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Monday, May 27, 2013
Updated: May 28, 9:09 AM ET
The opposite of a magic number

By John Clayton
ESPN.com

In doing some paperwork to wrap up the bulk of 2013 free agency, I stumbled across a weird trend.

As we all know, teams can't buy championships through free agency. Those that have tried have failed. In fact, recent history has shown the top spenders in unrestricted free agency haven't had winning seasons or significantly improved their record.

In 2012, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers ($147.38 million), Buffalo Bills ($118.98 million), New Orleans Saints ($114.55 million) and St. Louis Rams ($106.2 million) were the top four spenders in unrestricted free agency yet didn't have winning seasons. The Bucs improved by three games but finished with a 7-9 record. The Bills grabbed the top free agent -- defensive end Mario Williams -- but repeated with a 6-10 record. The Saints filled holes in free agency, but the bounty controversy and suspension of head coach Sean Payton dropped them from 13-3 to 7-9. The Rams improved 5½ games but fell short of a winning record at 7-8-1.

In 2011, the Philadelphia Eagles put together the so-called "Dream Team," signing 12 players for contracts totaling $127.1 million, but the team dropped from 10-6 to 8-8. The Jacksonville Jaguars were second in spending that year with $115.53 million, but slipped three games to 5-11. The Seattle Seahawks kick-started their rebuilding under Pete Carroll with $107.6 million, but their record matched the 7-9 mark from the previous season.

Mario Williams
The free-agency splurge that brought Mario Williams to Buffalo didn't improve the Bills' record.

We'll skip the uncapped year in 2010 because only 51 players moved to different teams. There isn't a big enough number to judge. The Chicago Bears grabbed defensive end Julius Peppers as the top free agent and spent $111 million on contracts. They did improve by four games to make the playoffs at 11-5.

In 2009, the Denver Broncos were the only team that spent more than $100 million in contracts ($108.5 million). The Broncos stayed at 8-8.

In 2008, the Jets were the $100 million team with a $109.62 million shopping list. They bucked the trend, improving by five games to go 9-7, but didn't make the playoffs, and a coaching change followed.

In 2007, the San Francisco 49ers were the big spenders at $129.37 million, but they went from 7-9 to 5-11.

You have to think the trend will change this year. The Miami Dolphins were the offseason leaders with a $146.1 million free-agency haul. They have a decent young quarterback in Ryan Tannehill. They've added wide receivers Mike Wallace and Brandon Gibson and tight end Dustin Keller. Coming off a 7-9 season, you figure they will get better by a couple of games with the additions.

If they aren't the team to beat the $100 million free-agent trend, the Indianapolis Colts should be. They went 11-5 with Andrew Luck leading the way as a rookie. They added eight players with contracts totaling $132 million. Their record might not be better, but the additions can't make them worse as a team.

I wouldn't say there is a $100 million jinx on teams spending that much in free agency, but there still needs to be caution about what happens to the big spenders. Recent history proves a big checkbook doesn't guarantee great success.

From the inbox

Q: I've been meaning to ask you something that has been bothering me for a while. I don't understand how Robert Griffin III tore up the ligaments in his knee. Wasn't he wearing a knee brace specifically designed to prevent this kind of injury?

Jon G. in Washington, D.C.

A: It's safe to say the tear was brewing for some time. He was playing with a knee injury. He probably was running more than he should. Then you add the field conditions. Seahawks defensive end Chris Clemons was healthy but he blew out his knee on that field. Throw all those things together and the knee broke down. He had enough protective gear. Plus, he had trainers and doctors attentive to his knee problems. They kept checking to see how Griffin felt and whether he could continue playing with the knee injury. The more he played, the more he left himself vulnerable to this injury.

Q: I am a totally biased Saints fan and offer no apologies for that. Many years I've noticed you ranked them lower than I thought they should be, yet you always seem to be at least semi-accurate. With a more aggressive-style D coming in and some new players, and younger players with more experience, is it just wishful thinking that they could easily have a vastly improved defense? I mean, it wouldn't take much to improve dramatically over last season, and with Sean Payton back and the offense getting more balanced, we could be as dangerous as '06 and '09 if not more so. Agree or disagree?

Nick in Ocean Springs, Miss.

A: In offseason ratings, sometimes it's hard to put teams in perspective and it often looks as though the team is rated lower than it should be. I've so far voted for the idea that the return of Payton and the presence of Drew Brees should put the Saints back into playoff contention. I don't think they will be as dangerous as the 2009 team. I think the change in defense to the 3-4 will take some time but should work out. Nevertheless, I still believe the Atlanta Falcons have the best chance of winning the division. That puts the Saints in the top 12. The receiving corps isn't as deep as it was on the 2009 team. The offensive line is very good but not to the level of the '09 team. I respect the Saints in their attempt to come back after a tough season. Last year, I compared the Saints to Ohio State when it lost its head coach and went on probation. Those days are behind the Saints, and they can bounce back.

Q: I agree with you that the NFL offseason is not broken. The league needs to find a new draft venue because of the scheduling conflicts at Radio City Music Hall. Is it possible for the Super Bowl-winning team's city to host the upcoming draft? I think it would be a nice way to congratulate the winning city while starting the new the year.

Keith in Chicago, Ill.

A: All options will be on the table, but I'm not sold the Super Bowl-winning city would be the one the league could go to if it moves the draft. The reason is timing. The clock would start for setting up and promoting the draft in February. The league would like to build the event, promote it and make sure it will be well attended by fans. Having only three months would prevent that from happening. Timing would be the only problem preventing your idea.

Q: Here is a good idea for a replacement to the Pro Bowl. What about a preseason seven-on-a-side tournament? Every team puts in a side, and you play it over a weekend after the draft. All teams play their division and then you have the top four conference winners play a semifinal then final. The two conference finals winners play in the championship game. This could be a good way for teams to uncover undrafted rookies and second-year players who could be good for depth, or a team could enter its stars to win it all. You move the whole weekend around every year to all the places that would never get the Super Bowl -- Cleveland, Buffalo, Seattle, etc., -- and generate revenue with ticket sales, etc. What do you think? This could be something the NFL could look into.

Shaye in Hamilton, New Zealand

A: By doing that, I'm assuming you are eliminating the Pro Bowl as an idea and replacing it with a prospects game. There is a technical problem with that. Rookies are not part of the NFL Players Association until they sign a contract, so unsigned players wouldn't be eligible until they strike deals. The undrafted players would be eligible because most sign within 48 hours upon the conclusion of the draft. But do you really want to see a bunch of rookies running around trying to figure out what to do? Teams won't want to risk those players to injuries, and injuries will happen. These rookies haven't been trained in an NFL environment. Many have spent the month before the draft traveling the country visiting teams. A seven-man game wouldn't be as taxing as an NFL game, but it's not up to NFL standards.

Q: Rather than push back the NFL draft to accommodate Radio City Music Hall, why not move the draft to Las Vegas? More fun for everyone.

Carlos in Gilroy, Calif.

A: That would be great for everyone except the NFL. The league would not want to place its product in a city in which gambling is legal. For location, it would be perfect. Weather would great. Hospitality couldn't be better. But the NFL is very concerned about gambling. That would be the hold-up to that alternative.

Tretter
Packers rookie J.C. Tretter, who broke his ankle, isn't the only player to be injured during OTAs.

Q: At Packers OTAs, another possibly promising rookie big guy went down with a leg injury. This seems to happen at the start of the Packers' practice season, year after year. Are the Packers' stats about destructive, big-man leg injuries more frequent than other teams'? Are the Packers or the NFL doing any investigating about those injuries? Are better introductory procedures or a practice-turf change in the exploration phase?

Larry in Cedar Rapids, Iowa

A: You are referring to the broken ankle of rookie offensive lineman J.C. Tretter. I wouldn't limit the injury problem in OTAs to just the Packers. Michael Crabtree of the 49ers and Anthony McCoy of the Seahawks suffered Achilles tears. Arthur Brown of the Ravens and Jamar Taylor of the Dolphins needed sports hernia surgeries. What we are witnessing is how bodies are reacting to the demands of OTAs and minicamps when they haven't had the training with the team for the entire offseason. When it agreed to the collective bargaining agreement, the NFL Players Association wanted the players to have more time to rest their bodies. But that put the players in position to train on their own from February to April. If the players didn't get enough training, their bodies might not be ready for the demands of the OTAs and workouts with the teams.

Q: If the NFL is worried about the fans having to pay for a preseason game that has no value, why not move some games to different venues. As an Eagles fan and being from central Pennsylvania, I would love to go to an Eagles-Steelers game at Beaver Stadium. There are venues all over the country that would be great for hosting a preseason game -- The Big House at Michigan, The Horseshoe at Ohio State and Bryant-Denny Stadium at Alabama, just to name a few. Since preseason takes place in early August, most schools won't be in session and would be ideal for having an event like this. That way season-ticket holders don't have to pay for a game with "less value." What do you think?

Joe in Pittsburgh

A: Owners make a huge profit from preseason home games. They pay players minimal money and the team gets its gate receipts. If there would be enough profit in moving a game or two to different venue, franchises would consider it. Still, it's a lot easier for teams to charge season-ticket holders for two preseason games in the 10-game season-ticket package instead of moving the game to another site. While it would be nice to try different sites, games in those places won't improve the product in the preseason. Roger Goodell would like to cut the number of preseason games, but he doesn't want to cut down the revenue for the owners. It's a puzzle the league is trying to figure out.

Q: At the meeting last year, the hot topic seemed to be the NFL season was going to expand to 18 games. That talk seems to have died down. I was wondering if that is still in the works. And at the meeting this year, they decided to push the draft to May. Could that be a sign of the season going to 18 games, since the schedule would push the season deeper into January and the playoffs and Super Bowl would start later?

Matthew in Chattanooga, Tenn.

A: There were renewed talks of the 18-game schedule at the spring meetings last week in Boston. I don't see it going anywhere, though. Players aren't in favor of risking their bodies for two more regular-season games, even if it is just a matter of replacing two weeks of preseason games. The owners would have to come up with a nice financial package to entice the players to do that. In time I can see that happening, but now isn't the time.