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March Madness During a five-day free-agent feeding frenzy, teams bulked up their rosters with contracts totaling more than $1 billion

March 15, 2004
March 15, 2004

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March 15, 2004

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March Madness During a five-day free-agent feeding frenzy, teams bulked up their rosters with contracts totaling more than $1 billion

After being introduced as the newest member of the Philadelphia
Eagles last Thursday, defensive end Jevon Kearse donned a
ceremonial jersey with kearse and a 1 on the back. A reporter
asked Kearse what number he would wear come autumn, considering
that the 90 he wore for five seasons with the Tennessee Titans
belonged to defensive tackle Corey Simon in Philly. "I don't
care," said a beaming Kearse. "The only number I'm worried about
is the contract number. And that one's pretty good." ¶ Kearse was
putting it mildly. Despite his history of injury (14 missed games
out of the last 35) and recent poor pass-rush production (no
sacks in his last 30 quarters), the Eagles signed him to an
eight-year, $62.6 million contract just 14 hours into the NFL's
most explosive free-agency period ever. You could call the team
crazy for guaranteeing a guy with a titanium rod in his left
foot $20 million, but Philadelphia was not alone in its madness.

This is an article from the March 15, 2004 issue Original Layout

On March 2, the day before the free-agent market opened, the
Indianapolis Colts signed franchise quarterback Peyton Manning to
a seven-year, $98 million contract that included an NFL-record
$34.5 million signing bonus. By Sunday free agents and players
who renegotiated deals as parts of trades had already signed
contracts totaling more than $1 billion. This was possible
largely because the 32 teams were, on average, $8.5 million under
the $80.6 million salary cap. It was, says San Francisco 49ers
general manager Terry Donahue, "a feeding frenzy unlike any I've
ever seen."

An unexpected one too. In the month following the New England
Patriots' second Super Bowl victory in three seasons, club
officials and coaches around the league fell all over themselves
praising the champions' fiscally conservative, no-stars approach.
The Patriots stayed on that course last week with three no-frills
signings--backup wide receiver J.J. Stokes, third-down back Kevin
Faulk and reserve linebacker Don Davis--and an offer to defensive
end Rodney Bailey, a restricted free agent from the Pittsburgh
Steelers. But New England walked alone.

The Washington Redskins may be 38-42 since Daniel Snyder became
owner five years ago, but he is the undisputed champion when it
comes to grabbing off-season headlines. (Remember Steve
Spurrier?) At week's end the Redskins had thrown $58 million in
signing bonuses at nine new players (box, page 52). What's more,
the Atlanta Falcons gave 5'10" cornerback Jason Webster a $7
million signing bonus as part of a six-year, $18 million deal,
though he was on the field for just 19% of the San Francisco
49ers' defensive plays last year; the Oakland Raiders decided
nosetackle Ted Washington was worth $8 million over the next two
seasons, though he turns 36 next month and broke a leg in each of
the past two years; and the Seattle Seahawks made defensive end
Grant Wistrom, who had 41 1/2 sacks and no Pro Bowl appearances
in six years with the St. Louis Rams, a $34 million player (over
six years, including $14 million to sign).

Think this was a good year to be a free agent? Just ask
cornerback Antoine Winfield. In five seasons with the Buffalo
Bills, the 5'9" Winfield earned a reputation as a tough, clinging
cover corner, but not much of a playmaker (six career
interceptions). On the first day of free agency Winfield; his
wife, Erniece; and his two agents visited the New York Jets.
Coach Herm Edwards's wife, Lia, showed Erniece homes in upscale
Garden City on Long Island. The couple dined with Jets officials
in Manhattan that night; team owner Woody Johnson met Winfield
for dessert at Tavern on the Green. The next day, last Thursday,
the agents hammered out a six-year, $30 million contract
(including $10 million to sign) and canceled a scheduled visit to
the Minnesota Vikings, who had the cornerback at the top of their
free-agent list. Winfield met with Jets defensive coordinator
Donnie Henderson to discuss when the corner would be in town for
the off-season program. Erniece donned a Jets jersey with
WINFIELD and 26 on the back, wearing it around the team's
complex. However, when the time came to put his name on the
dotted line later that night, Winfield backed away. Seems he was
being flooded with cellphone calls from Vikings coach Mike Tice
and some of his players. Minnesota was a league-high $33 million
under the cap, and a verbal agreement between Winfield and the
Jets wasn't going to stop Tice. He arranged to borrow a buddy's
private jet and flew the Winfield entourage from Long Island to
St. Paul early on Friday. Later that day, Minnesota added $4.8
million to the package the Jets had offered, and just like that,
Winfield was a Viking.

Cap money wasn't burning a hole in every team's pocket. The
Dallas Cowboys, who were $9.5 million under the cap, were waiting
for the right bargains. The Cincinnati Bengals, usually an
afterthought in the free-agent market, spent a reasonable $10.8
million over five years on up-and-comer Nate Webster, a speed
linebacker formerly with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. But the
lessons of New England's free-agent philosophy--give the market a
chance to settle and then go bargain hunting for second-tier
players--were mostly lost last week.

"This time of year 90 percent of the teams think they're one or
two players from the playoffs," Patriots owner Robert Kraft said
last Saturday. "But I've learned football is a business of
quality depth management. The bottom 10 or 15 guys on your roster
are important because in such a physical game, you're going to
need them to play for you at some point. It's like a stock
portfolio; you'd better be good from top to bottom. History has
shown you can't win in football by a quickie solution. You can't
buy NFL titles."

Philadelphia has lost the NFC Championship Game each of the past
three seasons, and the situation there is interesting because
since Andy Reid took over as coach in early 1999, the Eagles had
paid big money only to land free-agent tackle Jon Runyan and to
extend the contract of quarterback Donovan McNabb. This year the
Eagles let two starting cornerbacks (Troy Vincent and Bobby
Taylor), their defensive MVP (linebacker Carlos Emmons) and a
couple of running backs (Duce Staley and Correll Buckhalter) test
the market. Only Buckhalter is likely to return. Yet on the first
day of free agency the tightfisted Eagles gave Kearse $12 million
to sign, $8 million more in roster bonuses over the next three
years and $125,000 a year to work out at the team's facility in
the off-season. They were also trying to swing a deal with the
49ers for Terrell Owens (box, right), who would have been in line
for a signing bonus in the $10 million range himself.

Forget, for a minute, the unrealistic salaries in the last three
years of the Kearse deal, which will undoubtedly be renegotiated
if he remains in the league that long. The Eagles have committed
$35.8 million over five years to a 27-year-old player who has
missed 14 games in the last two years because of a broken foot
and a high ankle sprain (on the same leg) that still nagged him
after he returned for the final two months of last season.

Philly scrutinized two MRIs and a bone-density scan of the foot,
broken early in 2002, and last week had doctors bend and contort
the foot during a thorough examination. They reported that Kearse
is not at major risk for a refracture. The Eagles paid Kearse top
dollar because a quality pass rusher is critical to the success
of defensive coordinator Jimmy Johnson's high-risk scheme, and
they haven't had such a player since Hugh Douglas was a force in
2001. Titans defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz called Kearse
"devastating" to opponents during the first half of last season,
before the sprained ankle. Schwartz said he had no doubts that
Kearse would return to the form he showed in his first three NFL
seasons, when he had 36 sacks in 48 games.

"I know I'll be back playing at that level," Kearse says. "I
guarantee it. If you didn't know I was playing hurt the last two
years, you'd have thought, He's done. But the foot is fine, and
the ankle is too. If I stay healthy, our chances are going to be
super-duper."

There were a lot of ifs amid the frenzy of signings last week.
But players had more than a billion reasons to be smiling.

COLOR PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: DAVID E. KLUTHO (MANNING);CORBIS (MONEYBAGS)COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKESCOLOR PHOTO: ROSS DETTMAN/SPORTSCHROMECOLOR PHOTO: MARK HUMPHREY/APCOLOR PHOTO: SCOTT WATCHER/ICON SMICOLOR PHOTO: BRIAN CLEARLY/ICON SMICOLOR PHOTO: KIRBY LEE/WIREIMAGE.COMCOLOR PHOTO: ICON SMICOLOR PHOTO: WESLEY HITT/ICON SMI

$IGN$ OF THE TIMES
What a week! Peyton Manning got the biggest signing bonus in NFL
history ($34.5 million), but the Colts quarterback wasn't the
only player to strike it rich.

PEYTON MANNING
TEAM: COLTS
DESIGNATED FRANCHISE PLAYER
$98 MILLION, SEVEN YEARS

CHAMP BAILEY
OLD TEAM: REDSKINS
NEW TEAM: BRONCOS
$63 MILLION, SEVEN YEARS

JEVON KEARSE
OLD TEAM: TITANS
NEW TEAM: EAGLES
$62.6 MILLION, EIGHT YEARS

CLINTON PORTIS
OLD TEAM: BRONCOS
NEW TEAM: REDSKINS
$50.5 MILLION, EIGHT YEARS

MARK BRUNELL
OLD TEAM: JAGUARS
NEW TEAM: REDSKINS
$42.8 MILLION, SEVEN YEARS

ANTOINE WINFIELD
OLD TEAM: BILLS
NEW TEAM: VIKINGS
$34.8 MILLION, SIX YEARS

GRANT WISTROM
OLD TEAM: RAMS
NEW TEAM: SEAHAWKS
$34 MILLION, SIX YEARS

CORNELIUS GRIFFIN
OLD TEAM: GIANTS
NEW TEAM: REDSKINS
$30.7 MILLION, SEVEN YEARS