This is arguably one of the most exciting times of the post-season for NFL fans. The weeks leading up to free-agency are loaded with player interviews, where players express their desire to get payola, or finish out their careers with a winner. Players are cut and cap space articles run rampant. Market prices for players are speculated on and every club in the league has fans making the case for XYZ player for their team.
The promise of free agency is that with some key moves, your team will become dramatically better - maybe even a contender.
Here's the problem: It's rarely ever true.
Just yesterday, I watched as several NFL analysts debated and argued over what team "won" the first day of free agency. Most seemed to think the Miami Dolphins had the best day overall. And while the moves look good on paper, it reminded me of this same time a couple of years ago when the Philadelphia Eagles were proclaimed to have "won" free agency. Maybe we should create a trophy for the free agency winner - the Hershel Walker award maybe?
Anyhow, as few people no doubt remember, the "Dream Team" Eagles may have won free agency but it ultimately did not translate onto the field. The team never even got to the playoffs. Their second season got their head coach fired. So much for that free agency "win."
Falcons fans needn't look any further than some of our experiences to see the folly of thinking free agency cures all ills. Ray Edwards was not the player we hoped for (though we thankfully did not overpay for him) and even Dunta Robinson never quite lived up to his contract size, though he improved a good bit last year.
But the question should be why? Why didn't signing Mario Williams make the Bills D dominant in one season? Why didn't the Eagles field an unstoppable team two years ago? Below are some of my thoughts on what it really takes to create a winning football team.
We hear this word thrown around a good bit, but it is hugely important and under-appreciated. And it's not just true for football. Any group of people who come together for a common goal must have good chemistry.
Take, for instance, the band U2. They're arguably one of the most successful bands ever - especially considering their worldwide influence. But if you were to breakdown the individual components of that band, you'll find that none of those four guys is particularly "great" at what he does. Bono isn't a great singer and the Edge is not a great guitar player. But together, they've had amazing success - despite not having the best talent. What they do have is chemistry.
Here's the thing about chemistry: it takes time to develop. There are few instances where it develops quickly. Time is a key ingredient in this mix, and the shortcuts never seem to be authentic. Look no further than the Atlanta Falcons offense. Matt Ryan obviously has amazing chemistry with Tony G and Roddy. He often puts the ball in the air before they've even finished their route. Ask any defender what is one of the hardest things to defend, and they'll tell you it is timing routes. Timing routes are built on a foundation of good chemistry.
But it translates to the other side of the ball as well. Chemistry allows a corner to break on a route sooner because he knows his safety has got his back and saw the same thing he did. Chemistry allows a defensive line to shift their gaps together when they see an audible called and they all anticipate the same play. These things are often far more important than speed, ability and talent. When a team truly plays as a team, it becomes far more difficult to target one player to expose.
It may sound cliched, but the reality is that teams that play together will always outperform teams that play as a bunch of individuals.
Scheme Fitting Players
I've seen people question what the difference is between a 4-3 DE and a 3-4 OLB. And while many of us can list physical traits (4-3 DE is normally bigger while 3-4 OLB is normally faster), what we don't often account for is the player himself. Some guys play better with their hands in the dirt, while others excel when rushing from an upright position. Every now and then, you'll find guys who excel at both - but they seem to be harder to find.
And yet, we'll often see teams go after a free agent that doesn't necessarily fit their existing scheme. They'll grab that 3-4 OLB but line him up as a 4-3 DE. Now, while some would rightly argue that this is poor decision making during free agency, I'd say that building through free agency is the driver for making these kinds of decisions.
When you're building through free agency, you are automatically limited to who is on the market. No matter how big free agency is, the pool of talent is always smaller than in the draft. So, if you're biggest need is a pass rusher, but there are only a handful in free agency, your club may be inclined to sign a guy because he has 10 sacks - ignoring whether he did that as a stand-up or hands-down rusher.
Case in point: Nnamdi Asomugha. Two years ago, he was widely considered one of the best corners in the league. When teams played Oakland, they rarely threw to his side of the field. However, he also played press coverage for the Raiders - something he excelled at. When the Eagles brought him in, he was asked to play in more of a zone coverage system. Needless to say, the last two years have not been stellar for this player - and he was recently cut as a result.
To win in the NFL, you need to know what it is you want to do - then find the players that do those things best. Grabbing the best free agent at any position is no guarantee, especially when you grab guys that may not fit your scheme.
This last point shouldn't be overlooked. Having players who listen to their coaches is critical. It seems ridiculous to emphasize this as a differentiator, but it truly is. How many times have we seen incredibly talented players flame out of the league because they couldn't take instruction?
Why do I bring this up in the light of free agency? If you're bringing someone in as a free agent, there's a pretty good chance he's had success with another club. He's accumulated his stats by doing things a certain way - that's what has enticed you to sign him in the first place. You're signing a veteran - someone who has had success and is "worth the money." These things will often make these players less coachable.
That's not to say that all free agents are like this - that's not a fair generalization. But the expectation is that you're bringing in a guy that can immediately contribute - being coachable is not at the top of the list of things you typically look for.
But that coach-ability can be critical. If you need your pass rusher to slide inside more than he's used to because of weaknesses at your DT position, it could be a rough road getting your guy there. Or, if you bring in a strong-armed QB whose mechanics are poor, you may find it difficult to adjust his footwork - which could be critical in your timing-based offense.
Whatever players you do have - whether free agents or drafted - your coaches need to be able to get through to them and get them to respond.
So, as this offseason progresses forward, it will be easy to get discouraged when your team doesn't make a big splash in the free agent waters. Analysts will begin predicting how the free agency "winner" will be a favorite going into the season. They'll declare that the teams that didn't have any big signings will struggle to keep up with the new power houses. And more often than not - they'll be wrong. NFL history has shown that keeping your guys and building through the draft is a path for better long-term success.