Let's Not Make a Deal
Another NFL trade deadline has come and gone, with the total sum of activity being one minor transaction: the Eagles' trade of defensive tackle Isaac Sopoaga and a sixth-round pick to the Patriots for a fifth-rounder. As usual, rumors of potential franchise-altering moves—names like Larry Fitzgerald and Adrian Peterson were even being floated—never moved beyond fantasy. NFL rosters—molded, assembled and architected through the long offseason—largely are the same as they were at the start of the season and will be at the end. The NFL trade deadline is one of those rare times where my mantra—“deadlines spur action”—doesn't apply.
It's rare when an opportunity to create conversation around the NFL falls short compared to other major sports leagues. There's more “buzz” around the NBA (late February) and MLB (late July) deadlines than there is for the NFL. Let's examine why.
Game of schemes
Although there have been some notable exceptions, trading in the NFL is rare, especially at the deadline. One primary reason is the nature of the game itself.
Football is schematic. Fitting players into these sometimes-complicated schemes—no matter their talent—is not as seamless as other sports in which the transition from one team to another is based largely on talent, especially in the middle of the season.
We witnessed the disastrous performance a week ago by Josh Freeman soon after being acquired by the Vikings. Although Freeman was a free agent signing rather than a trade—the Buccaneers desperately and unsuccessfully tried to trade him before releasing him—the point is the same: the transfer of a player’s skillset from one system to another, even if similar, is problematic.
We often hear the all-too-common rationalization for the subpar performance of a new acquisition—whether acquired in free agency or trade—that he needs time to assimilate. Of course, midseason trades only exacerbate the difficulty.
Why is he available?
Teams don’t trade players seen as valuable to the team’s future. When hearing from team executives about an available player, my default question was always “Why don’t you want him?” Typically, the desire to unload arises from positional surpluses, a player not fitting the scheme of a new coaching staff, cap issues, etc. Translated, teams offering players at the deadline are really saying, We don’t want him; please give us something so we don’t have to cut him and get nothing!
As alluded to above with Freeman, Buccaneers general manager Mark Dominik had no leverage to extract value for his then-embattled quarterback, as in order to maintain relationships around the NFL he had to be honest about Freeman’s issues with Greg Schiano and the likelihood of a divorce even in the event of no trade.
There are times, however, that changed circumstances due to injuries present opportunities—and leverage—to spur a deal. The biggest trade this season—the Browns sending Trent Richardson to the Colts for a 2014 first-round pick—happened primarily due to the Colts’ losing running back Vick Ballard to injury. And despite initial, near-universal reaction otherwise, my immediate read on the trade was that the Browns took advantage of the Colts’ injury situation and an impulsive owner, and that Richardson is not the elite player some thought. Cleveland was able to garner a first-round pick—as valuable currency as there is in the NFL—for a player not part of the team’s future.
More than most know, teams that trade players often high-five in the glow of addition by subtraction.
Cap and cash concerns
Another traditional impediment to NFL trading has been financial, with the acquiring team assuming what may be an onerous contract (for instance, Jared Allen’s remaining $7.6 million made him an unattractive trade option despite reports of interest) and the trading team accelerating cap charges for the following season of the unamortized portion of the traded player's contract.
With improved overall cap management in recent years and, frankly, less money spent on players, teams are now better equipped to trade and take on cap and cash charges. Even so, there is still hesitation by increasingly future-focused general managers, especially with only a modest cap increase projected in 2014.
When with the Packers, I once drafted a proposal along with then-general manager Ron Wolf to allow teams to trade cap room. The thought was that teams could use effective cap management to their advantage, selling space to willing teams teetering perilously close to the limit. Unfortunately, the proposal was a nonstarter; the NFL responded that teams “make their bed” with cap and contract decisions, and should not be bailed out by better-managed teams through trade.
Despite the NFL prohibition on trades for cap or cash, teams have figured out a (legal) way around it. Earlier this season, both Levi Brown, traded from the Cardinals to the Steelers, and Eugene Monroe, traded by the Jaguars to the Ravens, had their existing contracts adjusted for trade purposes. The Cardinals and Jaguars both paid large portions of the players’ 2013 compensation by converting salary to bonus in order to facilitate trades in legal circumvention of the rule preventing cash and cap trades. It will be interesting to see if this becomes a trend for teams to pay players so that other teams will take them for any modicum of compensation.
A final issue complicating activity at the trade deadline is that often players rumored in trade discussions —among them this year Hakeem Nicks, Kenny Britt and Allen—are in the final year of their contract. Thus, trading for a player in the last year of his contract is often part of two parallel discussions: one with the team about trade compensation and one with the agent about contract compensation.
When the Packers attempted to acquire Randy Moss from the Raiders during the 2007 draft, we had negotiations both with Al Davis on draft choice compensation for Moss and with Moss’ agent on a contract (his Raiders contract was prohibitive and would be replaced). Moss and his agent demanded a one-year contract, to allow him to become a free agent in a matter of months, which was a deal breaker for us (we wanted at least two years). When the Patriots acquiesced to that length, our agreement on draft choice compensation with Davis became moot. In these trade/contract negotiations, each negotiation depends on the other. This is another complication causing lack of trade activity this time of year.
Finally, were a team to trade a player in the final year of his contract, it would forego potential compensatory draft choice compensation were that player to leave in free agency. Although the formula for determining compensatory draft picks remains a mystery even to the most seasoned of NFL executives, there is some potential rebate when losing a productive player in free agency.
As with many things, the NFL trading deadline—this year and all years—is more smoke than fire. Even when players are moved, the impact appears limited at best. Football and trading don't appear to be a consistently workable complement.