Free Agency begins on Tuesday and Bengals fans are already sitting on the edge of their seats, dreaming of what players Uncle Mike may (or may not) put in Bengal stripes this offseason. Before free agency begins, let me proactively bring the voice of reason to Bengal Nation.
Mark my word, by late Tuesday/early Wednesday Bengals fans everywhere will be collectively losing their minds and cursing Uncle Mike about how "quiet" the Bengals are being in free agency - and believe me, the Bengals will be quiet out of the gate, unlike most fans. It's guaranteed to happen and I am here to help you control your blood pressure through the process.
Successful franchises navigate the free agency market far differently than unsuccessful franchises, and whether we want to admit it or not, the Bengals have become a well-run organization when it comes to free agency and the draft. They don't overspend and they take the best player available. So, when the free agency "start gun" goes off on Tuesday, keep the following in mind:
1) Good Teams Sit back and Watch the Initial Buying Spree Happen
The first day of NFL free agency is like Black Friday in the NFL...well, except rather than a frenzy for good money saving deals, organizations rush to sign overpriced players that will more than likely under produce. Seems backwards doesn't it? Don't believe me? How did that Mike Wallace signing work for the Dolphins in 2013? Or Dannell Ellerbe, Philip Wheeler, etc? According to the "Experts," the "March Dolphins" and their shiny new $121M toys were going to overtake the Patriots...at least until football started to be played. How about the 2011 Philadelphia Eagles (Asomugha)? Or the Redskins signing of Pierre Garcon (2012) or Albert Haynesworth (2009)? The list goes on and on.
2) Buyer Beware
Other than the extremely rare occasion (Brees or Manning), teams rarely allow really good players hit the free agency market, and in the rare chance they do, it is either because the player is greatly over-valuing himself or has injury concerns. In Brees's and Manning's cases, they both had career threatening injury concerns AND their teams already had franchise quarterbacks ready to take their place (Rivers and Luck). So, when a big name hits the market, before a team signs said player, they better do a deep evaluation of why his former team has "allowed" him to become a free agent.
3) Don't Over Pay for Past Production
If you are going to pay big money in free agency - and that is a big IF - it is key to spend it for future production, not past production. Wrapping up big money in older players - especially older players of another team - is a mistake. A good rule of thumb is not to wrap up big money in years after a player turns 32 (unless it is a QB).
4) Sign Fits, Not Names
In football, more than any other sport, a player can truly be a product of the system. We see it countless times with free agents that sign big deals and massively underperform because they are put in roles that didn't fit. TJ Houshmanzadeh was a perfect example. He thrived in his role for the Bengals as a No. 2 and slot receiver. Houshmandzadeh (and the Seahawks) felt he could be a No. 1 - they couldn't have been more wrong. Houshmandzadeh lasted one year in Seattle, one year in Baltimore and a partial year in Oakland, never coming close to his success in Cincinnati.
5) Take Locker Room Culture and Chemistry into Account
Tigers don't change their stripes (no pun intended), and they especially don't change once they are handed a lucrative contract. Take a low character guy and give him lots of money and it doesn't change his behavior for the better, it accelerates the poor behavior. Best example = Albert Haynesworth and Terrell Owens.
6) Free Agency is for Filling Roles - The Draft is for Building Teams
Try and find a good team that has been built through free agency. It doesn't happen. Good teams are built through the draft, not through free agency. Who are the best teams in the last ten-plus years? Patriots. Steelers. Ravens. Packers. None of which are big players in free agency. Cowboys. Redskins. Jets. All teams that sign big free agents and all teams that have a poor track record of success.
7) Beware of the "Contract Year Performance Bump"
Nothing should send up more red flags than a guy that is underwhelming his entire contract and then explodes in his contract year. Give the guy a big long-term deal and you take away his motivation. Nothing is worse than a high priced unmotivated player.
8) Don't Spend for the Sake of Spending
Most fans believe that by spending money, you are improving the team. Nothing could be further from the truth. Spending for the sake of spending is a sure fire recipe for success. A team is better off not spending any money than spending for the sake of spending.
9) The Teams that "Win" the Offseason Rarely Win During the Season
Every year a team dominates the free agency period and captures all the "contender" publicity. Teams in recent memory: 2013 Dolphins; 2011 Eagles; 2009 Redskins - all looked great on the books and terrible on the feield.
10) Don't Get Cute with the Cap!
Fans like it ...in the short term. In the long term teams are forced to cut big name players and are hindered in future free agency periods. Watch what will happen with the Dolphins in the next few years. Other teams that like getting cute with the cap include Dallas and Washington - how's that working?