As Tom James of the Tribune Star noted recently, the last time the Colts went this 'nuts' in free agency was 1999. That year, after an awful 3-13 season with a rookie Peyton Manning, then-Colts President Bill Polian jumped into free agency and spent big money on Chad Bratzke, Cornelius Bennett, Chad Cota, and Shawn King. He locked these guys up to long-term, expensive deals at the time, and while they helped Indy in the short term, the signings did more to hurt the Colts than help them.
Bratzke, while a nice guy, was really nothing more than a decent defensive end. He had just one season in New York with the Giants where he got double-digit sacks, and this one season led to the Colts signing him to a huge free agent contract. He earned 12 sacks in '99, but he was never a dominant pass rusher his contract warranted.
The Cota signing was simply ridiculous. Polian had drafted Cota while in Carolina as the Panthers G.M. Cota couldn't cover to save his life. He might have been the slowest safety I've ever seen on any playing surface. Imagine Peyton Manning, but playing safety. That was Chad Cota.
Bennett, like Cota, was another former-Polian player. Polian got the rights to Bennett when he
hustled Jim Irsay convinced Jim Irsay to trade the rights to Bennett (who the Colts had drafted in 1987) to Buffalo as part of the infamous Eric Dickerson trade. Bennett played six season in Buffalo under Polian's watch. He was 34-years-old when the Colts signed him as a free agent in '99. Bennett blew out his knee in '99, and left football after the 2000 season.
Shawn King was an abject disaster. He got a three-year, $6 million dollar deal in '99. After nine games, he was suspended four games by then-Colts coach Jim Mora for missing meetings. He then got suspended for twelve months for a drug violation. He missed the entire 2000 season. King, like Cota, was drafted by Bill Polian in Carolina.
Prior to 1999, Polian blew a bunch of 'free agent' money on corners Jeff Burris and Tyrone Poole during the '98 offseason. Burris was drafted by the Bills in '94. Poole was drafted by (you guessed it) Bill Polian in Carolina back in '95.
So, when you really look at this period, the supposed 'free agent splurge' of 1998 and 1999 was just Polian signing players he'd drafted at other franchises. The only real 'free agent' (i.e., someone he did not draft at another team) was Bratzke, and he was the best player of the bunch.
None of these moves truly helped the Colts defense. They gave up 27.8 ppg in '98 (29th in NFL), 20.8 ppg in '99 (17th in the NFL), 20.4 ppg in 2000 (15th) and 30.4 per game in 2001 (dead last).
That's an average of 25 ppg surrendered over a four year span.
The Colts went 32-32 during those four years, and were 0-2 in the playoffs. After the 2001 season, the Colts had so much dead cap invested in crappy former-Panthers that the team had to go to a 'youth movement.'
The causality in all of these ridiculous 'free agent' signings wasn't the guy who made them (Bill Polian), but head coach Jim Mora. Despite most of these players being garbage talent Bill Polian had drafted in Carolina, Mora got the ax for the team nose-diving in 2001. It's pretty common knowledge in local Indy media that, back in 2001, the situation was so bad between Polian and Mora that they could no longer work together. Polian had given Mora garbage to work with, and Polian had severely damaged the Colts cap in the process. But, it was Mora who got canned for the team's poor record.
Mora and Polian are supposedly still not on speaking terms to this day because of this, and, quite frankly, I don't blame Mora. Polian scapegoated him.
So, when I hear people moan 'Ohhhhhhhh no! Free agency is baaaaaaaaad,' I chuckle because what is equally bad is re-signing overvalued players the team's GM drafted to equally stupid contracts, like Chad Cota in '99. Or Kelvin Hayden in '09. Or Gary Brackett in '10. What's 'bad' is investing significant money and years in mediocre players. Doesn't matter if they are free agents from other clubs, or homegrown.
That said, these recent signings are very good, and are an example of how smart free agency can potentially help a roster. The great thing about this rare period of free agency is that the money you can tie up in good talent doesn't need to be that much. Ernie Sims, Tommie Harris, and Jamaal Anderson all got one-year deals. Low risk, high reward. Now that we know the Colts are $15 mill under the 2011 cap, why not get a few more?