Why is the NFL trade deadline dull?

Several factors prevent frenetic activity like we see in MLB or NBA

Originally Published: October 31, 2012
By Andrew Brandt | ESPN.com

Thursday is now the NFL trading deadline, moved back from Tuesday by Hurricane Sandy. No trading is allowed after Thursday until the start of the 2013 league year next March. And unless things are different this year than in the past, the trading deadline will pass with barely a whimper.

This was the first year of a later deadline, which now follows Week 8 rather than Week 6 per agreement with the NFLPA. Theoretically, with two more weeks to evaluate rosters and injury needs, there would be more trading. The reality, though, is that we will probably continue to have the usual inactivity at the deadline.

The NFL trade deadline has never created the buzz that other sports' trade deadlines have caused, particularly in Major League Baseball and the NBA. Although there may be a few significant trades each March, there are scant few trades of consequence in October. Let's examine why.

Game of schemes

Although there have been some productive trades over the years, trading has not been an optimal strategy for improvement.

The main reason NFL trades (and free agency) do not work is the nature of the game -- 11 interdependent parts playing in concert rather than as individuals, with the best players in the sport barely playing half the game.

Football is schematic: West Coast offense, 4-3 and 3-4 defenses, Cover 2, press coverage, two-gap, wide-nine, etc. Fitting players into schemes -- no matter their talent -- is not as seamless as it is in sports like baseball and basketball.

How often do we hear about players' struggles to adjust to new schemes without the benefit of a full training camp, to learn a different offense or defense? Midseason trades force that adjustment at an even more accelerated pace.

Why is he available?

[+] EnlargeRandy Moss
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesIn 2010, the Vikings acquired Randy Moss and ended up disappointed -- yet another cautionary tale from the NFL trade deadline.

Another reason for scarce trading is the increased skepticism. When a player is available through trade or free agency, there is usually a reason for it. When discussing trades, I would try to be direct with the other team about its willingness to let the player leave. Sometimes phrases like "We're trying to get younger at that position" or "He needs a change of scenery" are code for "We've had enough of this guy; please take him off our hands!"

In 2010, the Vikings traded a third-round pick to the Patriots for Randy Moss, who instantly clashed with head coach Brad Childress. Moss was scuttled after 25 frustrating days, with the valuable asset of a third-round pick gone as well.

Last year, Aaron Curry, the fourth pick in the 2009 draft, was moved for a couple of future low-round picks, meaning the Seahawks would have taken a ham sandwich just to trade him.

Often, a team will trade a player and turn to colleagues and say, "Let those coaches deal with him."

Financial pain

Another impediment to trading is financial.

Upon a trade, a player's contract is assigned, meaning that the new team will assume the remaining weeks of the current year's salary and any other future commitments on the contract. There may be situations, as with the trade of Tim Tebow from the Broncos to the Jets, where there are additional financial commitments beyond salary. The Jets, as part of the trade negotiation, agreed to pay the Broncos $1.5 million this year and $1.03 million next year in assuming portions of salary advance the Broncos paid Tebow per the conditions of his rookie contract.

As for salary cap consequences, the unamortized portion of a traded player's contract will be charged to the team's cap the following season. For example, were the Panthers' DeAngelo Williams traded before Thursday afternoon, the remaining unamortized portion of his $16 million signing bonus -- $9.6 million -- would be charged against the Panthers' already-bloated 2013 cap. In other words, the Williams contract, with $21 million guaranteed, would be the gift that keeps on giving.

Although the ability to push off cap consequences to the subsequent year may be seen as helpful because it provides short-term relief in deleting the player's salary, it can present long-term pain. More and more NFL teams are moving to a more cautious "pay as you go" cap strategy rather than mortgaging the present to add future charges. And the 2013 cap is projected to be relatively flat compared to this year.

Why the early deadline?

I even proposed a later trade deadline for the league to consider. But when I've talked to league executives through the years, their rationale has been that they want to discourage the "rent-a-player" strategy in other leagues, especially by contending teams. The NFL is all about competitive balance, and the feeling is that a later deadline can alter that.

Even if we do see some players moved, the impact of such movements -- at least in 2012 -- will be limited at best. Football and trading don't appear to be a good match.

From the mailbag

Q: How was being general manager of the Barcelona Dragons back in the World League?

Roberto in San Antonio

A: Our first touchdown was a scintillating (I thought) 70-yard touchdown pass. As I celebrated, there was polite golf applause from the crowd. Hmm. Then we kicked the extra point, and the crowd went nuts! Toto, we weren't in Kansas anymore.

Throughout my time in Barcelona, the crowd cheered at the wrong times and did "the wave" the entire game. Selling American football in Spain was not just a job, it was an adventure.

Q: Do you believe the NFL may have a team in London one day?

Dave in Miami

A: I do, although no time soon. The NFL is doubling its output to London next year, to two games, and each will include a brand-name team, the 49ers and Steelers. It will gauge the success of these games with a genuine interest in rotating more teams through London over a period of time, and perhaps placing a franchise in London. I believe it a reasonable possibility in the next collective bargaining agreement. (The current one runs eight more seasons.)

Travel concerns can be worked out. Teams can have byes after visiting London -- as they do now -- and the London team could train in the United States between games. Knowing how NFL teams travel, it is hard to worry about their comforts.

As with the World League 20 years ago, the NFL wants to expand its brand into a valuable new marketplace: London, Europe and beyond. The hope is that more games will lead to a yearning for more and the eventual emergence of a bidder to secure a franchise and a stadium. NFL owners are searching under every rock for new revenue streams; the possibility of a sustainable overseas market has them salivating.