Staffed with even more copycats than you could round up at a convention of Xerox sales reps, NFL teams embarked Wednesday morning on the latest incarnation of free agency, most of them repeatedly chanting this new mantra to thrifty spending.
Be like Bill.
The Bill in question, of course, is Bill Belichick, head coach of the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots, and the person credited almost universally with solving the NFL's most vexing conundrum. Along with vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli and some of the Patriots' in-house bean counters, Belichick has apparently devised the best way to deal with the puzzling and often perilous permutations of those two seemingly dichotomous components -- free agency and the salary cap.
And he has done it so effectively, with a pair of Super Bowl titles in three seasons now, that the Patriots have emerged as the model to which most other franchises aspire. Then again, as Pioli noted so perceptively, it isn't as if New England has a secret recipe stashed away and sitting in a vault next to the well-guarded Coca-Cola formula.
"We don't profess to have all the answers," said Pioli, "but we feel like we've got the answers for us."
Indeed, they do, as the Patriots' recent success has demonstrated. New England rarely gambles on players Belichick and Pioli believe might not fit snugly into their system. Even their high-profile acquisitions, like linebacker Rosevelt Colvin and strong safety Rodney Harrison, usually sign contracts that are cap-friendly for at least the first few seasons. But what the Pats really do better than anyone else is approach players with a very specific role, and relatively precise price range, in mind.
Their recruiting pitch, former New England free agents have related, tends to be more skewed toward what the player can do for the team than how the Patriots can help the player become rich.
Said one veteran who signed with the Patriots as a free agent within the last three years: "For everything you hear about [Belichick], he's a lot smoother than his reputation, but the one thing he won't do is kiss your rear-end. He's brutally honest. They do a good job of making you feel wanted but they'll also tell you that, if it's just about the money, you can keep looking. I mean, their style, it's kind of about the people there. So while other teams think they're doing it the same way, well, they don't have Belichick or [Pioli]."
Which, like many things in life, make it easy to simulate but impossible to duplicate.
Given the pack mentality of the NFL, though, many franchises will enter the annual free agency temptation test using the Patriots' perceived solutions as a cheat sheet. And not surprisingly, a lot of teams will fail miserably, tumbling off the high wire which connects football resources with fiscal responsibility, and into a net-less descent.
But at the outset, it seems, the free agency road once paved with gold for the premier unrestricted players is now lined with the publicly stated good intentions of owners. No one believes in his heart that every owner or general manager will be able to ignore the siren song of free agency, since the highway to free agency disaster and salary cap jail characteristically includes waylaid wanderers who misplaced the fiscal sanity blueprint.
For now, however, everyone is talking a good game. Alas, as has been too often the case with such rhetoric, talk is cheap, and signing free agents typically isn't.
"After a dozen years, you would think we'd be smarter about this, wouldn't you?" said Buffalo Bills general manager Tom Donahoe. "But every year, no matter what people say they are going to do, there are a lot of mistakes made."
Make no mistake, there will be good money thrown at bad players again this spring, much of it in the early days of the free agency period. Some franchises, like Washington, simply like to make a quick hit and a big splash. One top Redskins official phoned the other day to protest a reference in an ESPN.com column suggesting the club's private jet would be in the air Tuesday night, waiting to land somewhere after midnight, when the free agency period began, to pick up a prospective acquisition.
Later that afternoon, ESPN.com was on the phone with an agent when a Redskins official called to set up a visit with one of the representative's clients before the week's end.
The bottom line on the bottom line is that teams will still spend big for big talents and will still overspend even for some veterans whose careers are in decline. It's the nature of the beast, part of the competitive urge, to invest in player talent when it is available. The big problem for owners comes when free agents don't live up to their billing, deals turn sour, and salary cap ramifications turn disastrous.
For years, that was the plight of the Carolina Panthers, who seemed intent on investing in every aging defensive lineman available. Over a stretch of three years, though, the team had more flops than Demi Moore's recent résumé, and the cap problems resulting from poor decisions hamstrung efforts to improve the roster.
It wasn't until two years ago, when general manager Marty Hurney and coach John Fox consciously decided to build more from home-grown talent than imports, that Carolina was able to turn the corner. Notably, the star of the Panthers' late-season surge to a berth in Super Bowl XXXVIII was modestly priced quarterback Jake Delhomme, plucked from the unrestricted talent pool with just a two-year, $4 million contract.
"Look, it's easy to fall into a trap, especially when you're trying to get [to respectability] as fast as you can," said Hurney. "But the best way to do business is to draft well, keep your own best players around, and fill in here or there with some free agents. And if you look around the league, some of the free agents who have really contributed the most are players who are in that middle price range."
Fact is, most of the agreements that will be reached over the course of free agency will be precisely those kinds of deals. General managers and coaches agree that, while the 2004 free agent pool features some of the requisite high-profile names you see every spring, the depth and quality are hardly overwhelming.
There figures to be a quick run on defensive players, especially at cornerback, but not a general spending spree. The savvier teams, those not pressured into wheeling-and-dealing in the opening days of the market, will find not only bargains but also solid contributors.
That is, after all, what Bill has done.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.