March is typically a month reserved for basketball hype; NBA playoffs loom and the NCAA tournament begins. However, unbeknownst to many people, NFL free agents are trying to find employement. Free agency plays a huge role in preserving the “any given Sunday” parity that seems to exist in the NFL, which is one of the biggest reasons why the NFL is so popular. If you don’t believe that the NFL has the best parity of any major sports league consider the following facts from last season. First, the dominant Super Bowl champion Seahawks lost to the Colts by 6 points in week 5. The Colts later lost to the Rams by 30 points. The same St. Louis team then lost to the eventual 4-12 Atlanta Falcons. The “any given Sunday” mantra really is true in the NFL, and it gives every single game the potential to be a thriller. In a season with only 16 games “any given Sunday” can have a huge impact on playoff berths, something proven each year when teams that missed playoff spots the year before, wind up on the road to the Super Bowl. Free agency is crucial to maintaining parity for many reasons, and while it is often overlooked for basketball, NFL free agency should be recognized as one of the great tools that keeps the NFL great.
One of the most obvious,(and superficial) reasons free agency supports parody is that it allows teams to add players to fill weaknesses that were exposed during the season. However, just thinking that all teams can add players is oversimplifying the process. Bad teams generally have a significant advantage over great teams in terms of ability to improve through free agency. Bad teams can often steal good players from great teams, while great teams have little to gain from weaker teams. This is often most notable with the very best teams that made it furthest into the playoffs, which is part of the reason why it is so difficult to win back to back Super Bowls.
While not every Super Bowl champion has a plethora of pending free agents, the tendency for NFL contracts to be short does ensure that reigning champions will have some players who will be able to test the open market. These players will almost always want more money than their previous contract, and with good reason, they are now a Super Bowl winning caliber player. Even a few free agents leaving can knock a champion back down to the ranks of mediocrity. A great example of this is the 2013 Ravens, who were forced to pay quarterback and Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco what was a record sum of money. As a result the Ravens were unable to keep their own pending free agents and unable to add any free agents from other teams to help sure up any weaknesses. Unsurprisingly, the cash-strapped Ravens were unable to find anywhere near the amount of success they had the year before.
There are several reasons why this is all possible in the NFL and not as possible in other major sports. One of the first reasons is that in general NFL contracts are shorter and less valuable than most other leagues, especially MLB or NHL contracts that can last 10 years or more. A 10-year NFL contract is unheard of, and the lower value of NFL contracts means that jumping teams for a few more dollar signs is a much bigger factor for NFL players. In fact, of the 4 major sports leagues (MLB, NBA, NFL, NHL) the NFL ranks last in terms of average salary according to Forbes, with NBA players averaging nearly 3 times as much as NFL players. Thus, for the pending free agent in the NFL, an extra million dollars per year may be enough to pry him from his former team, whereas that money means less to the average NBA player who might rather take less money to stay with a top tier team. This reason is dependent upon another facet of the NFL that is unique, the number of players of a team. An NFL team has 52 players on the active roster and many more on its practice squad. An NBA team would never need more than 15 players total. So, in the NFL there are a lot more role players who are making well below what the biggest contracts offer, which is partially why the average contract value is lower.
An NFL team is dependent upon so many players that it is often so difficult to keep a great team completely intact as some role players are bound to chase bigger contracts in other locations. With so many players, it is so hard to have a lot of free cap space. In the NBA is it not unheard of to only have 2 or 3 players under contract for the next year (see this year’s Lakers), but such a thing would be crazy in the NFL. An NFL team would be hard pressed to do what the Miami Heat did and purge their roster and then sign several maximum contracts.
Overall, these factors all combine and create a system in which players tend to gravitate towards moving to worse teams but for more money. Even if great teams can resign their players, they often are forced to do so at a higher price, which leaves them less room to spend in other areas. Essentially, free agency in the NFL is an overlooked but critical part of what makes the NFL the league with the most parity.Photo via Wikipedia