The biggest story in sports this week was NFL free agency, and it was actually kind of great to have football back in our lives. Making fun of the Raiders and Browns, hating the Patriots out of blind jealousy, wondering how much methamphetamine it takes to keep Adam Schefter running on a daily basis. It was all pretty wonderful.
NFL free agency is sort of like its own sport, with its own outrageously complicated rules, its own versions of winners and losers, and its own superstars (general managers and Bill Barnwell, mostly). Anyway, before we jump into this week’s Best/Worst, here are five laws of free agency to keep in mind whenever we talk about the NFL offseason.
1. No-names are the best names. Rule of thumb for free-agency news: If someone’s signing a great deal that football experts love, you probably haven’t heard of the player. The Patriots are an exception because it’s football law that all Belichick moves be praised, but in general, the more anonymous the player, the better he is. I certainly haven’t heard of most of the biggest free-agent steals — guys like Alterraun Verner, or T.J. Ward, or Jared Veldheer, or Captain Munnerlyn. I mean, I remember Everson Griffin from USC, but otherwise Mays could very well be making these names up for all I know.
The best part of this is that eventually it trickles down to fans, who suddenly become irrationally excited about these guys. Millions of football fans are praising the Bucs for signing Verner this week, and roughly 3 percent of them actually watched him on the Titans the past few years. But they’re probably right! These guys are always the best free agents.
Another example: Andre Roberts to the Skins.
“Wait who is Andre Roberts?” someone asks.
2. If you’ve heard of someone … and he’s in the news during free agency, he’s almost definitely getting cut or forced into a massive pay cut. Julius Peppers, DeMarcus Ware, Vince Wilfork, Steve Smith … This is how football works. This is why free agency can get depressing sometimes. By the time a star’s accomplished enough to be a household name with a big contract, he’s a year or two away from being over the hill, and teams are probably better off replacing him with an anonymous free agent or draft pick.
One obvious example: What Houston did with Mario Williams two years ago.
On the other side of that coin … when the Skins signed every aging superstar in the league back in 2002, and it turned into the most disastrous offseason in history. They were so aggressively stupid about veterans in free agency that the entire NFL has been going the opposite direction ever since.
3. Nothing is guaranteed. This is probably the most infuriating part of free agency. None of these contract numbers actually mean anything. Players get huge signing bonuses, a chunk of guaranteed money, and then in a few years they’ll either renegotiate down to a more sane number or they’ll get cut. Just once, I want a contract to be reported as, “$70 million, but really more like $18 million before this dude goes somewhere else in two years.”
For instance: Aqib Talib signed in Denver for six years and $57 million?
So, OK, he’s playing … two years of that deal? Three? Who knows?
The only thing we know for sure is that this number is complete B.S.:
Speaking of the CBA …
4. Everyone gets screwed. Free agency is a pretty raw reminder of how football works as a business, in general. Look at the bigger picture, and you see proven stars at the tail end of their primes getting cut out of nowhere every spring. This is the most profitable professional sport in America and the most dangerous sport in America, and it’s also the sport where even the biggest stars have basically no leverage in their own careers … which are shorter than in any other major sport, because again, they’re playing the most dangerous sport in America.
But yeah, sure, that CBA is awesome.
There’s one exception to all this: quarterbacks. Quarterbacks get paid, even when they’re Joe Flacco ($20 million a year). Quarterbacks don’t get cut. This dovetails with the final law of free agency:
5. None of it REALLY matters. For as much attention as free agency gets, always remember that no matter how well any team does in the market, your favorite team’s still probably losing to the teams with Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Andrew Luck, Aaron Rodgers, Colin Kaepernick, and possibly Matt Stafford if the Lions finally surround him with enough talent to mitigate his mediocrity. This should be an addendum to every single one of the 10,000 free-agency grading columns on the Internet.
And that’s it for now. Maybe we can add more next year. But yeah, once you understand the pattern with this stuff, it becomes twice as fun to watch it all play out over two weeks in March. With that, let’s get into the best and worst of sports this week …
WORST: The Goddamn Patriots. Regarding the third law above and how football works in 2014, nobody epitomizes modern free agency better than the Patriots. Everyone gets screwed, and it’s awful. Vince Wilfork was one of the most beloved players the Patriots have had since the turn of the century, but he gets hurt … Revis becomes available … Wilfork refuses to renegotiate … We know how this is gonna end, right?
The worst part is that it all works. The Patriots have hacked the system here. In the past we could have at least pretended that individual stars mattered, but more than anything else, the Belichick era in New England has revealed just how naive that really is. Even the best players are just cogs in the machine. It’s almost a point of pride for Belichick and Patriots fans at this point. No matter whom they lose, they’ll always find two players who are cheaper and almost as good, and find a way to go 12-4. Over the past decade or so, this has become the model for smart teams everywhere.
New England was even more evil than usual this year. They let Aqib Talib walk rather than rewarding him for two very good reasons, and they fall into Darrelle Revis on a smart one-year deal — a much better player than Talib, who’s making only $200,000 more than this year.
This is why during every free-agency period they become the Goddamn Patriots.
Of course they wound up with Revis.
Now they’ll probably cut Vince Wilfork if he doesn’t take a pay cut, and after going to AFC Championship Game with him on the sidelines, you can’t even argue with the decision. They’ll find a way to replace him just fine. This is just how it works with the Goddamn Patriots. R.I.P., Fat Vince Wilfork, you were always one of the two most likable players on the entire roster, but you were living on borrowed time. Everyone in New England is living on borrowed time.
And Gronk, you and your giant contract are next. Just wait.
BEST: The Patriots Still Have No Receivers. Which is perfect because it’s all setting up for one more AFC title game failure.
The only explanation is that this is all part of a Trading Places–style bet between Belichick and Bob Kraft. “Can we turn Kenbrell Thompkins into a Super Bowl winner?”
“I’ll bet you … ONE DOLLAR.”
And Brady is Louis Winthrop, losing his mind a little more every January and eventually turning to street drugs.
BEST: Darrelle Revis and DeMarcus Ware. OK, as much as I hate the Patriots model and how it’s taken over the NFL … free agency worked great for both these guys. When we talk about systems being more important than stars, that cuts both ways. A player can be one of the five most dominant players in the league and if they’re stuck in a crappy situation, it doesn’t matter.
Both Revis and Ware have spent time in that “five most dominant” category at various points in their career, but they’ve never gotten a chance to play on anything like a real Super Bowl contender. (Unless you count Mark Sanchez’s Jets that one year, which … no.)
It was great to see them both find new homes. I say this as a Dallas fan who’s watched Jason Witten put up killer seasons for a decade now. There’s nothing more depressing than watching a great player dominate, year after year, only to end every season watching Tony Romo and Jason Garrett/Wade Phillips screw it all up. Even if you hate the Broncos and Patriots, we get to enjoy Revis and Ware, both with a few good years left, playing on a contender. This is a good thing.
BEST: Darren Sproles in Philadelphia. What will Darren Sproles and LeSean McCoy look like in a Chip Kelly offense? No idea! I’m just glad we get a chance to think about this for the next five months.
Other moves that were just as awesome as this one: Michael Bennett going back to Seattle to terrorize quarterbacks for another few years, Jairus Byrd shedding the cloak of Buffalo failure and heading to the Saints, and obviously, Eric Decker to the Jets.
BEST: Glory Days. Fireman Ed is asleep under a bridge in New Jersey when a sixth-grader approaches to wrestle him awake.
Sixth-Grader: FIREMAN ED! FIREMAN ED!
Ed: [Still drunk from the night before.] Kid, I haven’t been “Fireman Ed” in a long time. You got any liquor?
Sixth-Grader: No … But I brought your helmet!
Ed: [Burps.] [Snatches helmet.] [Throws it in the street.]
Sixth-Grader: What happened to you, Ed? You were my hero.
Ed: Heroes are like unicorns, kid. You can try to grab a horn your whole life, but you’ll just fall off the horse and end up on your ass.
Sixth-Grader: But … J! E! —
Ed: [Waves him off, stands, turns around, begins urinating.]
Sixth-Grader: [Turns to walk away.] I can’t believe you, Fireman Ed. You don’t even care we signed Eric Decker.
Ed: [Whips around.] What did you just say?
Sixth-Grader: We signed Eric Decker this week.
Ed: [Tears off overcoat, reveals authentic, signed Wayne Chrebet jersey.]
JJJJJJJJJJJJJ … EEEEEEEEEEEE … TTTTTTTTTTT … SSSSSSSSSSS
JETS JETS JETS!!!!!!!!!
WORST: The Cowboys. Sorry about that. Was trying to distract myself from the current state of my favorite football team.
Everything is horrible.
Let’s move on to other disastrous franchises.
WORST: Phil Jackson and the Knicks. You know what? Just take the job or don’t. I’m sick of hearing about this on SportsCenter every single day. And Phil’s been doing this for the better part of two years now.
BEST: Kobe is doing great. He met with the media this week to announce his season is officially over, and like any Kobe media appearance for the past five years, this didn’t disappoint. Courtesy of Dave McMenamin and Serena Winters, the top five quotes as Kobe copes with the realities of rebuilding:
5. “How can I be satisfied with it? We’re like 100 games under .500.”
4. “No, no. no. Nope. Not one lick [of patience].”
3. “Oh yeah, let’s just play next year and let’s just suck again. … No. Absolutely not. Absolutely not.”
2. “Now I know what it feels like to be a Clipper fan all these years.”
1. “I feel like killing everybody every time I go to the arena.”
Woooooooooooooooooooooooooo Lakers. Mamba Mentality.
WORST: These tattoo stories. No. Stop all these stories. The creepy full-back LeBron tattoo is a funny idea to think about, and so is the 2014 Kentucky national championship tattoo, but anyone who would actually get these tattoos is not someone we want to be looking at on the Internet. The back tattoo that popped up this week is bad, but this Kentucky fan’s leg hair is going to haunt my dreams for weeks. Seriously, please, just keep these photos on Reddit.
BEST: College basketball witchcraft. Do not pick against Creighton this March.
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WORST: Peverley. Good God, this was horrifying. Look at the faces from the crowd, look at the other players. I’m so glad I wasn’t around for the Hank Gathers death, and so glad Peverley’s OK.
BEST: Beverley. We talked plenty about Patrick Beverley on Tuesday, and then that night he went out and got into it with Russell Westbrook all over again. Two additional thoughts after Tuesday’s random email thread. First, we settled on Red Bull Beverley, but I think I still love Spartak and Horse Thief more. And @Mort2St suggests “Gnat Beverley,” which might be the best of all.
And one other story from high school: When I was a freshman, our star player was getting annoyed with another guard who harassed him on defense every practice. Like Beverley, he made up for lack of skill by being the most unbearable player on the court at all times. One practice the star hit a breaking point, and as he brought the ball past half court he just pegged it at this other dude’s face as hard as he could. I’m telling you this story because there’s an 80 percent chance this exact scenario plays out if Russ Westbrook ever has to play against Beverley for six or seven games in a row.
Please, God, give us a Rockets-Thunder series in six weeks.
WORST: Bad luck. #SoWizards.
BEST: THE HAMMER. You know, we were gonna end this with a long piece on Blake Griffin destroying worlds in the Western Conference, but it’s Friday. It’s also March. There will be time to discuss Blake. For now let’s just focus on Marcin Gortat, a.k.a. the Polish Hammer, a.k.a. the Polish Machine. He sat down and gave an interview to Kyle Weidie at True Hoop this week, and the whole thing was spectacular.
Which nickname does he prefer? “I’m known more for Polish Hammer, but people that know me very well, they’re using more Machine. There are times where sometimes machine stands more, there’s times where hammer stands more. It depends. When you got 70 games of the season and I’m still running like a deer, I’m still lifting like crazy and dunking and doing all this stuff in the practice, that’s the time when they call ‘Machine.’ But there’s a time when I’m blocking a lot of shots and dunking on somebody in the game, and they call ‘Hammer.’ So, there’s a difference.”
He’s interested in running for president of Poland one day? “Let’s put it this way: I’m real interested in politics, I’m talking to a lot of politician people, and I’m real interested in everything. But if I decide to do it, I will start slowly from a small seat, and try to go up and climb that ladder.”
What would he change about the NBA? “I would loosen up a little bit the rules about the fighting fines … Because today you go to an ice hockey game, and the one thing they’re waiting for is a fight, you know what I’m saying? So if they could set it up something like that in the NBA. That if there are two guys and they have a problem, if they could just separate everybody. And these two people that have problem, if they could fight … ”
There are three separate takeaways from all this. First, THE HAMMER HAS #HOOPIDEAS!!!
Second, whenever Marcin Gortat becomes president of Poland, Polish pro basketball is gonna get really, really awesome.
Third, Europeans make everything more fun.
Finally, every single week there’s stuff like this, where an interview with some random athlete ends up being the most entertaining thing you read all day. Remember this. There’s so much sports news in 2014 that sometimes you’re waterboarded with bigger stories you don’t really care about (nonstop updates on Phil Jackson this week) and it can all feel like the worst. It’s easier than ever to complain about this, and I do it all the time. But there’s a flip side, too. This is also the era when there are more ways than ever to find out about guys like Marcin Gortat.
What I’m saying is … anytime we start to bitch about the media in 2014, we should probably all remember that Marcin Gortat listens to “Miami joints, club music and trance music” to get ready for games, and his lifelong hero is Steven Seagal. Life is good, you know?
Word to Steven Stegal, word to the Polish Hammer Machine.