Wednesday, March 28, 2007

"Bear" Knuckle Brawl

Gee whiz, that's a clever title. Anyway, the time has come for me to comment on a distasteful story I have thus far avoided: Lance Briggs vs. the Chicago Bears.

The consensus around town seems to be that the Bears have done everything right so far, and thus not only have the high road in this show down, but all the leverage as well. But I'm not sure this is as clear cut as people are making it out to be.

The following is true: NFL players get the shaft relative to owners under the league's collective bargaining arrangement with the players' union. But the franchise tag arrangement actually seems to be one of the deal's more even-handed arrangements. And, regardless of how you feel about the franchise tag, it is part of the deal. It's a tool for teams to use when they feel a player is worth the average salary of the top-five guys at his position, and the Bears have used it here. The Bears have done nothing wrong. They even offered Briggs a long-term deal a year ago. It wasn't for as much as Briggs wanted, but the Bears had all the leverage at the time. Why? Briggs was under contract for one more year either way, and after that the Bears could use the franchise player tag.

So far, this is exactly how the system was designed to work. But the system is designed to give an inordinate amount of leverage to the teams. So Briggs, and Briggs's agent, Drew Rosenhaus, got frustrated. Every player does when he gets franchised. And Briggs and Rosenhaus have unveiled the list of threats that every player uses in this situation. "We're going to hold out." "We're only going to play the last six games. That way we don't risk getting hurt, but we still get a year's service time." (Notice how the agents always uses "we" in these situations, as if his livelihood is actually at stake along with the players? Rosenhaus has cost his clients millions in recent years. When will he finally lose credibility with the players?) Anyway, these threats are all the leverage the player has, and its usually not worth spit.

That's why if a team plays its cards right, it can grab all the leverage and the moral high road. The Bears have played their cards right. They just keep saying that they want Briggs in a Bears uniform next year, they think he's a great player, and if you need proof, just check out the 7 million dollar deal they've offered for next season. As long as a team doesn't cave to the pressure and trade the guy, they'll usually win out. It's hard for the player to really turn down a big, guaranteed salary for the upcoming season. NFL careers are too short to take that risk. (It's easy for Rosenhaus to take that risk because his career will last more than six years, and he's getting a bite of every player's deal who he represents. Rosenhaus repeatedly plays these situations with his interests in mind, rather than his client's interests.)

And here's the deepest, darkest secret of all -- one no NFL player will admit to himself -- NFL general managers know that just about every player, even one good enough to franchise, is replaceable. The replacement might not be quite as good, but this isn't baseball or basketball, and for the most part, no individual can make that much of a difference, especially if he doesn't have talent around him. So, it's certainly not worth it to overpay to keep a guy long term just to ensure he takes the field next year. The biggest mistake an NFL GM can make is to overpay for a replaceable part.

But here's where Briggs v. Bears gets more complicated than most of these situations. The second biggest mistake a GM can make is refusing to pay market price for a difference-maker. There are very few irreplaceable parts in the NFL, but Briggs might just be one of them. According to Football Outsiders, Briggs led the league last year in stop rate among linebackers. In rough language, that means he gets to the ball carrier before the ball carrier gets where he needs to go more than any other linebacker in football. He creates second and nines, third and sevens, fourth and ones. Those are the defensive plays that win football games.

The Bears should definitely not trade Briggs for less than value "just to make sure they get something for him." I suspect that if the Bears keep playing this the way they are, Briggs will end up playing the entire season. Within the terms of the collective bargaining agreement, and even morally, the Bears don't appear to have done anything wrong here. But from a football perspective, shouldn't they be offering the moon to this guy to get him signed long term?


Blogger Mr.Man said...

The fact that they haven't offered him the moon indicates that they don't believe he's as good as you would like to think. Instead, they view him as a very good player, they want to make another run in a weak NFC next year with a healthy Tommie Harris, and they don't want to have to draft a linebacker next month.

Briggs' "very good" player status, is further reinforced by Don Pierson's piece in the Tribune today, where he urged the Bears to take the trade with the Redskins, actually calling him "overrated."

I think stop rate may be a bit flawed as an analytical tool for a particular player because it doesn't take into account offensive players not accounting for him because of other great players, like Urlacher and Harris.

12:33 PM  
Blogger Phil said...

I don't disagree, but what of the salary cap. How can you pay that much money to two players at roughly the same position without it hurting you in other areas?

10:09 AM  

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