Monday, March 12, 2007

Thompson Smart With First Week of Free Agency

Imagine for a second that you are standing on the edge of a long, narrow gorge that is infinitely deep and roughly around ten feet across. You need to get to the other side.

And it’s a long way down.

Now, imagine standing on the same side of the gorge with you are 31 other folks, each also evaluating how they would like to cross the gorge. Many options are open to you, but one thing is for certain: the goal is to get across, as there is a brass ring hanging from a branch over there.

I see this gorge as the challenges an NFL general manager must face as it tries to get back to his team’s ultimate goal: winning a championship, which waits for those who can make it to the other side.

But as we look at each of these 32 teams standing on the edge, not all of them have the same distance to cross. Some of them, particularly the most talented teams, may have only five feet to clear before they make it to the other side. Because the talent is so “close” being a great team already, their challenges aren’t as great. They don’t have as many holes to fill, and, as we’ve heard many times, the brass ring is within reach.

But, other teams like, say, Oakland or Tampa Bay, have perhaps fifteen or twenty feet to clear before reaching the other side. They have many holes to fill, and it is obvious that the task of reaching the brass ring on the other side is going to take some careful planning and preparation.

My point in this analogy? The first week of free agency has passed, and we’ve seen many teams in the league make some flying leaps at some talented and some not-so-talented free agents, with money coming flying out their pockets to bring them in.

Paying big bucks for a free agent, to me, is like trying to solve the problem of getting across the gorge by taking a running start and trying to jump across that gorge. And, depending on the width you have to clear, it’s apparent you’re taking quite a risk in lieu of some good, proper planning and work.

So, what teams can get away with big splashes in free agency? Well, as previously mentioned, there are some teams with only a few feet to clear, whose talent is high and may only need that one player to come in and make the difference. It’s likely that a team like Seattle in 2005, or even New England perpetually, can make these flying leaps and land on two feet on the other side.

But to take a flying leap from a long distance is suicide, as we’ve seen the Oakland Raider suffer through this season, ending up 2006 with only a handful of players actually under contract and having those players take up a whopping amount of salary cap space.

If you fall down the gorge, the eventual reality is that you have to climb back up and try again.

Peter King, of Sports Illustrated, gave effusive praise to Packers’ and Titan’s GM’s Ted Thompson and Mike Reinfeldt (both protégés of Ron Wolf) for their willingness to stay on the safe side of that gorge, watching other teams take flying leaps with free agents, burning cap space, and taking incredible risks.

Some teams, like New England, a perpetual playoff team, can utilize free agency to fill the holes they have and remain competitive, and for them, it’s an easy jump to the other side.

Other teams, like San Francisco, who took one of the first flying leaps, is still flying through midair, but my guess is once December rolls around, they won’t be standing next to New England. That’s the risk you take when you leap before you look, and why today’s free agency is nothing like it was back in the 1990’s.

Of course, the Packers back then were once looking over perhaps a two-foot gap in that gorge, and invested in players like Don Beebe, Desmond Howard, Sean Jones, and Keith Jackson to give them their running jump in 1996.

But today’s Packers aren’t looking like the 1996 team, and Ted Thompson deserves credit for his restraint in avoiding the desperate player grab that several other teams now find themselves in, floating in mid-air with buyer’s remorse.

With that ten-foot gorge in front of them, it’s going to take some careful planning, clever manipulation of the raw materials, and a commitment to getting the job done. But as Ted and Mike look down the gorge, chances are they are going to see at least half of the other folks didn’t make the big jump, either.

It’s one thing to sit and congratulate yourself on being smart enough to not make the high-risk leap. But, the fact of the matter is, those teams that didn’t make that jump are still sitting on the wrong side of the gorge, and now is the time to start assembling your method of getting across.

You see, just standing still isn’t going to get you the brass ring either. And now, all those general managers are going to begin the process of building their bridge across the gorge. Some will choose to build through the draft, as many of us suspect our own GM is going to approach this season.

That’s a pretty wise idea, if you can pull it off. If you think about it, last year, the Packers could have probably spent that #5 pick on nearly any position on either side of the ball, and had a case for it. This season, spending our first pick on a linebacker, defensive lineman, cornerback, or interior offensive linemen would probably raise an eyebrow. We have more pieces in place, but as many have noticed, we also still have many holes to fill.

That is the challenge that Ted Thompson now has: building that bridge to get to the other side. He has some faith that some of the rails he laid down last year will be sturdy enough to hold some weight this year. He has made statements that he feels comfortable with some of the talent we have at running back, wide receiver, and safety (some of our areas identified as highest in need).

But, don’t doubt if the right “equipment” comes along that Thompson won’t be afraid to pull out some boards and replace them (Marshawn Lynch? LaRon Landry?).

So, while we can rest assured our general manager didn’t do the foolish thing in taking a flying leap of the ledge, the true test is still ahead of him: since he didn’t bite on any expensive free agents, what is he going to do to improve the 2007 product over the 2006 product? Are there any cap casualties from other teams that might make a difference? Did some of the shaky talent we saw last season going to prove to make a solid foundation this season? And will we use that sixteenth pick or trade down for quantity over quality?

There’s no such thing as an off-season Super Bowl, and there are no medals to be pinned ten days into the free agency period. What we will watch for now is what Ted Thompson does to build that bridge to the brass ring.

Hopefully, even if it takes another season or two, we will see that bridge inch a little closer to the other side. And hopefully, the bridge won’t collapse halfway through, making us wish we had just jumped to begin with.

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