If everyone's doing it, free-agent tampering is OK

INDIANAPOLIS -- If you have ever been driving on a rural road and come across a stop sign, you probably have faced a decision similar to what every NFL general manager and agent has had to make in recent days.

In the hallways of the Indiana Convention Center and the restaurants and bars around town, they've tapped the brakes a few times, but never really come to a complete stop. Why should they? Nobody's handing out tickets.

One of the biggest half-truths about the NFL scouting combine is that it's all about the upcoming draft. Sure, there are 300-plus prospects and even more coaches and scouts in town. What happens in the workouts will be a factor in the April draft, but it won't do nearly as much in shaping the immediate rosters of teams as what's happening just outside the walls of the RCA Dome.

That's where front offices and teams have started the process of free agency, even though that process doesn't officially start until Friday morning. With lots of winks and nods, visits are being scheduled and some negotiations have begun.

Sure, it all violates the NFL's rules against tampering. But nobody cares.

"We all do it,'' said a high-ranking official for one team. "It's been going on for a long time. Up until a few years ago, there were still a few teams that wouldn't do it. But they were the last bastion and they finally gave in because they realized they were losing out on players at the start of free agency because they weren't doing it.''

The Bears recently complained to the NFL, accusing the 49ers of tampering with linebacker Lance Briggs. Chicago's allegation claimed San Francisco was trying to negotiate a contract with Briggs during the past season. At the combine, with free agency coming quickly, nobody's complaining about tampering. It's just taken for granted.

"I wouldn't say much of it really goes on until the combine,'' an official from another team said. "But, when you get here, the agents are everywhere and you're only a week away from free agency. It's going to happen.''

It's happening at least as much as it ever has, maybe more. In a year in which teams have been unusually aggressive about re-signing their own potential free agents and the use of the franchise tag has become a common practice, the crop of free agents is very thin. Most personnel workers expect a frantic early push for the bigger names in free agency and then a lull before teams start looking for role players at reasonable prices. That puts pressure on agents to get early deals for the players and creates competition for teams.

That's why there are bound to be some big signings (at big prices) in the first day or two of free agency. But that phenomenon is nothing new because the groundwork long has been done at the combine. It's not uncommon for a player who would seem capable of drawing interest from multiple teams to sign a contract eight or 10 hours after the opening of free agency.

A few years ago, there was a free agent who lived in Hawaii during the offseason. Seven hours after free agency opened, he was sitting in the facility of the team (on the East Coast) he was about to sign with, having a medical exam. He hadn't frantically purchased a ticket and taken a red-eye flight the instant free agency opened. He had flown in from Honolulu a few days earlier and spent the time hanging around his new team's city. The terms of his contract had been worked out at the combine.

So much for bidding wars and whirlwind tours of several cities in the first few days of free agency. There might still be a bit of that, but most of the big decisions and most crucial discussions take place in Indianapolis.

"Every agent at least knows who's interested in his client and what his market value is by the time we get out of here,'' one team official said. "If the agent didn't do that, he wouldn't be doing his job. If the teams didn't take part in that, they'd get buried in free agency.''

It may be a victimless crime and nobody complains loudly (if at all) about this form of tampering. It may be just another part of a game that's extremely competitive on and off the field. But, technically, all the premature free-agent talk still is tampering and a violation of NFL rules.

The league doesn't need to make a drastic change and completely stop all the personnel games that go on at the combine. But, at a time when Spygate has put a lot of attention on all the little tricks teams pull, maybe the NFL needs to tweak its rules for the days leading into free agency.

One team official suggested the best way to handle the situation would be for the league to make it legal for teams to start talking to potential free agents two weeks before the period opens. That's not a bad idea. It would still give teams time to re-sign their own free agents and it would eliminate a window where a lot of improprieties occur.

If not, it may be only a matter of time before some scorned team starts setting up video cameras in the combine hallways to catch its competitors tampering.

Pat Yasinskas covers the NFL for ESPN.com.