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Small Market Rountable: Free Agent Attraction to Big Market Cities

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Somehow, I feel this picture is appropriate when discussing the subject of money.
I was asked to fill-in this column last minute because Kirkendall, the head blogger over at Cincy Jungle, had to appear in court as a character witness for Odell Thurman. Ok, ok, I kid. Kirkendall and BrianG asked me to fill-in for SB Nation's excellent Small Market Roundtable series because Kirkdendall had another obligation. Of course, I was honored to be sloppy seconds to Kirkendall. The first two stories in this series were quite good:

Big Cat Country: Relocation, the NFL, and you!
Pride of Detroit: Big, Shiny New Stadiums

So, I've got a high standard to meet. My topic: Free Agent Attraction to Big Market Cities.

One of the overall goals in this roundtable, which is the brain child of SB Nation bloggers RiverCityRage and BrianG, is to identify and discuss the problems and perils of being a "small market" team in today's NFL. It is just a simple fact of life that big market cities, like New York, San Francisco, Chicago, and Miami, are going to generate more local revenue than the Jacksonvilles and Buffalos of America. Listen, there's a reason why I split my time between New York and Indianapolis: There's more to do in NYC! Indy is developing into a fun town, but it's the difference between, say, Jay Cutler and Peyton Manning. One looks like it could be fun and exciting; the other is, and has been for some time (and has a bigger forehead too).

Naturally, with more possibilities in terms of quality of living, endorsements, and (with certain markets) climate, players are going to gravitate to large market free agent opportunities more so than small market opportunities if (and it is a big if) all things are equal.

Take the recent episode involving Willis McGahee. Willis was recently traded from the Buffalo Bills to the Baltimore Ravens. While in Buffalo, Willis actually complained that there wasn't much to do, and when he was traded, he did the following:

"I was yelling and [stuff], running through the whole house, screaming, 'Yes! Yes!'" McGahee says. "It was such a relief."
He wanted more of a night life, a party scene, something to back-his-booty-up-against! Remember folks, this is the same Willis McGahee that thought Buffalo, NY was actually New York, NY when the Bills drafted him. This should have sent off an immediate red light for Bills management when they drafted him. A player should be focused on one thing and one thing only: Football. He's paid money, lots of money, to perform on the field, not party at the local Applebees. And contrary to popular belief, you do need at least a fourth grade education to play pro football, which explains why Willis McGahee was a bust in Buffalo, and why he will likely stink it up Baltimore in 2007.

This past off-season, the major free agent signings that got all the headlines involved players going to big market clubs. Nate Clements, a mediocre CB in Buffalo, left the small market Bills to sign an 8 year, $80 million dollar contract with the San Francisco 49ers, making him the highest paid defensive player in the NFL. LBer Adalius Thomas left the big market Baltimore Ravens, but rather than sign with a club like Buffalo or Jacksonville, he signed with the New England Patriots, another big market team. The reason large market teams are able to offer Clements-like contracts to these players has more to do with local revenues than it does anything else. Markets like Dallas and Seattle are able to create and generate more local revenue, thus resulting in them building new, luxury stadiums (usually with the help of taxpayer money) that will in turn generate (drum roll please) more local revenue.

The inherent problem with this is local revenue is not shared among the 32 NFL teams. League revenue, like broadcasting and ad revenue, shares about 80% of its revenues with the 32 NFL teams. That, coupled with a hard salary cap, makes it possible for a team in Indianapolis to win more games the last ten years than the teams in Chicago, Dallas, and San Francisco. However, with the salary cap increasing 60% the last three years ($85.5 in 2005, $109 million in 2006, and an expected $139 million by 2008), free agent players are able to "cash in" on the "extra cap" that many teams have. This is especially true if the free agent market is not especially strong, such as this past off-season. Adalius Thomas and Nate Clements are fine players, but neither one are difference makers worthy of the contracts they signed; Clements especially. And while it is good for these players to "cash in" on this opportunity, the ripple effect is where the real damage is done. Players like Champ Bailey, who is leaps and bounds better than Nate Clements, is now making less money than Clements. Should he choose, he can insist that his contract get re-structured. Bailey knows full and well his team, the Denver Broncos, have no shot to make the playoffs without him. Therefore, he is in a good position to leverage his team for more money. This is why Patriots CB Asante Samuel is holding out in New England. The Patriots decided to spend all their money on wide receivers this off-season rather than offer Samuel, who is better than Nate Clements, a long-term deal. Now he's holding out, and without him the Patriots have no chance to win a Super Bowl.

Owners like Daniel Snyder are still clueless when it comes to free agency.
Photo: AP

Situations like these, caused by mediocre players taking advantage of a weak free agency market, could wreck havoc with small market teams who want to retain franchise-players.

This past October, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell sent a memo to the teams outlining a new revenue sharing plan. This memo seemed to ease the concerns of owners like Ralph Wilson and Mike Brown, which should give fans of NFL small market teams hope. Unlike lost causes like Major League Baseball, the NFL has a pro-active culture that often puts forth good faith efforts to correct problems such as revenue sharing, player conduct, etc. The NFL is not stupid. They know the reason for their success is the perception created that any team can win any given Sunday. Such a statement cannot be said with a straight face in leagues like the MLB. NFL Owners like Jerry Jones and Daniel Snyder simply cannot buy their way to a Super Bowl. Such a philosophy was Jerry Jones' back in the early 1990s. Since the advent of the hard salary cap, Jones' Cowboys have yet to win a playoff game.

So, I've diagnosed the problem, laid out the details, and illustrated why many large market teams can attract NFL free agents. So what's the solution? As a fan, the solution is simple: Chill. Free agents rarely, if ever, mean the difference between winning and losing in the NFL. Again, unlike the lost cause that is the MLB, there is no guarantee that signing a big money free agent will put you over the top, regardless of how big or small your market is. Drafting smart and sticking to your salary cap plan will often win you more games. This is why such a high premium is placed on the NFL Draft. A team has a better chance of winning drafting a Patrick Willis than it does signing an Adalius Thomas. The best example of this is the Washington Redskins. The Skins place little emphasis on the draft and a heavy emphasis on signing free agents. This explains why the Redskins have STUNK pretty much since the days of Mark Rypien and Earnest Byner.

If your organization is sound, your ownership solid, and your front office top-notch, then your club will have a good chance to win games and stay cap-happy. As a fan, you should expect your team to run a tight ship and navigate the financial waters with smarts. Don't let the allure of a high-priced free agent goad you into giving management a free pass. Remember, while NFL contracts are not guaranteed, a bust free agent player can still carry a hefty cap hit well after the player has been cut. This is why the Indianapolis Colts have not cut DT Corey Simon yet. If they did, he would still count $8 million against their cap both this year and next. OUCH!

The bottom line here is free agents simply aren't that important. They can help, especially if they are low cost, under-the-radar players. However, most big name free agents will likely make some splash headlines, but really, when it is all said and done, sound drafting and cap-management win you more games than spending moola on over-priced players. Because of this, small market teams should not worry. If your house is in order, you haven't got much to worry about. The wins will come.