Fun first weekend of free agency
Rex Ryan and company get unexpected midnight surprise at Bart Scott's house
Albert Haynesworth's real contract is nowhere near seven years and $100 million
Fred Taylor a Patriot, Marvin Harrison a retiree and more Things I Think I Think
I remember covering the New York Giants for Newsday from 1985 to '88 and getting into a loud discussion with GM George Young (he was often loud, but always educational) over the merits of free agency. He thought it would ruin what was a great game because you wouldn't be able to build a team with chemistry for the long haul anymore. He was right about that, of course. But my point was the train was rolling down the tracks, so why not make the best of it -- and besides, it'd make for a great hot stove league when normally there's no NFL talk, other than the warmup for the draft.
A generation later, I wish Young -- who died in 2001 at 71 -- was around to feel the fun of the last weekend of February. Two months after Christmas is Christmas II now. On the back page of Saturday's New York Post was an excellent illustration of how football rules this land, and why people cannot get enough of the NFL. On Friday, the Mets learned that their most important player, Johan Santana, might miss the opener because of a sore elbow, and the Yankees learned Major League Baseball would meet with Alex Rodriguez on Sunday to grill him on his steroid use. What's on the back cover of the newspaper? Free agent linebacker Bart Scott, barking at someone in full uniform, with the paper trumpeting the Jets' big first-day signing.
I can't remember a more fun first weekend of free agency, at least not since Reggie White jumped to Green Bay in 1993. Last weekend had it all -- a controversial signing of a defensive star (Albert Haynesworth), one of the game's 10 best quarterbacks in 2008 (Matt Cassel) getting dealt and another of the top 10 (Kurt Warner) visiting a division rival. Also, Bill Belichick making the strangest trade of his career, a Pro Bowl tight end with a checkered past (Kellen Winslow) finding a new home, Jay Cutler going nowhere but exiting the weekend feeling betrayed, Ray Lewis being painted into a Maryland corner, the Eagles refusing to pay up and losing one of the most beloved players in franchise history (Brian Dawkins) ... oh, and someone wanting Dan Orlovsky.
So here's what I've got for you today:
The real meaning of the Cassel trade, and all that is left in its wake.
The real meaning of the Haynesworth contract, with numbers that will illuminate why so few teams really wanted Haynesworth -- and also show why the media does an awful job reporting what these contracts are really worth.
A recap of one of the most interesting things I've had the good fortune to do in a while. I sat with agent Brad Blank in Boston on the first weekend of free agency as he tried to find a home for defensive end Chris Canty. I monitored Blank and Canty through some very low lows and one rewarding high, and I'll take you inside how the wooing process works.
The most aggressive free-agency recruiting story I've ever heard. You've got to read what Rex Ryan did.
Why Belichick not only didn't try hard to get Kansas City's first-round pick instead of its second -- but also why he actually prefers the 34th pick to the third overall.
On with the show.
Rex Ryan wants it bad.
Mind if I start with the recruiting story? And Bart Scott's two German shepherds, Mater and McQueen?
Free agency began Friday morning, a second after midnight, and Scott's agent, Harold Lewis, told him he might be getting a call or two in the wee hours of the morning. At 12:15, at the same time he heard his dogs barking wildly outside his Owings Mills, Md., home, Scott's cell phone rang. "Man, come get these damn dogs!'' Jets secondary coach Dennis Thurman said into the phone.
Thurman was outside in the driveway with two other unannounced visitors -- Rex Ryan and defensive coordinator Mike Pettine. Scott knew them from their days on the Baltimore Ravens' coaching staff, and he absolutely could not believe they were sitting in his driveway, about to get attacked by his security dogs if they ventured out of the car. After Scott secured the dogs ("I'm just glad Mater and McQueen didn't take a bite out of those guys,'' Scott said Sunday night. "I'd have had to spend a chunk of my signing bonus for stitches.'') Ryan walked into the house, looked at Scott and said: "We want you. We're here for you. We're not leaving without you.'' There was a plane coming at 8 in the morning to take Scott to the Jets' facility in Florham Park, N.J., and Ryan told him he had to be on it.
"Talk about taking it back old-school!'' Scott said. "I was getting recruited! They were recruiting me big-time! Can you see the precedent they're setting? Remember Jerry McGuire? You're going to have players asking their coaches now, 'Why don't we have that kind of relationship?' ''
I asked Scott about the reports that after he'd made his deal with the Jets on Friday, he tried to get the Ravens to match it, or at least come within a few bucks. "I made no bones about it,'' he said. "I owe a lot of loyalty to the Ravens. They're the ones who gave me my chance seven years ago. And I was going to have to uproot my family, and we love Baltimore. If it was close, the home team would win.''
At the end, the Ravens were at least $3 million off the total package of the Jets, who signed Scott for six years and $48 million, most of which he actually should see. Seems close to me, but it wasn't close enough for Scott.
There was another factor too -- the Ray Lewis factor. As long as Scott played on the same defense as one of the all-time greats, he knew he'd forever be second- or third-fiddle to Lewis.
"It would have been great to walk back into that locker room, but in a way, I would have had training wheels on the rest of my career," said Scott. "I'd always wonder if I could have done it by myself, if I could have actually been the leader of a good defense. In a lot of ways, our defense was like the Bulls, and Ray was Michael Jordan. We had a lot of Craig Hodgeses on our team, but we had a few Scottie Pippens too.''
In other words, Scott, Ed Reed and Terrell Suggs are better than average. And Lewis, though it's not his fault, is going to suck so much air out of the room that the others will never get to fully emerge as leaders and players. Now we'll see if Scott can do what he never had the chance to do in Baltimore. Lead. And be great.
The Patriots never get snookered. So why does it look like everyone in Foxboro is wearing fleece?
The answer is they didn't get taken in the trade of Cassel and Mike Vrabel. Belichick did underplay his hand, but there were extenuating circumstances, some of which were intelligently reported over the weekend by Adam Schefter, Tom Curran, Chris Mortensen and Tim Graham.
Belichick probably did pull the trigger too soon on the deal of Cassel and Vrabel to Kansas City for the 34th pick in the draft. The reason he didn't take one of the three-way deals involving Denver and either the Lions or Bucs is very simple: He'd already agreed to a trade with his former right-hand man, Kansas City GM Scott Pioli, either late Friday or very early Saturday. And he had some pressure on him to make the deal early in free agency because the team was so snug up against the NFL's $127-million salary cap, and because he knew Cassel's value wasn't as high as it should have been because of his mega-salary and the fact he'd only played at a high level for one year.
As free agency dawned, the Pats were $1.7-million under the cap, and they saved $1 million by restructuring Randy Moss' contract. That allowed them to sign running back Fred Taylor on Friday afternoon (two years, $8 million, approximately $2.3 in 2009 cap dollars). But to get a really big chunk, Belichick needed to do something really big, like dealing Vrabel (saving $3.36 million on the cap) and Cassel (saving $14.65 million). If he dealt Cassel and Vrabel, he'd be able to operate freely with $18 million in cap room ... and have more leverage in the 2009 draft than any other team in the league.
You're right to ask why Belichick didn't wait. I bet he's asking himself that same question this morning. But think back to midweek last week. I had two contenders for Cassel tell me essentially the same thing: They wouldn't deal a first-round pick or a second- and something else for Cassel, and then pay him a multi-year contract with a bonus of maybe $20 million and $35 million in guaranteed money. Too risky, they thought. (I disagree but I'm not running a franchise.) Many teams felt Cassel might be a lesser player than he was in 2008 (eighth in passing yards, 10th in quarterback rating) upon leaving the security blanket of a Belichick-coached team and Josh McDaniels-coordinated offense.
So Belichick knew he probably wasn't going to get a sweetheart deal. And last week, before the market opened, I'm told he never got offered a first-round pick by any team in trade. I'm also told he asked Pioli for the 34th pick in the draft -- nothing more -- and when Pioli told him he'd do it, they had a deal.
"Bill had to be nervous,'' said one club official briefed on the deal. "There was never any guarantee that any of those three-way trades was going to work, and they cropped up so late anyway. He could have been left with nothing if he lost the Chiefs.''
I'm sure Belichick doesn't mind doing something good for Cassel (giving him his own promising team to pilot) and Pioli (giving him something better than Tyler Thigpen), but I believe if Denver offered Belichick its first-round pick last Thursday instead of, apparently, on Saturday, that Cassel would be a Bronco today and current Denver QB Jay Cutler a Buc or Lion. Cutler, by the way, will make peace with McDaniels, who's now coaching Denver. He has no choice, and he's a reasonable kid. I don't blame him for being ticked off at the Broncos for trying to deal for Cassel, but he's going to have to get over it and realize he's got a heck of a chance to win with McDaniels running his offense.
I heard one other interesting thing Sunday: Cutler asked for a trade shortly after the Broncos lost offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates -- Cutler's confidant -- to USC after the season. So maybe both sides need to go into marriage counseling here.
Back to Belichick. I have no idea if these numbers influenced him Saturday, but they should have. New England now has four picks in the first two rounds -- the 23rd, 34th, 47th and 58th. The Patriots have blown their share of second-round picks in the Belichick Era (Bethel Johnson, Chad Jackson, the late Marquise Hill), but they also got Benjamin Watson with the last pick of the first round and Deion Branch and Matt Light with second-round picks. Belichick wants late ones and twos because the difference in talent between the top of the draft and pick 34 is not nearly as big as the difference in money. And the third pick in the draft this year would command a bigger contract than Tom Brady's. Thus, New England has no use for very high picks.
Let's examine the financial commitment those four picks (23, 34, 47, 58) required last year, and compare it to the top of the draft:
The eighth pick in the draft last year, defensive end Derrick Harvey, got $17.47 million guaranteed in a contract averaging $4.6 million a year. In essence, in the way the NFL pays rookies, the eighth pick's compensation is equivalent to the combined pay of the 23rd, 34th, 47th and 58th picks. Insane. Imagine if someone tells you they'd trade the eighth pick in the draft for a lower first-round pick and three second-round picks. You'd do it in a second. The Patriots will draft at least a couple of keeper players on Day 1, and they'll have the kind of salary manageability with those players that great teams with big stars have to have.
Moral of the story for New England: We'll always think Belichick could have gotten a little more for Cassel (and Vrabel), and he probably should have waited and taken what was probably a relatively minor risk. But the team wanting Cassel, Denver, blew it by not being quicker off the draw and getting its ducks in a row before the weekend.
Now for the Kansas City angles. The Chiefs now should have their quarterback of the future, assuming new coach Todd Haley's as good a quarterback tutor as he appeared in Arizona the past couple of years. Haley, who worked with Belichick and Charlie Weis with the Jets a decade ago, told me over the weekend what has him thrilled is that the New England offense and the Kansas City offense have the same verbiage and playcalls. "So we won't have to take the time a new quarterback would normally have to take to get up to speed in a new system,'' Haley said. "He knows this system. And I've watched so much of him from last year. I see a player who's learned under a Hall of Fame quarterback in Tom Brady, and who's so mature for someone with only a year's experience.''
It makes sense for Kansas City to sign Cassel long-term, obviously, but I'm not sure the Chiefs will. Pioli, I'm sure, will remind Cassel (if he hasn't told him already) that Brady took less money to allow the team to build a great team around him. In other words, if Cassel doesn't want to be one of the two or three highest-paid quarterbacks in football, they could get a deal done. If he does want to be in that territory, I expect the Chiefs to make him play out this year at $14.65 million, then, if necessary, tag him next year at 110 percent of his pay this year. But it makes sense to make a deal for the future, so they don't have to be laying out $30 million over the next two years with no future certainty beyond that.