Only six days ago, the free-agent market opened. One of the biggest classes of veteran players, with some of the biggest names, landed on the market.
Apart from the Peyton chase, much of the dust has settled.
And so now we’re required by the laws of football analysis to tell you who won and who lost, even though we won’t really know the answer until they start playing games.
Which, you know, will feature winners and losers.
1. Winner: Eagles.
Last year, with a compressed offseason and a new defensive coordinator who had been an offensive line coach for 14 prior seasons, the Eagles foolishly embarked on a spending spree, bringing in a bunch of big-name players and setting the stage for a Wonderlic pick-sixer blurting out the dreaded “Dream Team” label.
Apart from the challenge of getting a bunch of new employees on the same page quickly, the move surely caused some of the men already under contract to wonder why they weren’t getting a share of the free-agency windfall.
This year, the Eagles have focused on taking care of their own, which is a much better way to ensure that a true spirit of team will take over the locker room.
Perhaps most importantly, the Eagles have set the stage for receiver DeSean Jackson to turn back the clock to 2009, when he wasn’t concerned about staying healthy and/or getting paid. The Eagles have addressed those concerns via a long-term deal that, in comparison to some of the too-heavy contracts given to lesser receivers and in light of Jackson’s rocky recent history, looks like a win-win.
Maybe that means “win” will be a more common term in the term’s vocabulary this season.
2. Winner: Packers.
G.M. Ted Thompson rarely makes a big splash in free agency. The biggest exception came in 2006, when at the very public urging of quarterback Brett Favre the team signed cornerback Charles Woodson.
Other than that, the Packers under Thompson take a very conservative approach, building through the draft and using free agency on a limited basis, with low-cost talent addressing specific needs.
It’s not sexy this time of year. But this isn’t the time of year when championships are won. Unlike downtrodden organizations (such as the Packers themselves in 1993, when Reggie White chose Green Bay from a long list of suitors), the Packers don’t need to do anything to fire up the fan base or breathe life into the franchise.
It’s the right approach for this specific team. The Packers have won, once again, by doing nothing.
3. Winner: Bills.
Speaking of downtrodden organizations, no team needed a big-ticket free agent like Mario Williams more than the Bills. And they went all in, pulling out all the stops and persuading Williams to spend two nights in town and eventually getting the job done.
It gives Buffalo and the Bills a major boost, igniting intense local interest and legitimate national attention. It also makes good football sense; defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt now has a player around whom the team’s new 4-3 defense can be built.
It wasn’t cheap, and it may prove to be a mistake. But it was a risk the Bills needed to make if they ever hope to become relevant again.
4. Winner: Patriots.
At first, it looked like the Pats would follow the Pack’s “closed for business” approach to the early days of free agency. But with needs at receiver, they’ve added a player in Brandon Lloyd who’ll have a far bigger impact than Chad Ochocinco (then again, the bar is low), and they’ve given Wes Welker a little cause for concern by landing a candidate to play slot receiver in Anthony Gonzalez.
They’ve also addressed an area of need on defense, adding the once-promising Trevor Scott to the rotation of recently underachieving pass rushers.
The Pats could still use a true deep threat to clear out all the underneath traffic. But even if Lloyd is the biggest addition, the team that nearly won the Super Bowl in 2011 will be contending again in 2012.
5. Winner: Chiefs.
Yes, they were denied admission to the Peyton chase. But let’s not forget that, despite all the dysfunction and key injuries of 2011, the Chiefs weren’t far away from winning the weakest division in the NFL.
Unlike most teams, the Chiefs found bargains even before the market softened, adding running back Peyton Hillis to a one-year, fire-under-butt-lighting $2.6 million contract, tight end Kevin Boss for three years and $9 million, right tackle Eric Winston, and backup quarterback Brady Quinn.
Hillis and Quinn played for offensive coordinator Brian Daboll in Cleveland, adding some familiarity to the new Romeo Crennel regime. Winston addresses a key area of need, and Boss gives the Chiefs a second pass-catching tight end, which apparently is now a mandatory requirement for any team that hopes to be highly successful in the passing game.
Next up, don’t be surprised if Crennel lures another former Brown to Kansas City, with linebacker Kamerion Wimbley on the market.
6. Loser: Dolphins.
Peter King of SI.com chronicles a decade of bizarre personnel moves by the Dolphins, but the organization is now developing another troubling reputation: anyone with options won’t opt for Miami.
It began last year with owner Stephen Ross clumsily pursuing coach Jim Harbaugh, which painted a vivid picture of disloyalty to coach Tony Sparano. It continued in 2012 when Ross tried, and failed, to lure coach Jeff Fisher to town. And it spread to the ranks of players in 2012, with Peyton Manning showing tepid interest at best in joining the team (even though some believed it was a done deal that he’d be a Dolphin). Then, Matt Flynn’s decision to play for the Seahawks instead of former Packers coordinator/Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin did more than raise eyebrows — especially when followed by Steelers safety Ryan Clark proclaiming that “no one” wants to play for the Dolphins.
It’s possible that Philbin simply wasn’t all that interested in Flynn, and that Philbin knows Flynn’s pair of high-end performances (one in 2010 and one in 2011) won’t translate to being an effective week-in, week-out starter, once opposing defenses have a chance to study enough of his film and figure him out. If that’s the case, the Dolphins shouldn’t have even brought him to town for a visit. By doing so, it creates the impression that they wanted him — and that yet again they failed to get their man.
Correct or not, there’s now a perception that no one of significant consequence wants to work for the Dolphins. And the harder Ross tries to turn the page by making a “big splash,” the more likely it is that he’ll continue to swing the bat and hit himself in the face with it.
7. Loser: Saints.
With Bountygate lingering, the Saints had even more reason to work out a new, long-term deal with Drew Brees. And yet the Saints continue to fail to find a middle ground with their franchise quarterback.
There’s a chance Brees simply wants too much. But here’s the problem: He deserves it. The best NFL quarterback of the last six years, if he wants to max out his contract, then he should.
And as to the idea that he needs to leave some money behind so that the Saints can field a competitive team given the salary cap, here’s one important point: It never stopped the Colts from being competitive when Peyton got every last dollar he could.
More importantly, they’ve yet to do anything to address needs on defense, which could become even more significant once the suspensions come down.
8. Loser: Vikings.
Good teams can afford to sit on the sidelines in the early days of free agency. The Vikings are not a good team.
With plenty of cap room and a tenuous stadium situation and a fan base that may choose to do things other than attend or watch Vikings games this season, the franchise needed to make a splash. Not a Mario Williams cannonball; but something more significant than a John Carlson dog paddle.
It’s doesn’t mean the Vikings should go hog wild. But they should have made it a priority to land one big-name player, even if it meant overpaying a little.
The offseason is about selling hope. Teams like the Packers, Patriots, Giants, and Steelers can afford to do nothing in March; the hope is implied. For teams that have fallen, March is an opportunity to prove that they’re at least trying to get up.
9. Loser: Ravens.
To make matters worse, guard Evan Mathis opted to stay with the Dream Team in lieu of joining a team that, on paper, seems to have a better chance of making its dreams come true.
Then there’s the lingering possibility that someone will make restricted free agent cornerback Lardarius Webb an offer the Ravens can’t afford to match.
Though there’s a long way to go before September, it’s hard not to think that, at least for now, the Ravens have faded a bit closer to the pack in the AFC.
10. Loser: Bengals.
By capping 2011 with an unlikely playoff berth, it can’t be said that Paul Brown Stadium routinely was less than full due to the fact that the team was bad. Instead, the fan base is fed up with owner Mike Brown.
Even though the team is laying a solid foundation of youthful players, Bengals fans think it’s not because of Brown but in spite of him. And with a huge cap surplus for 2012, the Bengals haven’t done much to persuade anyone that they’re willing to spend.
The good news is that, after several days of inaction, the Bengals have gone bargain shopping, adding offensive lineman Travelle Wharton and defensive back Jason Allen. They also managed to keep free-agent safety Reggie Nelson, who had attracted an offer from the Jets.
But this is the one playoff team that needed to at least chase a marquee free agent. They didn’t have to land the guy. Mike Brown simply needed to show that he’s willing to move from the nickel slot machines over to the no-limit poker table.
The Bengals may once again be competitive in 2012. The fans won’t embrace the franchise they way they should, however, until they see large chunks of their money being reinvested in players who can help the team compete for a championship.
11. Loser/Winner: Redskins.
I know. I said there would be only 10 winners and losers. But I didn’t say anything about the team that lands in both categories.
The $36 million in unexpected cap charges for treated the uncapped year too literally makes the Redskins losers. Their refusal to shrug their shoulders when they did nothing wrong makes them winners.
Their ability to still find a way to spend money makes them winners. Their decision to give so much money to the likes of Pierre Garçon and Josh Morgan makes them losers.
Their willingness to move up to No. 2 and get the franchise’s first true franchise quarterback since Sammy Baugh possibly will make them winners. Mortgaging the future by giving up three first-round draft picks and a second-round pick possibly will make them losers.