Teddy Ballgame: Packers’ Ted Thompson wary of free agents for a good reason
By Tyler Dunne, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
~GREEN BAY – This time of year, he can sympathize with Ted Thompson. Bill Polian’s been there, heard that.
When Polian called the shots with the Indianapolis Colts, the pressure to sign free agents ran high each spring. From fans. From the media. From people in house. Rather than cave, he remained steadfast. The NFL draft. His franchise quarterback. That was the emphasis.
So to those around here irritated that the Packers general manager Ted Thompson has done zilch through free agency, Polian chuckles.
“Fans in Green Bay should not go crazy,” Polian said. “They should applaud Ted.”
Polian might be right. He says Thompson is doing the right thing by emphasizing extensions to Aaron Rodgers, Clay Matthews and B.J. Raji above signing any player from any other team. A rewind look at last year’s free-agent class supports Thompson’s propensity to tiptoe through March.
Too often, spending backfires – particularly lately.
While some of last year’s free agents shouldn’t completely be written off quite yet, 2012 exposed more panic signings, more regrets and more disappointments at each position.
This, of course, came one year after the Philadelphia Eagles’ unmitigated “Dream Team” disaster.
No, Thompson shouldn’t completely be off the hook from critics. One or two cost-efficient signings – a Chris Canty, a Cullen Jenkins, a short-term fix at a position of need – might certainly help. But as far as spending big in general goes, Thompson’s restraint keeps the Packers out of trouble. Over a six-year study, Polian determined that 50% of free-agent signings panned out. Or, as he put it, the same rate as (much) cheaper, smart NFL draft picks.
Last year was full of mistakes and growing regrets in the NFL.
“Without question they were mistakes,” Polian said. “And no one recognizes that now as we in the media recklessly report all of these free-agent signings. All of which are, of course, going to change the fortunes of the downtrodden 180 degrees. We even go as far -as stupidly – as to pick off-season winners. That’s an oxymoron. That’s shame on us. Shame on fans for buying into it.”
Begin in the trenches.
San Diego signed Jared Gaither to a four-year, $24.6 million deal (13.5 million guaranteed), and the offensive tackle reportedly milked injuries before landing on injured reserve. One veteran told the San Diego Union-Tribune, “I can’t even look him in the eye” after Gaither sat out with a back issue.” Gaither made $2.25 million for each game he played in last season. No decision has been made on him yet this off-season. As much as the Chargers might want to release Gaither, it’d also be a $6 million hit. This month, new general manager Tom Telesco said no decision has been made.
Right tackle Eric Winston, who signed a four-year, $22 million deal with Kansas City, was released. Steve Hutchinson signed a three-year, $16 million deal ($6 million guaranteed) with the Tennessee Titans, regressed sharply at 35 years old and retired. One year later, the Titans paid $46.8 million/six years for Andy Levitre. Tampa Bay’s Carl Nicks might be a long-term answer, but the 2011 all-pro landed on injured reserve with a toe injury. St. Louis Rams center Scott Wells also finished on IR. After signing at four years, $24 million ($13 million guaranteed), Wells has undergone three surgeries in seven months.
The Packers missed Wells in 2012. And he very well could rebound in 2013, but the injuries are troublesome for a 32-year-old center.
Then, there’s the defensive line. At six years, $96 million ($50 million guaranteed), if Mario Williams is anything short of a combination between Reggie White and Deacon Jones, it’s probably a letdown for Buffalo. To his credit, Williams rebounded from a sloppy start to finish with 10.5 sacks. Still, 14 players had more sacks than him. Williams was brought in to trigger cosmic change, to have a White-like influence on other free agents. One year in, the Bills’ defense allowed 146 rushing yards per game, 31st in the NFL.
Green Bay expressed some early interest in Kendall Langford but wouldn’t play ball. If Thompson deserves some flak, it should be at defensive end where he’s been reluctant to spend. The four-year, $24 million deal Langford signed with St. Louis is the going rate for such a 6-foot-6, 295-pound anchor of a 3-4 DE.
Then again, Thompson deserves props for not biting on pass rushers. A disruptive 3-4 outside linebacker was the team’s No. 1 need last off-season, but the GM didn’t get into any foolish bidding wars. Kamerion Wimbley, a 3-4 OLB his whole career, signed with the Tennessee Titans at $35 million over five years ($13.5 million guaranteed). And at defensive end, he struggled.
The Titans swung, missed on Williams and reached for Wimbley. In 2012, the 6-foot-4, 255-pounder had 30 tackles and six sacks.
This is the nature of free agency. Teams overspend on second-tier players. Players like Wimbley, who averaged seven sacks per season, can be overvalued. That’s why it was always easy for Polian to stay on the sideline.
“First of all, keep in mind, that the vast majority of players on the market now are not ‘A’ players,” Polian said. “The marquee players, the guys that got all the money in this year’s free agency extravaganza, were really what we call ‘A-minus’ players. The ‘A’ players never get to free agency. They’re either franchised or signed long term by their clubs. So this is the level below real difference-makers.”
There was one A-plus free agent last year: Peyton Manning. He appears to be worth every penny in Denver. Tampa Bay’s Vincent Jackson (five years, $55 million) and St. Louis’ Cortland Finnegan (five years, $50 million) made a first-year splash, too.
Elsewhere, it’s not pretty.
At wide receiver, there’s also Laurent Robinson and Robert Meachem. Robinson reached a five-year, $32.5 million deal with Jacksonville. And after four concussions in one season, he was released. Robinson’s football career in general is now at a crossroads. In San Diego, the Chargers lost Jackson and rushed into a four-year, $25.9 million deal for Robert Meachem. Last season, Meachem was a magnificent failure, catching 14 passes for 207 yards.
The New Orleans Saints needed help on defense. Badly. So the Saints forked over five-year contracts to a pair of linebackers – Curtis Lofton at $27.5 million, David Hawthorne at $19 million. And in 2012, the Saints allowed more yards than any team in NFL history. Two days after his reinstatement, Sean Payton fired defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo.
Two outside linebackers – San Diego’s Jarret Johnson and Buffalo’s Mark Anderson – were likely overpaid at $19.5 million over four years.
And behind them, the verdict’s still out on players. Cornerback Brandon Carr signed with the Dallas Cowboys at five years, $50.1 million contract ($25 million guaranteed). The Cowboys’ secondary remained shaky, finishing 29th in opponent passer rating (94.7). Carr’s $14.3 million base salary this season was reduced to $715,000, though the difference was converted to bonus money spread out through his deal. And after signing a five-year, $38 million deal with Tampa Bay, cornerback Eric Wright was suspended for using performance-enhancing drugs, which wiped out his 2013 guaranteed money. The Bucs now could release the disappointing cornerback without a penalty.
The salary cap is not rising. Thus, “dead money” is becoming a bigger issue for teams, Polian said. In years past, it was easier for teams to roll the dice on a player because GMs knew the cap would continue to rise.
“Now it’s decreasing in real dollars every year,” Polian said. “So dead money now is really a tough issue for clubs to deal with. And your top guys still get the big contracts. There’s no regression in their contracts at all.”
Yet many general managers continue to spend. And spend. The reasoning is simple.
Many bosses, Polian says, feel they need to appease the masses.
“The marketing people say, ‘We have to do something. We can’t be perceived as not trying to win,'” Polian said. “Different GMs try different philosophies. Let’s load up on midpriced free agents, we’ll play money ball and hope we hit on a few. Others say, ‘We need that big, marquee signing. We’re one or two players away.’ None of it really adds out.
“Building a team is a long-term process. It requires difference-makers at various positions. And you only get those through the draft. Miami might get one in (Mike) Wallace. You can argue about the money. But in free agency, the money is what it is. But how many other difference-makers are out there, really? You’ve got difference-makers who are coming up, so you have to sign them.”
That’s precisely what the Packers have in Rodgers, Matthews and Raji. Green Bay might pay for not being more aggressive. A piece here or there could help. By standing pat, the pressure on young players rises.
Big picture, however, Polian praises Thompson for showing restraint. It’s impossible for any Super Bowl team to keep its core together long term. The Baltimore Ravens learned that quickly. But by resisting the urge to spend on other teams’ free agents in March, a team can keep its own “A” players around.
With the Colts, Polian did this. And with the Packers, Thompson is attempting to do the same.
Said Polian, “Teams that draft well – and Ted has drafted exceptionally well in his time – always have to re-sign their own. Why would you let good players go?”