3-2-09: The No Fair League

Hello again everybody...

I'm back from a 3-day weekend, and feeling renewed and refreshed and... aw the hell with it. I still don't want to be at work! But the rent collector is still coming, so I do what I have to do.

Fortunately, I've officially begun the countdown to my trip to Phoenix! That's right, in a scant 19 days, I'm wheels up, headed for the Valley of the Sun for some warmer weather and some Spring Training baseball. And there was something else... which escapes me at the moment... ummm... oh yeah, I'll be visiting my folks too!

And in a related countdown, it's only 18 days til I begin my 2009 MLB Preview. You know you loved the picks last year. I'm hoping they'll be even better this year!

But let's get to today's column. Regular readers of The Sports Take know I haven't talked much about the NFL. Not because I don't pay attention to it, just because I'm not as passionate about it as I am other sports. But I saw something over the weekend that blew me away. It has to be the most egregious example of a rigged trade I've ever seen. I'll discuss.

Off we go!

"The release of atomic energy has not created a new problem. It has merely made more urgent the solving of an existing one."
- Albert Einstein (1879-1955), German-born theoretical physicist.

Glad we got right on that one. What? Iran has enough fissile material to make a bomb? Scratch that last.

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Before I get into the silliness of sports, let me first offer up my sincerest hope that the 4 men (including two NFL players) who were on a boat caught in a storm off the Florida Coast are all found safe and sound.

At the time of this writing, the Coast Guard had finally found the boat which had flipped over during the storm. Former University of South Florida player Nick Schuyler was found clinging to the boat. There's still no word on the other 3 men that were on the craft including Oakland Raider LB Marquis cooper and former Detroit defensive lineman Corey Smith as well as another former South Florida Bull William Bleakley.

That being said, I need to rant a bit about what in my mind is the most rigged pro sports trade I've ever seen.

Over the weekend it was announced that the New England Patriots had agreed to a deal that sent QB Matt Cassel and LB Mike Vrabel to Kansas City for the Chief's second round draft pick (number 34 overall).

I was so floored when I saw this that I thought it had to be a typo, or some sort of reporting a mistake. I mean New England, widely thought of as one of the smartest franchises in the league, wouldn't really trade away a QB that they put their "franchise" tag on for just a second round pick. And surely they wouldn't send a veteran linebacker along with him for no further compensation, right?!

But as the story started to get fleshed out, it turns out that's exactly what they did.

To be clear just how lopsided this deal looks on paper, allow me to define "franchise tag". Each year, all NFL teams are allowed to designate one player who would otherwise be a free agent as their "Franchise Player". The initial impetus for this device was to try and maintain a certain amount of continuity in an era of high roster turn-over. It's since become more of a negotiating tool between clubs and players. But the the bottom line is, if a team designates a player as it's "Franchise Player", then it has to offer that player a contract which pays the average of the 5 highest-paid players at that particular position.

The player who receives the "Franchise Tag" doesn't lose their free agent status. But a team which wishes to sign that player, must not only offer them a contract at that "average of the top 5" level, but must also compensate the player's original team with two first round draft choices. Considering the value of those draft choices, when a player has a "Tag" put on them, they rarely sign with another team.

Sometimes, however, they are traded. And that's what happened over the weekend. QB Matt Cassel had the "Franchise Tag" placed on him by New England after he stepped in last year and did a solid job replacing Tom Brady after Brady got hurt in the season opener. So there was no question that Cassel was going to get paid by somebody.

And I'm not surprised that "somebody" was Kansas City. It makes sense in that (copyright Dan Gladden) the Chiefs have been struggling to find a solution to their quarterback position for years. Plus, they have a new GM this year by the name of Scott Pioli. Pioli's previous job was working in the player-personnel department of the New England Patriots. So it makes sense that those two teams would work together given their front office familiarity.

I am shocked however that the deal was two players for one second round pick. I understand there's some risk on the Chief's part here. Vrabel is entering his 12th season in the NFL. That's a lot of mileage on a guy who plays a position that requires a lot of hitting. I also understand that there's no guarantee that Cassel will be able to repeat his performance from last year. There's a reason that the Patriots have competed at such a high level for so long, and the Chiefs haven't: personnel. The Chiefs simply don't have the horses that New England does. So without the same surrounding cast, Cassel may not be able to put up the same numbers he did last year.

All that being said, how can a player who'd require two first round picks to sign as a free agent, be only worth one second round pick in a trade?! My answer? It was rigged.

New England head coach and grand pooh-bah, Bill Belichick, knew he couldn't afford to pay Cassel the average of the top 5 quarterbacks in the league to hold a clip board for Tom Brady, so it was at least a likelihood that Cassel would be traded. But instead of trading to the highest bidder, Belichick worked out a sweetheart deal with his buddy Pioli to send Cassel to Kansas City.

If you believe the spin, it's a fair deal because of the risk I mentioned earlier coupled with New England's desire to not have to pay "first round pick money".

Call me a conspiracy theorist if you like, but I think the real explanation is that Belichick didn't want to pay Cassel that money, but he also wanted to control where Cassel went, hence the "franchise tag". Then he looks around the league for the place he can get the best deal while not hurting his playoff chances. Even with Cassel, the Chiefs aren't likely to compete for a playoff spot this year. So why not hook his buddy Pioli up with a sweetheart deal?

I'm not saying that the NFL should require the Patriots to take the best offer available (and make no mistake, there were better offers out there), but it looks awfully collusive when teams make a deal like this which is clearly below market-value. Deals like this are the precursors to teams artificially depressing player salaries. Obviously I can't argue that it's horrible for a player to make "only" $5 million instead of $8 million or more. But if the sport is going to encourage free markets and above-board deals, then trades like this are a problem.

The way I understand it, there's nothing the NFL can do about this particular deal. Unfortunately, this isn't fantasy football where a majority of owners can veto a given trade (and those of you who've played the game know a deal like this never would've been allowed). But it seems to me that the NFL had better take a long look at it's trade rules and close the loopholes that allow something this ridiculous to happen.

That's all for today folks. I'm back on Wednesday with more (baseball? quite possibly). Until then, thanks for reading!

1 comment:

  1. I can agree with a lot of what you present, but I heard a bit of the other side today on the 4-letter network that suggests it might be fair.

    If the stats are accurate, ( I don't look them up when I hear them on radio... who does?) Cassel's numbers weren't much better, and in some cases were worse, than Tyler Thigpen....and Cassel had Moss. Fewer TD's, more INT's, there should be no question that New England can cover up moles on their face pretty well at this point with most people still fawning over them.

    As the AFC championship appearances drop off, the bandwagon will start to empty out in the next 4 years...

    Jeff in DM