In an encouragingly titled article, for us at least, Rick Gosselin argues that Smart NFL teams spend little in free agency. I'm not crazy about Rick -- he writes for a rival supporting Dallas Morning News and I felt he was an integral part in keeping Art Monk out of the Hall for so long, but can't confirm that since Gosselin had a no-talkie talkie policy with fans (though he seemed like a nice enough guy when I emailed him) In Re: Art Monk HOF bid -- but I absolutely support his contention that not spending huge boatloads of cash on free agents can be a viable winning strategy and in fact often is. He has some convincing anecdotes:
In 2006, the Indianapolis Colts signed only one free agent, and he wasn't even a position player - kicker Adam Vinatieri. The Colts wound up winning the Super Bowl.
In 2005, the Pittsburgh Steelers also signed only one free agent - wide receiver Cedrick Wilson - to a four-year deal worth less than $10 million. He didn't even start for the Steelers. But guess who won the Super Bowl that year?
Even though the 2006 Giants were tame in comparison to those two teams at 8-8, they were a postseason contender that was 4 points shy of a playoff victory over division rival Philly. They also made the postseason in '05 and were, I believe, the NFC East champs. In other words it was a pretty talented team that needed little fidgeting.
So when I support not messing with a roster, what I really support is not messing with a good thing. There isn't any utility in keeping the same staff and personnel if you're, say, the 1-15 Miami Dolphins. Refusing to mix up that roster would be akin to throwing in the towel. Off the top of my head the 2005 New Orleans Saints won just three games and 10 the following year, largely because of the addition of Marques Colston and Reggie Bush in the draft and expensive free agent Drew Brees from San Diego. If your team sucks, if the personnel isn't there at key positions, you're crazy not to mix things up. In other words, sometimes it is best to acquire players in free agency, and I'd even go so far as to say the Redskins did it right last offseason. Rick disagrees:
The Cowboys, Cleveland Browns, San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks each signed a free agent to a contract in excess of $39 million last off-season. In addition, the Washington Redskins gave aging middle linebacker London Fletcher a $10 million signing bonus...
As a practical matter, there's a world of difference between the '06 49ers, who won just 7 games in the worst division in football, or the '06 Browns (4-12) and the '05 Colts, '04 Steelers or '06 Giants. Those were bad teams that needed to spend to improve, and in fact the Browns did improve, dramatically. They won more games than they had in 13 years. Rick can "Au contraire" all he wants and poo poo that spending strategy, but every one of the teams he listed improved sans the 49ers (his Cowboys, for instance, matched a franchise record with 13 wins as a result).
The Redskins, who were not good in '06 and needed personnel to improve and did precisely that. I fail to see what's foolish about having a 5-11 team, spending some money, and finishing with a better 9-7 product that happens to be contending in the postseason in a pretty difficult division. In other words, it's a good idea not to spend money on expensive free agents... except when it's not. Circumstance is important and any categorical strategy is sure to fail when it seeks to apply itself equally to a 16-0 Patriots team and a 1-15 Miami Dolphins team.
But, given the circumstances described by Rick for Super Bowl bound teams in '04, '05, and '06, I think the Redskins and others are on the right side of the strategy in sitting on their roster. The Redskins erred, in my opinion, in trying to church up a 2005 roster that was good enough to win 10 games. The result was a disastrous '06, but we rebuilt and here we are again right on the precipice of looking like a contender, perhaps for more than one year at a time. Rick opened the article thus: