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During one tough period of his childhood in Washingtonville, N.Y., Scott Pioli watched his father juggle three jobs to support a wife and four kids. The family didn't have credit cards; Ron and Diane Pioli didn't believe in them. Scott remembers his dad saying, If we don't have the money, we do without.
That's a credo Scott follows as director of player personnel for the New England Patriots. For example, Pioli and coach Bill Belichick desperately wanted to sign mountainous free-agent tackle Jon Runyan in early 2000, but New England was $10.5 million over the salary cap entering the off-season. They passed. Last year the Seattle Seahawks offered Patriots defensive tackle Chad Eaton, one of Belichick's favorite players, a $10.7 million deal, including a $3.5 million signing bonus. Eaton called the Patriots to see if they'd match, but Belichick and Pioli decided that his price was too high.
Entering the tenth season of unfettered free agency, NFL teams could learn a lot from the way Belichick and Pioli built last season's Super Bowl-winning roster. New England went shopping at Wal-Mart, The 20 free agents Pioli and senior vice president Andy Wasynczuk locked up cost the Patriots just $2.57 million in signing bonuses (the only guaranteed money NFL players receive). Not one of the signees had a base salary of more than $525,000. Seven of those bargains started in New England's win over the St. Louis Rams last February, and four—wideout David Patten, running back Antowain Smith and linebackers Mike Vrabel and Roman Phifer—were Super Bowl heroes. Eight other signees came off the bench. Meanwhile Eaton, who had just 44 tackles and one sack with the Seahawks in 2001, watched the Super Bowl from home.
Now, in the waning weeks of the off-season, Pioli is hunkering down in his windowless box of an office at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro. Inspirational signs dot the walls (WE ARE BUILDING A TEAM, NOT COLLECTING TALENT). What Pioli's father preached in Washingtonville is practiced here every day: Set a price for the position you need to fill. Make a priority list. Go down the list until you get a player at your price. Last spring the Patriots were in the market for a tight end, a position they valued at about $1 million a year. They targeted Ken Dilger of the Indianapolis Colts, but he wanted $2.5 million. The next man on their list, the Minnesota Vikings' Byron Chamberlain, wanted even more, so New England settled on the Seahawks' Christian Fauria, who signed for $1.07 million. "Last year," said Pioli, "I remember Bill Belichick saying to me, 'Well, we're either going to succeed or we'll crash and burn. But at least we'll do it the way we believe it should be done.' And we knew we weren't going to be in salary-cap jail anymore."
Other teams are following the Patriots' lead. The Dallas Cowboys and the San Francisco 49ers, both salary-cap-strapped during the late 1990s, have stopped mortgaging their futures. Up-and-comers like the Buffalo Bills are discovering the wonders of just saying no. And the Philadelphia Eagles are showing how teams can live under the cap, save up for an emergency acquisition and still contend for the Super Bowl.
It took awhile, even for some first-rate football minds, to get to know and love the free-agency game. In 1995, in the midst of his team's return to prominence, Green Bay Packers general manager Ron Wolf was contemptuous of the fledgling system. "I hate this new football," he snarled. The NFL establishment was used to building teams for the long haul. Now, because of the roster changeover from year to year, executives had to run their teams as if they were college football programs without the redshirt year. Said Wolf, "It's come down to a game for accountants and lawyers."
But he and the other free-agency naysayers have seen football survive—and continue to evolve. Scoring was up to 40.4 points per game in 2001, versus 37.5 in 1992. Quarterbacks completed 59% of their passes last season, up from 57.5% in '92. Plus there were two fewer turnovers per weekend last season than in '92.
And, unlike baseball, where big-market teams tend to become dynasties, everybody has had a chance in the NFL. In the first nine seasons of free agency only the Cincinnati Bengals and the Cleveland Browns, who didn't start play until 1999, failed to make the postseason. The 36 spots in the conference championship games have been filled by 22 franchises. (Sixteen teams filled those slots in the nine years before free agency.) The last three Super Bowl winners—the Rams, the Baltimore Ravens and the Patriots—were coming off years in which they won four, eight and five games, respectively. "Clearly," Wolf says now, "the game hasn't suffered."
The Packers, in fact, have been among the best at handling free agency. They stunned the pro football world by signing Reggie White for $17 million in April 1993, but more than any team they have learned when to say no in negotiating with their own free agents. Likewise, the Pittsburgh Steelers have developed so many quality linebackers that they could afford to let players like Greg Lloyd, Levon Kirkland and Earl Holmes go. The Miami Dolphins have won by drafting well and signing reasonably priced free agents such as defensive end Trace Armstrong and running back Lamar Smith.
No team is in better salary-cap shape than the Eagles, who at week's end were $8.8 million under the 2002 cap of $71.4 million. Using a frugal approach, Philadelphia is a Super Bowl contender, with 21 starters signed through 2003. In the late '90s the Eagles began locking up key players two or three years before they were eligible for free agency. The bonuses are smaller than what a bona fide free agent would get, but the players wind up with more money earlier in their careers. This year the Eagles will most likely resign two or three veterans—like safety Brian Dawkins—and give them the upfront money as a roster bonus. (A roster bonus is assigned to the cap the year it is paid; a signing bonus is prorated over the length of the contract.)