Parity on comeback trail
Tame free-agent market could help level playing field in 2010
Instead of being a boon to the pockets of veteran players, this year's free-agency period might actually contribute to a return of parity in the league.
In most given years, franchises deemed woefully lacking the previous season have opted for expensive shopping sprees once the free-agency doors were thrown open, spending enormous sums in an effort to patch glaring holes in their lineups. But with more than 200 free agents who otherwise would have been unrestricted players instead relegated to the more stringent restricted ranks by the quirks of an uncapped year, the checkbooks have not been nearly as necessary.
The typical flurry has been replaced by relative frugality as many teams have chosen to pursue the status quo by re-signing their own players rather than pursuing replacements.
"Maybe more than ever, the [focus] in on keeping your own roster intact," said Houston general manager Rick Smith, who maintained the Texans' potent passing game by re-signing No. 2 wide receiver Kevin Walter, arguably one of the top unrestricted players in a diluted talent pool. "The key has always been to try to keep your own. But because of the makeup of the [unrestricted] pool this year, with the uncapped situation taking out so many guys, that's probably more the case."
A Chicago Bears team that hasn't returned to the playoffs since its 2006 Super Bowl XLI season jumped out quickly with big-dollar free-agent contracts for defensive end Julius Peppers, tailback Chester Taylor and tight end Brandon Manumaleuna, but few other clubs have entered the financial fray.
Instead of seeking outside solutions, teams are investing in the players they know best.
Through Monday evening, 13 of the 32 franchises had yet to sign an outside player of any kind, either an unrestricted free agent or a "street" veteran who had been released by another club. Eighteen teams had not yet added a player who was projected as a starter in 2010. Only five teams signed more than one veteran player who figured to be a starter in 2010.
Clubs such as New England, which won its division in 2009 but was ousted in the wild-card round, focused the majority of their free-agent efforts on keeping their players around. The largely homegrown Patriots typically add only a few veterans from other teams in any given year, but have all but turned their backs on outsiders this spring.
Said outside linebacker Tully Banta-Cain, an unrestricted free agent who chose to re-up with the Pats: "I think [management] feels that the nucleus here is good and, with another season of us being together, the team can be that much better."
That seems to be an overarching sentiment around much of the NFL, and that's where the parity theory, brought to light by ESPN.com blogger Bill Williamson, applies: With so many franchises electing to maintain the status quo (or the status quo plus one chronological year), clubs seem to be relying on one more season of maturity -- certainly one more year under the same system -- to stimulate improvement. Teams will be a year older, for sure, but might also be a year more advanced.
Change for the better must, by definition, come from within. Coaches may find out that the lack of leaguewide reshuffling might actually be advantageous.
"You're going to have a lot of [teams] starting from where they left off instead of starting over again with new people," said Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt. "And I think that kind of fosters growth, because there's a familiarity quotient there that might not have existed otherwise. You're not going to have the same learning curve from the first day. There isn't going to be as much change."
Added Tampa Bay coach Raheem Morris, "It evens things out when you don't have a good many teams adding so many new starters [from the outside]."
Like perhaps the league standings.
The 2009 season was one in which the NFL's much-ballyhooed parity took a broadside hit. There were 10 teams that won double-digit games, four with 12 victories or more, but also eight clubs with five or fewer wins, three of them with three or fewer. Of the league's eight divisions, half were decided by at least two games. Three were decided by four games or more.
The NFL is hardly accustomed to having so many divisional battles completed by the start of the final month of the campaign. But the uncapped year, with so few franchises able or willing to reach outside their own borders for help, may remedy that.
Len Pasquarelli, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.