Inside The NFL

December 25, 2000

Smart Money
The teams that sign middle-class free agents are the ones that
thrive

After eight years of unfettered free agency, NFL teams should
have learned two things: 1) The most successful clubs sign a
handful of middle- and low-tier free agents to fill various
roles; and 2) despite what it may think, a team is never one star
free agent, or even two, from a title.

The road is littered with ambitious teams that erred big time in
free agency. They paid dearly for stars who they thought could
take them to the next level, then spent years trying to recover
from those mistakes. Exhibit A: The Browns went 11-5 in 1994,
thought they were one deep threat from the Super Bowl and gave
free-agent wideout Andre Rison a five-year, $17 million deal. He
was released after one season, a 5-11 campaign during which he
caught three touchdown passes. Exhibit B: Convinced they were one
impact defender from getting back on the NFC championship track
in 1998, the Panthers signed overrated tackle Sean Gilbert to a
seven-year, $45.4 million contract and gave two first-round draft
picks to the Redskins as compensation for their franchise player.
Carolina, which had played for the NFC championship in 1996, is
19-28 since signing Gilbert and hasn't been back to the playoffs.

Washington is the latest poster boy for free-agent lunacy. After
winning the NFC East last season with a 10-6 record, the
Redskins added four high-priced free agents. They vastly
overpaid declining cornerback Deion Sanders, 33, giving him an
$8 million signing bonus as part of a seven-year, $56 million
contract; signed quarterback Jeff George, 33, to a four-year,
$18.25 million deal after reneging on a promise to negotiate an
extension with Pro Bowl signal-caller Brad Johnson; signed
defensive end Bruce Smith, 37, for a last hurrah at $25 million
over five years, even though rising star N.D. Kalu appeared
ready to crack the lineup; and gave 32-year-old safety Mark
Carrier, considered beat up by most teams after 10 seasons, a $3
million signing bonus as part of a five-year, $15 million pact.

The upshot: "We are in disarray," defensive tackle Dan Wilkinson
said, after a 24-3 loss to the Steelers last Saturday dropped the
Skins to 7-8 and eliminated them from playoff contention. Sanders
is already talking about retiring. George has been mediocre in
mostly cameo appearances, and Washington will probably lose
Johnson to free agency this winter. Smith has played well, but
his presence stunted Kalu's development. What's more, Washington
probably won't be able to afford Kalu, 25, when he becomes a free
agent after this season. Carrier has been adequate but not
spectacular enough to justify such a big signing bonus.

"In baseball, if you get a couple of good pitchers, you'll win a
lot of games," Titans general manager Floyd Reese says. "In the
NFL, with the cap, you can't afford to fill more than a couple of
starting spots with quality players. Also, probably two thirds of
the time you're going to be wrong [about the free agents you
sign]. You can count on your fingers the number of stars who have
been stars with their new teams."

So why do teams keep throwing away their money? For one thing,
the dearth of trades means that other than the draft, the
free-agent market is virtually the only way to acquire major
talent. However, the biggest reason for the excessive spending is
win-now owners like Washington's Daniel Snyder, plus the pressure
on teams to make a splash in the off-season. "If you don't do
something during free agency, you get labeled as a team that's
not trying to improve, and that bleeds over to your fans and your
locker room," says Reese. "They wonder, Why aren't we trying to
win?"

Instead of trying to win with marquee signings, teams would be
wise to follow the lead of the Saints or the Buccaneers. After
coach Mike Ditka dealt eight draft choices to select running back
Ricky Williams in 1999, New Orleans had no choice but to approach
free agency from a new direction beginning last February. "We
needed a draft," says first-year general manager Randy Mueller,
"so that's how we treated free agency this year. We hoped to get
a bunch of third-round quality players out of it." By spending
$9.28 million in 2000 cap money on seven middle-tier free agents,
the Saints got quality at quarterback (Jeff Blake), defensive
tackle (Norman Hand), wide receiver (Joe Horn) and tight end
(Andrew Glover).

Tampa Bay, for the most part, has turned away from the free-agent
market. "I have learned not to love it," says general manager
Rich McKay. Going into Monday night's game against the Rams, the
Bucs' defense ranked eighth in the league, and nine of the 11
starters were drafted by the club. "The other two, [linebacker]
Shelton Quarles and [safety] Damien Robinson, were signed after
being cut [by other teams] at a young age," says McKay. "When we
were faced with losing one of our longtime starters, Hardy
Nickerson, in free agency this season, we didn't panic and pay
him a lot of money. We knew we had players behind him who could
play."

Nickerson's replacement, middle linebacker Jamie Duncan, a
third-round pick in 1998, returned an interception for a
touchdown in Tampa Bay's crucial 16-13 win in Miami on Dec. 10.
"If Hardy sticks around, Jamie never gets to play and maybe
leaves as a free agent," says cornerback Ronde Barber. "It
stinks to lose Hardy, but we know we can win with what we have.
That's our formula, and it has worked well for us."

That lesson didn't come cheaply for Tampa Bay, which overspent in
signing wideouts Alvin Harper and Bert Emanuel and tight end
Jackie Harris from 1994 through '98. Even this year the Bucs
brought in a pair of pricey veterans--wideout Keyshawn Johnson by
way of a trade and center Jeff Christy in free agency--and
continue to struggle offensively. "The bottom line is that you
should do everything you can not to be a hostage to free agency,"
says Tampa Bay director of player personnel Jerry Angelo. "There
are many more perils in free agency than in the draft, and those
perils can be fatal."

Venerable Mark
Johnny U Still Untouchable

This month marks the 40th anniversary of a record that looks
well-nigh unbreakable: Johnny Unitas's streak of throwing a
touchdown pass in 47 straight games, which came to an end on Dec.
11, 1960. "It's equivalent to the DiMaggio hitting streak," says
Colts quarterback Peyton Manning. "To break this record, you'd
have to throw a touchdown pass every game for three years."

Second on the list is Dan Marino, whose best run was 30
consecutive games. Rams backup Trent Green has the longest
active streak, at 16 games.

Manning had gotten to 27 games last year when the Colts made a
late-season trip to Cleveland. Trailing 28-19 in the fourth
quarter with the ball at the Browns' two, Indianapolis offensive
coordinator Tom Moore sent in a pass play designed to go to the
corner of the end zone. But Manning saw the Cleveland cornerbacks
cheating in that direction, so he called an audible. Edgerrin
James ran in for a touchdown. End of streak.

"I knew about the record, but I never thought about it when that
call came in or when I had to make the checkoff," Manning says.
"You do what you're taught to do--make the best call to get your
team into the end zone. You start thinking about that other
stuff, and you'll get yourself in trouble."

Emmitt Smith On A Mission
He Wants More Than a Record

Cowboys running back Emmitt Smith has never made a secret of his
desire to break Walter Payton's career rushing record of 16,726
yards. "I want to leave my footprints on the game," Smith has
said. Barring injury or the dismantling of a good line, Smith,
whose total after he rushed for 46 yards in Sunday night's loss
to the Giants is 15,146 yards, will likely break the record early
in the 2002 season, when he's 33.

What then? Look for Smith to stick around a couple of more years
and try to put the mark out of the reach of mere mortals,
somewhere beyond 18,000 yards. Friends of Smith's say they would
be shocked if he retires unless an injury drives him from the
game. And with the Cowboys likely to rebuild--probably without
beat-up quarterback Troy Aikman--Smith will take on a bigger share
of the offensive load. "You know that Snickers commercial, the
one where they ask, 'Not goin' anywhere for a while?'" Smith said
last week. "Well, I'm not goin' anywhere for a while."

Denver Assistant Alex Gibbs
Good Teachers Are Hard to Find

Broncos offensive line coach Alex Gibbs will probably retire
after this season, his 17th in the NFL, and his departure should
not go unnoticed. Gibbs, 59, is quite possibly the league's best
teaching assistant of the last 20 years. His coaching helped pave
the way for unsung draft picks Terrell Davis, Olandis Gary and
Mike Anderson--all middle-round selections--to rush for more than
1,000 yards in 1998, 1999 and 2000, respectively.

The current Denver line includes three starters with four years'
experience or less--left guard Lennie Friedman, a second-round
pick in '99; right tackle Matt Lepsis, an undrafted free agent
who came on board in '97; and right guard Dan Neil, a third-round
pick in '97. Nevertheless, the Broncos rank third in the league
in rushing, averaging 144.3 yards per game. Gibbs likes
end-of-the-roster players best because he believes that their
lack of job security will motivate them to improve. He admits to
"stealing everything I've ever used in coaching. I've never
invented a thing. All I do that's a little special is teach
differently than other people."

"Alex," says Denver coach Mike Shanahan, "is as demanding a
person as I've ever been around, but he can also put his arm
around people and let them know that he cares."

Shanahan knows that he cannot let Gibbs simply walk away, so he
hopes to coax him into serving as a consultant next season,
working with the line and acting as a mentor to his successor.
That replacement is expected to be the Broncos' special teams
coach, Rick Dennison.

Send your pro football questions for Peter King's mailbag and
read more from Paul Zimmerman at cnnsi.com/football.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH The spendthrift Skins now may not be able to afford Thrash, their second-leading receiver. B/W PHOTO: BOB STANLEY No other passer has come close to matching Unitas's 47-game run of touchdown throws.

BEST BUYS

Shopping for a free-agent bargain or two in the off-season?
Here's a starting lineup of talented veterans who might be on the
market come February and would probably improve a team without
blowing its salary cap (ages as of Sept. 1, 2001).

OFFENSE

POS. PLAYER TEAM AGE
QB Trent Dilfer Ravens 29
RB Tiki Barber Giants 26
FB Cory Schlesinger Lions 29
WR James Thrash Redskins 26
WR James McKnight Cowboys 29
TE O.J. Santiago Browns 27
C Jeff Mitchell Ravens 27
G Mike Compton Lions 30
G Todd Perry Bears 30
T Bob Whitfield Falcons 29
T Jerry Wunsch Bucs 27

DEFENSE

POS. PLAYER TEAM AGE
E Shawn Price Bills 31
E N.D. Kalu Redskins 26
T Jason Ferguson Jets 26
T Chad Eaton Patriots 29
LB John Mobley Broncos 27
LB Dwayne Rudd Vikings 25
LB Jamie Sharper Ravens 26
CB Walt Harris Bears 27
CB Kevin Mathis Saints 27
S Mike Minter Panthers 27
S Rob Kelly Saints 27

SPECIALISTS

POS. PLAYER TEAM AGE
K Olindo Mare Dolphins 28
P Brad Maynard Giants 27
KR Michael Bates Panthers 31
PR Derrick Mason Titans 27

Dispatches

The average annual payout of the 10-year, $252 million contract
that shortstop Alex Rodriguez recently signed with the Texas
Rangers is $1.3 million more than the total (for salary-cap
purposes) that will be paid this year to the NFL's three
highest-paid players. Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe counts
$8.5 million against the cap, followed by Vikings defensive
lineman John Randle ($7.8 million) and Giants defensive end
Michael Strahan ($7.6 million)...

Vikings coach Dennis Green and his staff deserve credit for
developing the two unheralded centers who will play for the NFC
in the Pro Bowl. After a year on the Cardinals' practice squad,
Jeff Christy was picked up by Minnesota in 1993, was the team's
starter from '94 through '99 and then signed with the Bucs as a
free agent. He was succeeded in Minnesota--and was followed in
the NFC Pro Bowl vote--by Matt Birk, a 1998 sixth-round draft
pick who hadn't started a game before this season...

The expansion Browns, 5-27 after two seasons, did at least one
thing right in 2000: Last April they took strong, mobile
defensive end Courtney Brown with the first pick in the draft.
He finished the season with an 11-tackle game against the Titans
on Sunday, giving him 85 tackles and 4 1/2 sacks for the year...

The Jets will sorely miss the gritty leadership of linebacker
Bryan Cox, a free agent after this season, who will probably
move on. After suffering a broken right leg in the first half of
a loss to the Lions on Sunday, Cox was in the locker room trying
to tape the leg tight enough so that he could limp through the
second half.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)