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Peter King
August 26, 2002
In the first decade of NFL free agency, teams have learned that it's a hit-or-miss affair—and that you don't have to spend big to win
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August 26, 2002

Shop Right

In the first decade of NFL free agency, teams have learned that it's a hit-or-miss affair—and that you don't have to spend big to win

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"Managing free agency and the cap is not that hard," says Eagles president Joe Banner, "if you remember what Andy Reid always says: 'Stay disciplined. It's a team sport.' There aren't many coaches or general managers with the guts to risk signing guys so early. The public will kill you if you're wrong. But if you draft well, it's the best way to keep a team intact."

At the other extreme are the Bengals and the Arizona Cardinals. Both franchises have sad recent histories and owners who don't seem to get it. As a result, both must pay above market value for players. Just last March cornerback Duane Starks signed with Arizona for $4.6 million a year, at least $1 million per year more than anyone else was offering.

Parity has touched every franchise but the Bengals, the one team that hasn't finished above .500 since 1993. Players only go there as a last resort, and then can't wait to escape. After waiver-wire pickup Garrison Hearst led the team in rushing in 1996, Cincinnati made him a three-year, $1.8 million free-agent offer. "The Bengals were offering him $600,000 a year," said a close friend of Hearst's, "and he wouldn't have signed in Cincinnati for $6 million a year." Hearst wound up with a one-year deal from San Francisco and made $1.5 million.

Bright guy, that Hearst. Even in the complicated and unpredictable world of free agency, you can never go wrong choosing the 49ers over the Bengals.

[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

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