After yelling "Kuhn" and praising Jeff Janis, there is no modern tradition among Green Bay Packers fans quite like ripping Ted Thompson for being inactive in free agency. Free agency is tempting for everyone because invariably there are big names out there that you've heard of, and people like to dream about one more player putting their team over the top. People think spending in free agency is obviously correct because they see obvious flaws, and obviously good players who could step right in and fix the obvious problem.
Running a football team is much more complicated than that - but not really. It actually is quite simple, just in ways that most of us tend to ignore. As I probably mention far too often, I have been a baseball sabermetric aficionado for a long time, and while football and baseball are vastly different sports and people like to tell me that "your stupid numbers crap doesn't work in football," there are a few instances where the lessons of baseball actually work even better in football. This is one of them.
Baseball has no traditional salary cap. It does have a secret salary cap in which teams control the rights to their drafted players for their first 6 years of major league service time (which generally constitutes the prime of their careers given new aging patterns), and there is a luxury tax to keep some of the richer teams at bay. In general, though, a baseball team can spend as much money as it wants to spend. The NFL, on the other hand, operates under a hard salary cap, and so signing player A will always affect your ability to sign player B.
Building a team in any sport is generally about creating surplus value. If teams generally spend X dollars per win and you can spend less than that per win, you will be in good shape. This is especially true when your dollars are capped. If the New York Yankees have a $150 million payroll for only 81 wins worth of talent and they want to buy another 10 wins on the open market, it will be expensive, but they can do it. If an NFL team has $150 million and only 8 wins of talent on the roster, they are basically stuck. It is imperative that an NFL team get surplus value from their young players and from extending their already-signed players at a reasonable cost, because failure to do so puts a team in an impossible position.
Baseball General Managers have another advantage over football GMs in that almost any position on a baseball team can be worth as much as any other position. A great-hitting first baseman and a great-fielding shortstop with an average bat will provide roughly the same value. Football is completely different - the quarterbacks are far more valuable than every other position. Outside of quarterbacks, no other individual position is worth an entire win by itself, meaning that one player alone almost never makes a noticeable difference.
Still, buying a win in football on the free agent market is possible. Some positions cascade value throughout the offense or defense; for instance, an improvement to the pass rush makes the secondary "better" by making the opposing quarterback make quicker decisions, or the presence of Jordy Nelson creates better matchups for Randall Cobb. That is tricky though, and much more about imaginative scheme fit than simply finding the "best" player at a position. It is also the reason that smart GMs prefer to re-sign their own players as, at the very least, they know about scheme fit.
With all of this in mind, I think Ted Thompson operates under a few very simple rules:
- Players drafted in the first 3-4 rounds are about as likely to succeed as free agent acquisitions, and if they fail, the financial impact is far less.
- For most positions, it is nearly impossible to sign a free agent, especially a well-known free agent, who will provide surplus value.
- Player who are considered "good" will always be overpaid in free agency.
- Running backs and inside linebackers are, respectively, the least valuable positions on offense and defense.
- If an "older" player possesses many tools and 80-grade athleticism (on the 20-80 scale), he will likely age gracefully, and may be worth signing if he plays a position capable of providing cascade value. (The Woodson/Peppers Rule)
- That said, football is fundamentally a young person's game, and young rosters will tend to be better than old rosters.
- I work for a team based in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and NFL free agents will often require a premium to come here.
- For most positions, waiver wire fodder is as good or better than "medium salaried" veterans.
I saw a lot of kvetching about Danny Trevathan going to the Bears, but the modest contract they handed out (which really only requires he remain there for two years) shows you just how little the NFL values the inside linebacker position in general. Thompson is merely an extreme practitioner of what most of the NFL knows.* The big-name running backs (Martin, Ivory, Forte, Miller) all signed with middling to bad teams, because middling to bad teams are the kind of teams that pay big money for free agent running backs.
*A quick aside: having a good middle/inside linebacker is better than not having one, and bad ILB can be exploited by smart offenses and especially by read option teams, but ILB, far from cascading other value elsewhere, generally needs to have other positions around it playing well. Call it the Mike Singletary rule if you want. The big bodies in front need to occupy blockers more ILBs to get clean shots. The safeties need to be able to compress the field to allow ILBs to be decent in pass coverage. I often liken ILB to 2nd base in baseball. There are, famously, no "2nd base prospects" (except for Rickie Weeks), merely shortstops who aren't quite good enough for shortstop. Similarly, there are no ILB prospects, merely OLBs who can't play OLB. See also, A.J. Hawk.
Thompson does sometimes play in free agency, and very successfully as with Woodson and Peppers, and that success should lead us to trust him more, not less. Screwing up in free agency can be devastating for a team. The Packers currently employ two excellent guards in T.J. Lang and Josh Sitton, and both will be free agents after the 2016 season. Guard is a valuable position, and Thompson will probably look to extend at least one if not both of those players, but to do that he will need cap space. Signing some big name free agent now will impact his ability to re-sign two excellent players who already understand the scheme. It would essentially be trading a known quantity at a position of value for an unknown quantity who may or may not fit into what they want to do. It's a high burden to overcome.
This is what it all comes down to in the grand scheme of things. Ted Thompson does sign free agents, but there are a lot of internal checks on doing so, and consequently the signings are rare, well-vetted, and ultimately tend to be successful. The simple fact is the more active you are in free agency, the more likely you are to lose. The game is rigged for those who play judiciously, and rigged against anyone who dabbles too frequently. Thompson will always be lambasted due to the very human preference to take action in the face of adversity. It is the strong, savvy, disciplined manager who can maintain his cool, and choose inaction in the vast majority of the time when it is appropriate.