Lately around Turf Show Times, I've seen a lot of people making fun of the Rams fans who want Snead to improve the team through agency this year, and I've seen a lot of people bring up how practically none of the Rams free agent signings of the last few years have panned out. People keep mentioning how you always have to overpay in free agency, and how they're happy to just build through the draft.
However, I see the Rams poor results in free agency over the last few years as much more of a comment on the person making the signings for the Rams, GM Les Snead, than free agency itself. In my opinion, free agency is a huge opportunity to improve your team when you know what you’re doing. It’s the one and only mechanism a GM has where he can add NFL proven players without giving up any assets in return. It's called "free" agency for a reason, because it costs nothing but cap space (and all players cost cap space). The difference is drafted players also cost draft picks, and trading for players also costs assets. Free agency is the one place you can add top NFL players without giving up anything but money, and that makes it a very important tool for any GM.
The problem has been that Snead makes bad signings. Good teams with good GMs like the Seahawks and 49ers have had great success in free agency and the trade market. In fact, you can even trace the results in the NFC West last season back to free agency and the trade market preceding the season.
The 49ers lost their #1 wide receiver to injury for most of the season, which was a worse stroke of luck than the Rams suffered all season until Bradford got injured. But even early in the season when Crabtree was still injured and Bradford was healthy, the 49ers still kicked the Rams ass and were ahead of the Rams in the standings because they made a fantastic trade for Anquan Boldin in the offseason, and the Rams didn’t. We could have gotten Boldin and fixed most of our receiving woes (he would be the perfect ying to Tavon’s yang), but we were outsmarted and outmaneuvered, and the 49ers got him instead. After losing our #1 wide receiver in Danny Amendola, who played a huge roll in the success we had against the 49ers the season before when he was healthy, and arguably our #2 WR as well in Brandon Gibson, Snead decided to replace them with nothing but extremely undersized rookies in Tavon Austin and (to a lesser extent) Stedman Bailey. The results were predictable.
One can always make the excuse that the 49ers started out ahead of us anyway with more talent, but that's not necessarily true. If the 49ers were really that far ahead of us going into the 2013 offseason, we wouldn't have been able to go 1-0-1 against them the season before.
And that was when they still had Michael Crabtree. Would you really have seen the 49ers as out of our reach if they'd gone into the season with Jonathan Baldin and an injured Mario Manningham as their top receivers? In truth the entire season could have gone differently had we simply ponied up a 4th round pick for Anquan Boldin, and in the process killed two birds with one stone by solving our own possession WR problem while also preventing our biggest competition from filling one of the final holes on their road to becoming nearly uncatchable for us.
But we didn't trade for Boldin, or fill the hole Amendola and Gibson left at all, one that even existed to an extent while we still had them both. At the end of the day, the 49ers used the offseason and free agency to improve the team with the right player, and we didn’t. We overpaid for average players instead who didn’t help us. They made smart moves that helped their team immensely, and we made stupid moves, wasting what cap space we had left, moves that not only didn't help us at all last season, but that are now in part preventing us from signing more players that could help us this season. It's just that simple. Is this the fault of free agency, that's its inherently a bad value proposition as some Rams fans have been arguing as an excuse for Les Snead's inactivity so far, or is it the fault of Les Snead? Because if it's really just such an inherently bad-value proposition, I find it difficult to understand how so many other GMs are finding ways to get huge value out of it.
Which brings me to the Seahawks. They, likewise, used free agency and the trade market to their benefit prior to last season. First they traded for Percy Harvin who is an amazing talent when healthy, which he demonstrated during the Superbowl, and then they also signed Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril, both of whom were excellent all season long. Just like the 49ers’ offseason additions, the Seahawks' acquisitions made a huge impact for their team. Our additions did not.
Even the lowly Cardinals improved their offense by trading for Carson Palmer, and even though everyone thought their defense was mostly set before the season started, especially their front seven, much like how everyone thought the Rams defense was mostly built before the season as well, the Cardinals decided to keep adding to their defense anyway, unsatisfied to simply use the strides they'd taken the season before as an excuse not to keep supplementing their defensive ranks. We took the opposite approach and stood pat. The Cardinals added Dansby and Abraham, and both of them had excellent seasons, which helped to keep the Cardinals defense on its upward trajectory from the season before. Meanwhile Les Snead didn’t add any established defensive free agents to our defense, somehow thinking we’d be just fine with two rookie safeties who weren’t even 1st round picks. The end result was our defense took a giant step back.
In total, all four NFC West teams used free agency and the trade market last offseason, but the only one of those teams whose fan base is saying things like "you always have to overpay in free agency" and "it just ends badly with bad contracts and overpaid players" is us.
Don't all the people complaining about free agency and rooting on our team's inactivity in the face of mediocrity understand that? 49ers fans, Seahawks fans, Cardinals fans, all of them are saying that free agency is great. They're saying things like, "I hope our GM signs some more big ticket free agents this year, or at least as much as our cap room will allow without losing our key players, because free agency is great, and there are tons of great players available for fair value, and the free agents we signed last offseason really helped us." They're not being as corny about it, but I'm sure that's what they're thinking now. And why wouldn't they be? Their GMs did extremely well last offseason. We’re the only fan base whining about how free agent signings never works out. And why is that? That's the one those people are right about. It never does work out for us because we’re the only ones with a GM who year after year signs the wrong free agents and overpays. One of many mistakes he keeps making is that he keeps bringing in old players Jeff Fisher used to coach back when they were younger, better, and cheaper, instead of signing the best players today regardless of whether Jeff Fisher has met their kids or whatnot. Since when was emotional proximity to Jeff Fisher the number one indicator of success in the NFL, as opposed to like, I don't know, who the most talented, most productive players are? That’s the oldest mistake in the book, picking people you know over people who are good, and yet here we have the GM of our city's professional football team, at the very highest level, making these most basic mistakes.
So what conclusion am I left to make when everyone in our division besides us has great success signing players through free agency than that the problem is not one inherent with free agency itself, but with us? Shakespeare once wrote something, I'm not sure I remember it exactly, but I'm pretty sure this is it: "The fault, dear Les Snead, is not in our stars, but with ourselves," and I think It’s time we all took old Willy to heart. Bill Walsh used free agency to great effect. The Cowboys did as well during their mini-dynasty. The defending NBA Champions Miami Heat sure did, although that's an outlier since there is no Lebron James equivalent available in the NFL's free agent pool this year or most others. But there are countless examples where GMs who actually have a natural eye for talent evaluation, and a natural gift for recruiting and asset management, have used free agency to great effect in building championship teams. Pete Carroll and the Seahawks did it last year, and so did the 49ers and Cardinals even if it didn't result in a Superbowl for either of them. Every team in our division had great success in free agency or the trade market last offseason but us. And it goes beyond that. Every team in our division added at least one Pro Bowl calibre player in free agency or the trade market but us (think Harvin, Boldin, Bennett, Dansby).
So it's really time to stop looking at free agency as the problem, or the "high prices" as the problem, and start looking at the fact we have the only GM out of four in the NFC West who is incapable of making a smart free agent signing as the real problem. I honestly think what's happened is that we as Rams fans got so used to absolute incompetence at all levels of the franchise over the last decade, that we now mistake the professionalism of Les Snead and Jeff Fisher, and the fact that they at least have somewhat of a plan, with actual elite "skill" and aptitude at executing their plan. Just because you have a plan and you act professionally does not mean you have an elite eye for talent, which is what our competitors Pete Carroll and Jim Harbaugh seem to have, and what we need in our GM if we're going to match them. To use a simplified example, if teams that go 0-16 are run by GMs who make nothing but mistakes, and teams that go 16-0 are run by GMs who make nothing but perfect decisions and hit home runs, we as Rams fans got so used to the "all mistakes" 0-16 type of management that now that we have an 8-8, one-step-forward-one-step-back type of GM, we mistake him for a 16-0, or at least 13-3 type of GM. But a 13+ win level of GM (in this analogy) would not have struck out in the free agent market every single offseason since he took over. A top GM would not have missed on Alshon Jeffery and so many others in the draft while his competitors mined the core players of a Superbowl winning team in the late rounds of the draft (Richard Sherman, Bobby Wagner, Russell Wilson, and so on).
So I truly believe that's the phenomenon that is happening among Rams fans right now. You can't go anywhere on TFT without seeing "In Snead we trust." Why? What other fan base would be proclaiming their trust, almost hero-worship-like, for a GM who has not led the team to one winning season yet, or made one grade-A acquisition even? We've been so conditioned to expect absolute incompetence as Rams fans over the last decade, that we now mistake mere professionalism for actual quality and insight.
Les Snead has shown he's a professional with a plan, but it's becoming more and more clear every offseason that he lacks the elite GM "skills" if you will, which include having a natural eye for identifying overlooked talent, good asset management and decision-making, drafting both early and late in the draft, recruiting, and so forth, to build a Superbowl winner and compete with the Seahawks and 49ers coaching and executive staffs, who do both appear to have those skills at or near an elite level.