* Yes, we're fully aware it's Tuesday. but March Madness has thrown our whole schedule out of whack. Bear with us.
The first week of 2013 NFL free agency will be remembered by history as The Age of the Office Supply.
Football fans spent the weekend grooving to new indie rock sensation Elvis + The Fax Machine, and the dark days are not yet over. Elvis Dumervil fired his agent for taking 21 minutes to fax a signed contract to Broncos headquarters, missing a 4:00 p.m. deadline by six minutes, and making Dumervil a reluctant free agent (in other words, unemployed). Dumervil wants to return to the Broncos, and he has sent the news via his four swiftest carrier pigeons, but the Broncos are weighing their options on the free agent tickertape and calculating their salary cap number with a Babbage Difference Engine, so it will be a while before all of this is sorted out.
The Dumervil Fax Debacle, or Dumfaxle for short, is a story of indecision, inefficiency and pernickety corporate behavior. It's also a reminder that NFL teams are businesses. Their headquarters contain cube farms where golf-shirt-and-khaki wearing administrators hang pictures of their children and let coffee cups pile up while manipulating spreadsheets, not containing information about the sexy salary cap, but of the travel or food service budgets. Contracts are real paper items, in triplicate, with yellow highlighter marking where to sign and where to initial, and an actual filing cabinet with real manila folders with "Brees, Drew" on the tab and a canceled bank check for direct deposit routing information inside. The NFL does not run on adrenaline or muscle, but on paper clips and broadband.
The Age of the Office Supply started with last week's Strongly Worded Memo, a bit of administrative control for administrative control's sake in which the NFL announced that free agent negotiations were prohibited during the newly-scheduled three-day free agent negotiation window. At the heart of every corporate bureaucracy is some finicky administrator who read Catch-22 and mistook it for the Bible, and the NFL is no exception.
The rescinding-of-everything memo was labeled PP 28-13, and it contradicted the information contained in PP 26-13 earlier in the same week. The NFL's memo code has been cracked, and there have been 28 memos of this sort in the first ten weeks of the year, a steady 2.8 memos-per-week clip. While we track the comings and goings of Jake Long and Shaun Smith and fret over draft boards, NFL administrators are composing little edicts about the bits and pieces of the workday; no doubt PP 35-13 details the procedures of fax machine maintenance and the penalties for non-compliance. It's another way that NFL life is a lot like our lives: we chug along, updating databases, and suddenly an inscrutable memo from corporate drops into our laps and sends a shiver up our spines. All the work we have finished must be redone, or is now irrelevant, or illegal and actionable, the end. The rest of our days are spent listening to coworkers in the break room complain about a policy that they never followed in the first place.
A few days after the NFL issued its version of Order 66, Buccaneers general manager Mark Dominik called Bills general manager Buddy Nix to complain about it and talk a little transaction. Except that it wasn't Dominik, but a couple of smart-alecks who called the Bills main office number and claimed to be Dominik. The pranksters were immediately patched through to Nix, and when they hung up in shock and fear, Nix started calling them back. Eventually, the pranksters established a conference call between Nix and the real Dominick, and Deadspin reaped the rewards.
A modern telephone network is the heart and soul of any corporation, even in the Internet era. From automated answering systems (If you know your party's extension, you may dial it now. For season tickets, press one. To catfish the general manager, press two, para Espanol, por favor pulse tres) to caller ID systems (say, why is Mark Dominik is calling from a pay phone in Schenectady?), a late-20th century phone system ensures that callers are routed to the correct party minimal personnel expenditure on the company's behalf. The Bills, however, prefer to use the services of someone like Rosemary:
While the entire NFL is dependent on standard business equipment and procedures, some teams have cultures or philosophies that allow them to be more streamlined than the Broncos. For example:
The Patriots: Bill Belichick has a device like Cerebro from the X-Men: a helmet that expands his mental powers and allows him to touch the mind of every free agent on earth. Belichick can also snuff out all of their minds with a stray thought, and the day does not go by when he fails to consider it.
The Seahawks: Pacific Northwest outside-the-box meta-mindspace with no walls or hard surfaces and plenty of feng shui. There's a pool table in the conference room, a terrarium inside the arboretum in the team biosphere, and you better believe Paul Allen has something much cooler than a fax machine.
The Cowboys: Total Mad Men: cocktail shakers, secretaries forever on the run from grabby executives, all business conducted while guzzling martinis and biting mouthfuls of meat off the shank of a live cow. An agent who wishes to close a deal with the Cowboys must submit a notarized cigarette girl's brassiere to the penthouse suite of the Adolphus Hotel, with a bottle of champagne, two glasses, and no stupid questions, by 4:00 AM on Saturday night.
The Colts: Sitar music, beaded curtains over doorways and a fax machine customized to print on EZ Widers.
The Jets: This is actual footage of John Idzik's first day on the job:
The fax machine and NFL free agent snafus share a long history. Twenty years ago, when free agency was brand new and the league introduced the franchise tag to players who did not read to the end of the collective bargaining agreement, the Redskins attempted to tag defensive star Wilbur Marshall. Marshall flipped, and the Redskins tried to trade him while the league and union sorted out their latest mess. The Oilers offered the Redskins a first-round pick but needed to sign Marshall to a new contract. The Redskins gave the Oilers a midnight deadline on June 2nd to get the deal done. Oilers owner Bud Adams got cold feet about the move at the last minute. The Oilers called the Redskins at 9:40 p.m. and Marshall's agent at 10:05 p.m., but the agent faxed a signed offer sheet at 11:40 p.m.
After a long legal wrangle in the commissioner's office, the Oilers got Marshall, the Redskins got reprimanded for handling the situation improperly (even though it was an unprecedented situation in which every party was feeling its way; a wave of memos surely followed), and the fax machine emerged as a hero that could provide legally binding written documents, as opposed to long-distance records of phone conversations that were not recorded, because Buddy Nix was not involved.
Twenty years later, the fax machine is a villain and a scapegoat, perhaps because it's time has come and gone. The rest of us have moved on to scanners and PDF files; the only time we are out of communication range for 21 minutes is when an airplane takes off. The NFL fax machine has become football's answer to the bullpen phone. When the bullpen phone malfunctions and a reliever cannot be told to warm up, what is Tony LaRussa to do? Well, he could Tweet his predicament, knowing that hundreds of fans seated near the bullpen will immediately get the information and yell down to Jason Motte to start warming up or, at least, text his boss and ask for some clarification. And what could Dumervil, his agent, John Elway, his staff and the NFL do when there is confusion about an offer that is on the table, except to conference call, Skype, exchange text messages, use Internet document verification, or dozens of other high-tech solutions to ensure that everything is handled professionally and millions of dollars are not riding on an intern scratching his head and wondering if he was supposed to load the contract facing downward or upward?
From Nix to the Broncos to the mysterious memo maker, it is clear that no one in the NFL has heard of the cloud, except Jim Irsay, who thinks it is something else. We are one blinking toner light away from a work stoppage, people. If this makes you nervous, call your favorite NFL team and tell them. If you are a Bills fan, say hi to Buddy.
Read more about the Wilbur Marshall saga and the first days of NFL free agency here.
Cracking the Age Barrier
Don't harass me kid, now can't you tell?
I'm going home, I'm tired as hell.
I'm not the cat I used to be,
I've got a kid. I'm 33.
- The Pretenders, "Middle of the Road"
Chrissie Hynde probably felt older than dust when she wrote "Middle of the Road" in … oh dear … 1984. Anquan Boldin was probably also feeling old when he was traded by the Ravens to the 49ers for a sixth round pick last week. So was Wes Welker, low-balled by a Patriots team that had already acquired Danny Amendola and signed by the Broncos for the discount price of $12-million over two years. Boldin turns 33 in October, Welker turns 32 in May. Like Hynde, they are standing in the middle of life with their pains, and their most lucrative contracts, behind them.
The tepid market for Boldin and Welker raised eyebrows: we're talking about a Super Bowl hero and one of the most prolific receivers in history, yet not only were their own teams lukewarm about negotiating with them, neither player prompted any sort of bidding war. That's because NFL general managers now crunch numbers, and they have determined that wide receivers, even great ones, start to fall off badly after their 32nd birthdays.
"Moneyball poppycock," you say, pointing to the framed portrait of Jerry Rice on your wall and newspaper clippings of Terrell Owens catching touchdown passes in 2008 and 2009. But Rice and Owens are outliers, particularly Rice, whose career set precedents that apply to no one else. For every Owens that plays into his late-30's, there are multiple receivers like Joe Horn, who arrived in the NFL the same year as Owens, enjoyed several memorable seasons, had a 94-catch, 1,399-yard, 11-touchdown season at age 32 in 2004, and never again cracked 700 yards. And for every Horn, there are dozens of receivers who are out of the NFL long before they reach 32, but their careers are not germane to the discussion of Boldin and Welker, who have established a level of excellence that pushes them beyond 95% of the receivers drafted into the NFL.
There are 38 wide receivers in NFL history who: a) started their career during or after the 1988 season; b) gained over 8,000 receiving yards, and c) are either no longer active or have reached the career stage where their signature years are clearly behind them, like Santana Moss. One of those 38 players is Rice. Of the remaining 37, all but eight had their final "impact year" (a year when they put up quality starter's numbers) by the time they were 34 years old. The median age of the great receivers having their final impact years was 32.05. The numbers are stacked against Boldin and Welker: they are due to tail off, very soon.
Let's look at the exceptions, besides Rice. Terrell Owens, Tim Brown, Jimmy Smith, Muhsin Muhammad, Rod Smith, Keenan McCardell, Derrick Mason, and Joey Galloway played into their mid-to-late 30's while producing numbers in line with their best seasons. Some of these exceptions come with an asterisk: Muhammad was a career #2 receiver who interrupted his late-career decline with a 65-923-5 year in 2008, while Galloway appeared washed up but had a surprising late-career revival that started at age 34. The others are fine examples of receivers who aged slowly and remained productive until age 35 or 36; Boldin and Welker could possibly fall into this group.
But Boldin and Walker could also fall into a group that contains Andre Rison, whose final impact season came when he was 30; or Terry Glenn, who had a 70-1057-6 season for the Cowboys at age 32 and then disappeared; or Terrance Mathis, who produced Welker-like numbers for a few years but had his last 1,000-yard season at age 32; or Laveranues Coles (last impact season at age 31), Anthony Miller (32), Herman Moore (29), or Chad Johnson (32). They could also fall into the group that includes Hines Ward (33), Marvin Harrison (34), Isaac Bruce (34), Donald Driver (34), and Keyshawn Johnson (34), among others who kept producing at a high level until age 34 or so, though it is important to note that many of these players (Ward, Keyshawn, Bruce) were well beyond their Pro Bowl peaks in those final "impact" seasons: sometimes, a 74-1,098-3 receiving season (Bruce's line for the 2006 Rams) is just the residue of being an established performer for a declining team.
Keep a few things in mind as you look through the names above. First, Boldin's numbers have already declined from his Cardinals days. That is largely a usage and schematic change, but it is important to note that five years have passed since his 89-1038-11 season in 2008. He has already peaked, and his numbers fit squarely with the late-career Keyshawn, who could catch 70 passes per season -- as long as Jerry Jones and Jerry Richardson were willing to pay him -- but needed more pass attempts to gain fewer yards every year. Lots of factors can obscure a player's age cycle, from a gutsy Super Bowl performance to a scheme that guarantees 175 passes per year, which is why historic research and the search for comparisons can be useful.
Second, keep in mind that hindsight can make the players on one list look better than those on another, but the distinction would not have been obvious at the time. Terry Glenn always looked like a more talented player than Keenan McCardell; Torry Holt (another player whose last big year came at age 31) seemed like a better bet to age gracefully than Mason. Terrence Mathis, like Welker, was coming off a string of productive seasons as the slot-possession guy in a pass-crazy offense; as an age-style-performance comparison, adjusted a bit for eras, it is hard to find more similar comparisons to Welker than Mason and Mathis. Maybe he beats them both, but at 11.5 yards per reception last year, he has less to lose than either of his comparables.
The teams that acquired Boldin and Welker were teams who could afford to bank on a player in his decline phase. Both the 49ers and Broncos are just a step or two away from a Super Bowl victory. Both have wide receiver depth and players who can stretch the defense; in Boldin and Welker, they were acquiring moxie guys to provide clutch catches, create mismatches against inexperienced defenders, and so on. There were few suitors for Boldin and Welker because there are few teams in a position to place a premium in those services, and fewer teams who were likely to kid themselves into thinking that they would be getting a 900-1200 yard receiver across the length of a four-year contract. Teams with money or draft picks to spend embraced youth and speed, targeting Mike Wallace and Percy Harvin. The Ravens and Patriots, two organizations who are savvy about statistical analysis and cap management, knew better than to get sentimental and overspend on players who already gave them their best years.
If Welker settles into a slot role with the Broncos and catches 65 passes for 700 yards and a bunch of first downs on 3rd-and-medium, they will be thrilled. If Boldin catches 50 passes and fights through contact for some tough receptions, Jim Harbaugh will be ecstatic (or whatever Harbaugh becomes when things go well). Both will join the long list of receivers who faded at or around the time they reached age 32. But they will be helping great teams, both by contributing at a lower level and by fitting squarely in the budget.
As for players like Greg Jennings, who just signed with the Vikings for $18-million guaranteed after turning down a slightly lower offer from the Packers, the message is loud and clear: make all the money you can before your 30th birthday.
(Procedural note: the 8,000 yard barrier was established to cast a wide net for contemporary players similar to Welker and Boldin; 1988 was the starting point so we could move past the era when ACL surgery was performed by medieval barbers, when the players could become free agents when their rookie contracts expired and there were no strikes or sudden offensive level changes to cause data confusion.)
Looking for More?
In case you missed it, there is plenty of analysis and general nonsense on the Tailgater blog. Stay abreast of the Darrelle Revis saga using my patented Revis Random Headline Generator. Catch up with analysis of last week's major signings. And if you are wondering why the Redskins have been so uncharacteristically quiet, the answer can be found here.