Let’s Not Make a Deal

The NFL has cornered the market on excitement and intrigue. So why is the trade deadline always so boring and anticlimactic? A few factors are at play in why the deadline is usually a dud

By
Andrew Brandt
· More from Andrew·
Jared Allen (left) and Josh Gordon were two of the bigger names being mentioned in trade rumors. Both ultimately went nowhere. (Rich Gabrielson/Icon SMI :: Mark Duncan/AP)
Jared Allen (left) and Josh Gordon were two of the bigger names being mentioned in trade rumors. Both ultimately went nowhere. (Rich Gabrielson/Icon SMI :: Mark Duncan/AP)

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.

Trent Richardson was the rare case of a legitimately blockbuster deal in the NFL, and it happened during the season. (Jason Miller/Getty Images :: Ben Margot/AP)
Trent Richardson was the rare case of a legitimately blockbuster deal in the NFL, and it happened during the season. (Jason Miller/Getty Images :: Ben Margot/AP)

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. 

Contract year

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.

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18 comments
SonnyShine
SonnyShine

The NFL isn't poker...it is possible to have 5 aces. So, with that in mind there is a good possibility that the team is stacked in one position and have to make a decision to help in an area of concern.

Thomas80
Thomas80

agree with alot of the great Andrew Brandt, but come on lets call it like it is, most of these GM's other than a handful of the proven guys, are scared to death "chickens" to make any kind of big move involving a star,superstar or young ultra talented player with some off field past issues, because there is a 25% chance at least, that the player they pick up will get in trouble, or if older get injured.  And the GM is gonna be the one that catches all the heat for the move and if it works out great he might get a little credit, but these guys are thinking about their job security, and their big fat paychecks more than taking a chance on winning a title or more games.  To me, I'm split on acquiring talent thru trades, if you have an old team that doesn't have a true franchise QB, even if your somewhat in contention for your division title, you can JUMPSTART a super rebuilding phase by a year or two by trading an all pro veteran to a contending team. that to me is a no brainer, why do the Vikes want to pay Jared Allen 10+ million a year, when he is clearly a declining player and they could have gotten a bunch of draft picks next year(in a pretty loaded draft class) U stack those extra picks, with a decent 2012 draft, maybe one more losing year, then u got 3 potential strong draft classes to build a real title contender.  Thats how I would approach being a GM.  If u have a franchise QB, then u have a shot to win a title or make a deep run, if you don't, well then you should be stock piling draft picks and locking up your young talent already on the team.  

the team I am most intrigued by and have a soft spot in my heart for is the Cleveland Browns, not sure why, I have no ties to that city or area, and am a lifelong GB packer fan.  But I look at their roster, and I see a ton of young talent all across the board, lots of "better than average" type of prospects.  think what a Jam Winston or Teddy Bridgewater under center could bring to a franchise like that???

Sure neither of those guys is a 100% can't miss lock, but it would give CLE fans hope and they already have two LEGIT Pro Bowl talent type of guys to throw the ball to, Cameron Jordan and Josh Gordon are total beasts, they have a all world LT in Joe Thomas, a great young CB in Joe Haden, a tough as nails SS in TJ Ward, a great athletic LB in DQ Jackson, a monster interior DT in Phil Taylor, and a 12+ sack potential edge guy(when he gets right healthwise in Jabaal Sheard)   You add an athletic franchise QB to this team, they can go from basement to the top of their division in one year. 

I would love to be a NFL GM, anybody know where you can pick up an application?  I guarantee I can do a better job than the people running JAX the past few years. Great job with Blackmon, if your gonna pick talent guys with character or off field issues, its your staff's job to get these guys bought into the program/team concept.  You can't just pick them and hope everything works out, you need leadership and a mentality of "do whatever it takes" to get your young draft picks focused solely on the team and becoming the best player/team mate they can be, if they have substance abuse problems or issues like that in their family, you should have done your homework enough, and made sure to get the kid the help he needs, find someone in your organization that can bond with the kid.  Obviously I'm speculating alot on things, I don't have any inside knowledge, but somehow it just doesn't shock me that it happens to a Jaguars player.

Look at New England, they took Hernandez knowing full well that he was beyond a trouble maker, and I'm sure they did plenty to try and keep him on straight path, there are some people that u just can't help or reach, good news is that this group of unreachable people is really pretty small.  Look at Johnny Jolly for example, read his story.  That guy had it all taken away from him, and he didn't shirk any of it or make small of it, he owned it.  And in the long run because he was a great team mate and a good person(not too mention a very good DL) He had many former teammates speak up for him and on his behalf.  I wish the best for guys like Blackmon and Josh Gordon, both guys have way more talent than Johnny Jolly, in fact both guys could be perennial pro bowl WR's if they got with actual QB's.  

Like to see the players union take further steps @ helping its members, I know they are very active and do many things with RC symposium, but lets face it, the NFL league makes enough money that they could have a players union rep posted with all 32 organizations, available and on call 24 hours a day to be there for these players if they are drunk or high or having issues with pills or whatever, and the press would never have to even hear about it, but the player could get home safely without injuring himself or somebody else and further start to get some counseling and treatment all with privacy as a big big big part of the program.  

too many cups of coffee this morning, had to get it all out. thanks for reading/listening, just my morning thoughts.

CMFJ
CMFJ

"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. "

I'm still amazed that the Browns got a 1st rnd pick for an average RB.  Yes, it was only 1 year after having spent the 3rd pick in the draft on him, so it is a loss in some way.  However, from the Colts' perspective, that is not really important.  A 2nd because of his potential?  Maybe.

PWINGS
PWINGS

"....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!"

Every time I see a player in free agency get a lukewarm offer from his current team, that's the first question I ask. "Why is he available?" I think it goes beyond the issues that the author mentioned in his article. It can also include a player's intelligence, work ethic, injury history and his effect on team chemistry. Just because a player has been productive in the past doesn't insure future productivity. If he's available, I'm suspicious.

Phroggo
Phroggo

Another reason you don't see a lot of trade-type movement in the NFL compared to the NBA, for example, is that individual players don't matter as much in the NFL.  It is much more of a coaches' league than a players' league while the NBA is just the opposite.

The situation in the NFL was captured quite nicely by Bum Phillips in his famous quote about Don Shula, "He can take his'n and beat your'n and he can take your'n and beat his'n".  

utoo
utoo

It is all about the cap. I don't understand why the cap is so low compare to other sports. I know it is only 16 games but NFL makes more money then any other sport. Why do they act so broke?

CougDude5
CougDude5

I agree that schemes and cap play a big role, but what about teams not wanting to lose their draft picks? Its been proven lately that 3rd, 4th and even 5th round picks are valuable and can lead to Pro Bowl-type players (Russell Wilson, Kiko Alonso, Keenan Allen, etc.) who are cheap! Why would you want to trade for a guy like Nicks when you can get a better player in the 4th round on the cheap? And I know, its not always a proven thing, but if you're gonna take the gamble either get Josh Gordon or keep your middle of the rounds picks.

CobyPreimesberger
CobyPreimesberger

again players like nicks and allen will draw interest in the off-season, and even though denver's defense has improved, they could use that edge rusher and i think manning likely has one more year, britt, with him, it's the off field stuff and also that he is so inconsistant that i see him maybe sigining a one-year deal

salvaje50
salvaje50

It basically comes down to NFL GM's being too conservative and not having the balls to make a trade that could spark their team.

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jhymas25
jhymas25

Interesting article. I don't think that the first two reasons are limited to football though. I can't really speak to the MLB but in the NBA both those two reasons can be detrimental to trades happening (the NFL has more problems with schematic fit than the NBA though). The next two are better reasons IMO. The NBA still maintains a soft cap and so some teams are willing to go over in order to have a shot at a title (although salary matching is required to an extent). Also teams in the NBA seem more willing to "rent" a player for one season. 

I think another issue is that backups (or bench players) just matter more in the NBA. In the NBA, a good bench player can push a team from merely playoffs to being a championship contender; I don't think the same can be said of the NFL. Also the idea of rebuilding by trading good players for draft picks seems much more accepted in the NBA. Fans have a larger aversion to giving up on the season in the NFL, which trading for draft picks is taken as. 

OwG
OwG

The press is trying to manufacture the NFL trading deadline into something it isn't so hard its almost comical. 

Thomas80
Thomas80

didn't even mention Barkevious Mingo for the Browns young talent, if anyone has +++ potential it could be that guy.  I always root for the Browns when they are on TV.  I think it has to do with the fact they are an OLD franchise, I remember growing up how TERRible the GB packers were, every year, they just couldn't shoot straight, they tried Bart Starr and Forrest Gregg etc as coaches, Lindy Infante had one good year but most of my early childhood, GB was kind of a joke, the Bears used to just embarrass GB when I was a kid, Payton would run the ball, throw the ball, and catch the ball.  Then they hired the right guys Mike Holmgren and Ron Wolf, who hired the right staff incredible names on those staffs(Mariucci,Gruden,Reid,Morningwig,etc) made a trade and got their franch QB and life as a GB fan has been a JOY RIDE for the past 20+ years.  I wish that on CLE, league would be better if the Browns were a young powerhouse franchise in my opinion.

johnvas49
johnvas49

@utoo You have to pay 53 players in the NFL.  In a sport like basketball you only have about 11 players per team with only five or six making huge money...

jhymas25
jhymas25

@utoo I think raising the cap would just mean bigger contracts for the best players and QBs, wouldn't it? Could you elaborate on how a higher cap would be conducive to trades?

(I'm not trying to be sarcastic; I am truly curious as to if a higher cap would mean more trades and, if so, why that would be the case?)

LeeHarvey
LeeHarvey

@OwG 24 hour news cycle these days. They have to find something to talk about.

CMFJ
CMFJ

@johnvas49 @utoo

"In a sport like basketball you only have about 11 players per team with only five or six making huge money..."

1. re: NBA - up to 13 active players and 2 inactives, so a roster max of 15.  

2. the fact that a small percent of the roster makes the majority of the team's total payroll is not specific to the NBA.  It is true in all the major sports (maybe with the exception of the NHL, which I know nothing about).  In fact, the NBA has caps on maximum salary, which limits how the market might distort the salary distribution.

With regard to the first point, if the cap were higher, salaries would just go up, esp for the highest paid.  As Brandt points out, teams spend a lot of time building a team for their specific scheme.  They use their salary space for that purpose, with a trade as an emergency fix.  Given that, it is difficult to see how increasing the cap would actually create more salary cap space per team.  Another way to look at this is that the salary cap is an important component of how the market determines the salaries about minimum (not including players under their draft contracts).  

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