In the 2011 offseason, the Philadelphia Eagles attempted to go from good to great by adding a slew of big-name free agents to their roster. After being knocked out of the playoffs in Wild Card Weekend the year before, the team added what appeared to be the missing pieces to kickstart a Super Bowl run. The moves backfired and the team spiraled out of control before midseason. Just five years later, not a single one of these offseason acquisitions remains on the roster. The team now serves as a modern cautionary tale about the woes of building a team through free agency.
Yet, teams continue to dole out big bucks to attract free agents to their teams, with similarly poor results. Not having learned from their past mistakes, the Eagles attempted a similar splurge last offseason, inking Demarco Murray and Byron Maxwell to big money contracts as well as adding Sam Bradford through trade. The team was a full-blown disaster, finishing 7-9 and firing Coach Chip Kelly before the end of the season. Similarly, in recent years, the Miami Dolphins have attempted to model their team building through free agency. They’ve added big names like Ndamukong Suh, Brent Grimes, Mike Wallace, Reggie Bush, and, most recently, Mario Williams in free agency. They currently sit in one of the worst cap situations in the league and they haven’t won more than eight games since 2008.
Traditional wisdom says that big spending in free agency is a misguided way of building a team. Due to the new CBA in 2011, the league is now directly built to the advantage of teams who draft, develop, and retain players. The teams with the deepest, most stable rosters in the league, like the Packers and the Seahawks, have been built almost exclusively through the draft, only using free agency to plug holes with reasonably priced veterans. Aside from signing Julius Thomas, the Packers have, in fact, aggressively avoided using the avenue of free agency.
This offseason, we’ve seen teams like the Jaguars, Giants, and Raiders lure high-priced free agents to their teams in the opening days of free agency. Of course, pundits have already written them off as just the next in the long line of teams pulled in by the allure of free agency, soon to crash and burn just like any number of teams before them.
Except, recent history tells us that this may not be the case. The past two championship teams have been built heavily through free agency. In 2012, John Elway lured perhaps the biggest free agent of all time, Peyton Manning, to the Broncos after the Colts decided to move on to the Andrew Luck era. The next offseason, the team added key contributors through Louis Vasquez, Terrance Knighton, Dominque Rodgers-Cromartie, and Wes Welker. That year, the team sported one of the best offenses in league history and it ran through the AFC almost unscathed, finishing with a league-best 13-3 and scoring a record 606 points during the regular season. It wasn’t enough. The team was humiliated by a more physical Seahawks team in the championship game.
That offseason, Elway set out to reshape his roster into one like the team that had kept them from winning a Super Bowl, a team that wouldn’t be bullied by the powerhouses of the NFC. With an aging Quarterback, he knew that he didn’t have the luxury of time on his side. He couldn’t wait to draft and develop a punishing defense. Elway added three blue chip defensive talents in Aqib Talib, DeMarcus Ware, and T.J. Ward in free agency that year, as well as elite receiver Emmanuel Sanders. After a "one and done" appearance in January, the team added another starting safety in Darian Stewart during the next offseason. Elway’s investments paid off with massive returns in the next season. Despite the diminished talent of Manning, the team sported the league’s best defense, allowing the least yards per game over the course of the season. It also lead the league in sacks and allowed the fourth least points per game in the NFL. The defense carried the team through the playoffs, even though Manning acted as little more than a game manager during this time. Just like during Elway’s final year, Manning was allowed to ride off into the sunset as a champion, even though he was no longer the reason why his team was winning.
The year before, the Super Bowl-winning Patriots roster was similarly built through free agency. The Patriots added key contributors like Danny Amendola, Darrelle Revis, Patrick Chung, and Brandon LaFell in the two years leading to their title run in 2014. Revis, in particular, was the type of big-name addition that makes analysts preach about the perils of free agency, signing a 1 year and $12 million prove-it deal in 2014. These additions lead to the team getting over their 10-year-long title drought, with their first Super Bowl victory since 2004.Of course, the nucleus of both of these teams was built through the draft. Lineups with the likes of Von Miller, Demaryius Thomas, and Dereck Wolfe come from success on draft day. The same holds true for the Patriots. The building blocks to a consistently successful team still do come from drafting and developing the core of a team. With the salary cap as it is, it isn’t a sustainable model to construct the bulk of a team in free agency. However, recent history tells us that just using that isn’t enough to get a team over the hump. There’s a reason why the Packers haven’t been able to get over the hump in January, despite possessing a generational talent at Quarterback. Free agency provides a direct avenue to add star power to a team without the time commitment of the draft. So, the next time when a team inks a couple of March’s darlings to offensively large deals, please ignore the comments of the network analysts and think back to how other championship teams have come together.