In case you missed it earlier this year, an interesting new rule change was approved during the 2012 NFL Fall Meeting. No, the Competition Committee didn't finally cave in to the overwhelming demand that the stylish and function punter one-bar facemasks be brought back. That will sadly have to wait another year. I'm talking about the new rule that sanctions a three-day window that allows teams to contact free agents prior to the actual free agency period.
In years past, teams were strictly forbidden from having any contact with players with expiring contracts prior to the start of the new league year. To do so would constitute tampering, a heinous crime punishable by the most severe of all sentences: the loss of a seventh round draft pick.
So you can see why teams would be loathe to commit such a crime against football humanity.
But wait, do you really intend to tell me that tampering--a highly subjective and incredibly-easy-to-get-away-with crime--is a widely accepted activity that goes on right under the NFL's nose? Indeed so. Anyone with half a brain can figure out that the blockbuster free agent deals that are completed in the initial stages of the signing period didn't miraculously get thrown together in a matter of hours. Those contracts are the result of informal meetings between teams and agents held clandestinely in the dark alleys of events like the scouting combine. It's become such a regular practice that even some players, who have forgotten that tampering is still a punishable offense, let fly that they are in talks with other teams. Just last week, the AFC North's own Josh Cribbs let the cat out of the bag, forcing his agent to backpedal faster than Leon Sandcastle covering "Bullet Bob" Hayes.
So, in the face of such realities, the NFL finally agreed to a form of legalized tampering. This year, starting on March 9th, teams will be allowed to begin negotiating with the agents of players set to become free agents. The benefits of this move have already been felt at the scouting combine, where the urgency to conduct covert negotiations has been replaced by a more relaxed approach.
"It's no longer this mad dash where you have to try to get a deal in place, illegally or under the radar, in preparation for free agency starting right away," another agent said. "Those are the differences and benefits that I've seen."
Moreover, the move has also led teams to adopt a new strategy in dealing with free agent players. The three-day window allows players to test the market at a slower pace, resulting in a more accurate sense of their actual worth.
"It will be interesting because I think with the ability to talk with the free agents before it actually happens, you'll probably get a truer, maybe, idea of where the market is going to be on that player because that agent wants to have the ability to talk to other teams and he'll have a sense of potentially where his market is going to be, and you know its legal what he's telling you," Minnesota Vikings general manager Rick Spielman said.
In light of this new information, the Bengals' decision to not franchise Andre Smith actually makes a lot of sense. By letting Smith hit the open market for three days, the Bengals will have a better picture of his value. They are essentially letting other teams do their work for them, while they watch it unfold like an evil genius stroking a Siamese cat. With three days at their disposal, teams are unlikely to panic and offer up an inflated contract, which means Smith and his agent hold less power over the Bengals at the negotiating table.
This new rule change won't drastically alter the face of the NFL, but it will hopefully bring a measure of sensibility to a process that is usually fraught with hasty decisions and foolishly spent money.