Otto Greule Jr
This time of year is the most bizarre part of being an NFL fan. Fans are left in the lurch by their favorite players, while they covet those about to set their past teams adrift. In a demented version of Schumpeter's "Creative Destruction", the NFL re-invents vast portions of itself every year...
Market forces - or time's cruel advent - cause players to shift teams, or say farewell to the game they've embraced as a way of life. Strange self images of import or worth drive players to set dollar values which don't necessarily jive with the views of the people signing the checks. I can't help but think we fans drive player prices up or down as we banter about how great - or bad - a running back, linebacker, or quarterback is, or was, just months ago.
I often think about the difference between the best players and their less talented peers. Think about the time frame a player is measure within for a moment, and I'm not talking about years here. To me, a running back's greatness is tested every play in the first few seconds. It's not in the first second after they take a hand-off which makes them remarkable. It's in the second - second, when all hell breaks loose, and fight or flight responses battle with the plays drawn up by their coach. "That's right, I'm suppose to hit the hole with the two 350 lbs defensive linemen standing in it... I think I'll try over here..." In the third second, after decisions are made - course set - is where legends are born. It's where the Adrian Petersons of the world break loose from muscled-arms, or spin toward daylight they can't possibly know exists. It's where the giants of the NFL live, in those three seconds, and it's why we remember and covet them this time of year too.
Linemen, tight ends, corner backs and more - all are weighed by time and their current tide. So when a dollar value is mentioned in the same breath as a player we love to watch, I think we twitch just a bit. Our brains have a tough time equating whatever real world dollar value a player has, simply because the numbers seem so incredible. $5 million for this player, and $12 million for that, yet we strive to understand why team loyalty doesn't have greater weight in the decision making process. When all is said and done, we're clueless about player value in the NFL. Like filling out the pieces on a chess board, each position has a differing worth on the football field, which is odd since this is a team game. Steven Jackson doesn't get far without the other ten players on the field, and Eli Manning won't be throwing many passes without his teammates. I'm willing to bet every player knows this too, but they accept the fact some positions earn more money than others. It's the way of the world, where economics and scoring potential drive prices, and I guess I'm fine with that for the most part.
What often gives me pause though, is how - and when - a player is deemed "over the hill". His career done, it's more often than not decided by others. I wonder if Secretariat realized there would be no more races after October 28, 1973 at Woodbine Racecourse in Toronto, Ontario. He won that day, but he was done... In the NFL, I'm not sure a player sees in himself what we see, and vice versa. He sees fans screaming for him to run faster, or block better, all the while knowing he's giving everything he has. I'm sure there's some denial of sorts, and that goes for all of us, doesn't it? I know I don't run like I did when I was 18 years old on a southern California beach. When I walk on a beach nowadays, the resistance of the sand as I walk reminds me of what it used to be like, and I'll shake my head or catch a glimpse of a memory held soundly in my mind's eye. It's just how we are, and life is life for everyone.
Free agency is a time when young players dream of cashing in, while older players wait to hear what value they have left. I wonder how many of us think about that though? Do we just see potential additions or subtractions for our favorite team's rosters, and turn the page as fast as we can on players who've left? Oh, we'll glance at the stat lines of players we used to cheer, and I've little doubt most hope they don't perform as well as when they played for our team of choice. Some will be as good or better than they were, and fans will grouse a bit. But that's OK, because we as fans really shouldn't be the ones who know when a player is done. I like when a player goes out on top. Barry Sanders left the game with fans clambering for more, while Brett Favre hung around too long.
The NFL is filled with players who'll one day have to shift their lives away from the game of football. As they head toward the exit that last time, they'll ponder their younger days. They will hopefully have their financial futures set, or an idea of what they can do for a living. They'll never have to go through free agency again, let alone training camp or pregame warm ups. Their agents will move on to other clients, and swear to team general manager this player or that is the best ever and needs more money. It's the way things are, and will forever be...
But today is about money, and who will choose to opt for interchanging positional parts on their team. The Falcons may try to sign Steven Jackson after cutting Michael Turner, setting a value beyond what many think as intelligent. Player movement between teams becomes surreal at times. Player "name/team" identify shakes me every year. Seeing Mike Wallace is something other than Black and Gold will jiggle my sensibilities for a week or two in the 2013 season. It's the players who I've followed closely - if they change team affiliations - that will trouble me most. As a St. Louis Rams fan, I'm having a bit of a problem seeing Danny Amendola in any colors except Blue and Gold. Green Bay Packers fans will feel the same when they see Greg Jennings in another uniform. This is something we all share each year, and we deal with it in uniquely personal ways.
What started with the "Rozelle Rule", has morphed into what we have today when it comes to free agency. In 1993, the players traded a salary cap for the right to avail themselves of the open market. Contract prices exploded into the stratosphere, with some veteran players earning $100 million contracts. (See: Albert Haynesworth and Mario Williams) NFL fans shook their collective heads in wonder as they dealt with the balancing act of cheering the acquisition of a star player, with the absurd rise in game day ticket prices. Real NFL fans are morphing into off season accountants as they try to understand their team's direction. Is it just me that's noticed how much we talk about the salary cap and a player's value compared to only a decade or so ago?
I guess where I'm going with all this is... Well, I'll just say it: I hate free agency. I dislike every part of it. It's not that I refute a player's right to earn money for himself and family. I get it. What bothers me is the peak and valley life of being an NFL fan. We watch our favored teams build a team over the course of years, then a contract ends and the players slip away to other franchises. We're left with a Twitter-ed thank you from a player for our fan-dom, then "poof", it's onto hoping the team can find a replacement.
The NFL clock ticks away. Between seasons, the seconds pass slowly. We're left to ponder what our teams will look like in the coming season. We'll prognosticate player values, and even enhance viewpoints of worth well beyond a player's actual abilities. Admit it! We see it every year when free agency pops around. Player "X" had a decent season the year before, or has a few good stat lines. We as fans contort these numbers into mythical fits for our teams, as if willing it to be true. It rarely is, but we do it every year.
I almost feel sorry for NFL free agents... Almost... I watch star players of only a few years ago as they sit waiting to see whether they're still considered worthy. I study young stars as they preach to all who'll listen how great they are, as they hope to enhance their value somehow. The most interesting thing to read are in comment threads. Generated by the fans themselves, it's down right funny to see what happens when their teams sign players to big money who they collectively never considered. The not so fun side is to see how fans lament the release of a favored player, and how acceptance is now based on monetary realities for the most part.
Free agency is now the Ides of March for NFL fans. When a star player leaves their team for the "cha-ching" of greener pastures, fans will feel betrayal. "Et tu, Brute?" will pass through a few people's minds, while other will be looking onward to who a team's general manager will counter with in free agency or the NFL Draft. It's what we do. We'll live in the moments splashed before us when Twitter announces a 5 year deal for $700 ka-jillion, with $8.57 of it guaranteed. NFL math being NFL math, we'll shrug and look to the NFL Draft as the next hurdle toward the 2013 season.
I'll leave you with a thought/question, because it's become something I wonder about... When you look at your team, then others around the NFL after the season ends, how many look at the team's cap space numbers and envy those with massive amounts of money to spend, even though the teams were kind of dismal in the prior season? Now consider what you used to think about after a season if you were a fan two or more decades ago... Times have changed, eh?