Attention, free-agent shoppers: Ron Wolf has something to say
So misery loves company. Well, then, color the Washington Redskins tickled pink.
Once upon a time, and not too long ago, the Redskins were the leading actors in Free Agents Gone Wrong. Their 2009 signing of defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth generally is regarded as the worst example of free-agent spending … or overspending … since that practice hit the NFL 25 years ago.
Of course, they also had others – Dana Stubblefield, Adam Archuleta and Deion Sanders come to mind – but it was the addition of Haynesworth that sits front and center when talk gets around to the Do's and Don'ts of free agency – with the emphasis on don't.
At least, that is, until now.
Thanks to the Houston Texans, the Redskins have company at the bottom of the barrel. It was Houston that last year jumped at the chance to sign quarterback Brock Osweiler to a four-year, $72 million deal, and it was Houston that Thursday couldn’t wait to be rid of him -- sending him and a pair of draft picks, including a second-rounder, to Cleveland so the Browns could absorb his contract.
"You sometimes wonder what people see in guys," said Hall-of-Fame general manager Ron Wolf. "Like Houston. What did they see in Brock Osweiler?"
What everyone else did: A backup quarterback who started seven games and won five in 2015 for a team (Denver) that went on to win the Super Bowl. Except Houston's horizon stretched farther. Much farther. In Osweiler, the Texans also saw a quarterback they envisioned as a long-term solution at the sport's most important position, and there begins the problem.
Osweiler started seven games … seven ... in his NFL career, yet the Texans were so desperate to do something, anything, at quarterback they couldn’t wait to throw gazillions at the guy when the Denver Broncos – the club that should have wanted him – would not.
One year later, of course, the Texans acknowledged their mistake and dumped him, throwing in second-and-sixth-round draft picks to sweeten the deal and cement their rightful place alongside Washington in Free Agents Gone Wrong.
So what did they miss? And why did they miss it?
Ah, that’s why I contacted Wolf, who signed the best free agent in NFL history, Reggie White, shortly after free agency became part of the NFL landscape. In rapid fire, Wolf added guys like White, Santana Dotson and Sean Jones before choosing a different path – one where he would try to re-sign his own players rather than someone else's.
And the practice worked, with Green Bay going to three straight conference championship games and two straight Super Bowls and Wolf going into the Hall of Fame..
"It is really diferent now than when I was doing it," said Wolf, who retired after the 2001 season. "We were stumbling around at the embryonic stage, if you will, of free agency, trying to figure out how to play it. We decided we better sign our own after getting Reggie, Santana and Sean Jones, and, at that point, our decision was to keep our own ... if we could ... because we thought we could do better. We thought that was safer than being more aggressive.
"In today's game, all you’ve got are seven draft choices, and you're going to change something like 17 players a year ... or more. So you’ve got to go somewhere, and where you go is free agency. And you’ve got to play it right.
"The key thing is to make sure you know what you're getting and to know everything you can about the guy. We were fortune anough to get Reggie White at a time when people were pretty much stumbling around about the thing. But they are no longer stumbling around.
" It’s a lot different landscape now. Which means you still have to be very careful. You're looking to fill a need, and that’s what it's become."
Washington did that in 1998 when Stubblefield, a defensive tackle who was the 1997 Defensive Player of the Year, became a free agent. The Redskins signed him to a six-year, $36-million deal that included $8 million in signing bonus.
He had a career-best 15 sacks in his last year with San Francisco. He had seven in three seasons before Washington cut him loose.
Eleven years later, the Redskins too another flyer on a defense tackle, giving Haynesworth a seven-year, $100-million contract that included a then-record $41 million in guaranteed money. He had a career-best 8.5 sacks in his last year with Tennessee. He had 6.5 in two seasons before the Redskins cashiered him.
"I saw (similar things) happen to a couple of players where they get the big pay and then turn around and are afraid to get hurt," said Wolf, without naming names. "That’s why I say you have to know what you're getting in the individual, and that’s the key right there. You have to know your people. You want the right people in the locker room and that’s so, so important.
"I knew Sean Jones from my time with the Raiders, so I was very, very comfortable with him. And I knew Santana from playing against him when he was with the Bucs, and I new his Dad. His Dad was an ex-Raider. And then there was Reggie, who was a once-in-a-lifetime guy."
And there's the moral to the Osweiler story in particular and free agency in general: Know what youre getting. Period. You wouldn’t buy a car without driving it, right? So why did the Texans decide Osweiler was the answer at quarterback after spending 10 seconds with the guy?
They took a chance, and they failed. And they suffered the consequences.
There is a lesson there, not only for Houston but for all NFL teams looking to fill a void with high-priced free agents.
"In later years," said Wolf, "we didn’t pay much attention to the free-agent market because what we tried to do was to keep our own. But I don't think you can do that now. You’ve got to dip in there, and, if you have a big hole in a position, you better try to fill it with somebody who can come in and play right away."
And you better know what you're getting. Unfortunately for the Houston Texans, they know now.