John Gesek ... must we
Comment: Harvey, Allen, Dahl and WR Henry Ellard help balance
out all the bad deals. Now the Redskins need to draft better.
CINCINNATI BENGALS [Winning percentage since 1993] .328
Record since '93: 21-43, no playoff appearances.
Architects: Coach Dave Shula (1992-96), G.M. Mike Brown (1991-), coach Bruce Coslet (1996- ).
Best move: It's pretty grim when the answer here may be OL
Worst move: Failing to hire a bona fide pro personnel director
with NFL experience.
Comment: The above architects don't exactly inspire fans to go
out and buy Bengals season tickets. It bears repeating: This
team desperately needs a strong, independent general manager
with personnel smarts.
NEW YORK JETS [Winning percentage since 1993] .281
Record since '93: 18-46, no playoff appearances.
Architects: President Steve Gutman (1988- ), coach Rich Kotite
(1995-96), coach Bill Parcells (1997- ).
Best move: Taking football responsibility away from Gutman.
Worst move: One of many--signing a declining OT with a bad back
(Jumbo Elliott) and another OT (David Williams) who had been
unemployed for four months, for a combined $5.4 million a year.
Comment: Parcells has never been the best talent evaluator, but
compared with what the Jets have had, he's the second coming of