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Tough times? Not for NFL free agents

March 22, 2009|Barry Wilner | Wilner writes for the Associated Press.

As former Jets executive Pat Kirwan was preparing to open his radio program, he couldn't stop shaking his head at the numbers spinning around him.

Not yardage and tackles and touchdown statistics. Dollar signs. Lots and lots of dollar signs.

"The Albert Haynesworth deal to kick off the (free agency) season was really bad," Kirwan told his Sirius NFL Radio audience. "The money doesn't jive with the economy. It doesn't jive with the end of the CBA (collective bargaining agreement) coming.

"How can any (player) who is not a quarterback who touches the ball every play, how can anyone live up to that kind of money? How can you justify it? I can't."

Many NFL owners can, starting with Daniel Snyder of the Redskins, and followed by Woody Johnson of the Jets, and the Glazers in Tampa Bay. They have spent megabucks during a free agency frenzy that also has seen lucrative deals for such veterans as Kurt Warner, Ray Lewis, Brian Dawkins and Terrell Owens, who wound up with a raise after being cut by Dallas and signed by Buffalo -- almost surely the only team bidding for him at the $6.5 million price tag.

The first few weeks of free agency always are wild affairs, with elite players cashing in at unprecedented rates, and others often riding their financial coattails to profitable -- sometimes even outrageous -- contracts.

But this off-season, from Haynesworth's deal with Redskins owner Snyder to Owens' jackpot in Buffalo, has been almost surreal. At a time when the government is bailing out the nation's banks, unemployment is soaring and fans are wondering if they can afford NFL tickets, team owners act like they are handing out monopoly money.

Does that worry some NFL teams? It should, and it does.

"We're right in the middle of the budget process now and looking at all of our expenses," Packers president Mark Murphy said. "Are there places we can cut back? Do we need to do things the way we've done them in the past? Things of that nature. Because I think the combination of the economy and a potential work stoppage, it's just a smart business decision to look at everything we do."

A look at what has been done in free agency thus far, however, would indicate many other teams are not paying heed to the areas Murphy and the Packers recently have addressed. To wit:

* Haynesworth gets a $100 million, seven-year contract with a record $41 million guaranteed. True, he has been a stud on defense the last two seasons, but both were contract years. He also played on a more stable team in Tennessee, and Haynesworth has had several behavioral issues, too.

At 27 he was the prime free agent, which got Snyder's attention, and he certainly fills a need in Washington. Still, as Kirwan noted, so much money for a defensive tackle, particularly when it is the first major deal of free agency? The trend of big spending was set just hours into the free agency period, and Washington continued with big deals for guard Derrick Dockery ($26.5 million over five years with $8.2 million guaranteed) and cornerback DeAngelo Hall (six years, $54 million, $22.5 million guaranteed).

* Tampa Bay is totally redoing itself, from firing Jon Gruden and promoting Raheem Morris to coach, to purging many of the veterans and team leaders, particularly Derrick Brooks and Warrick Dunn. If that's how the Buccaneers needed to get salary cap room, fine.

But what have they done with that available money? Some strange things, such as re-signing Michael Clayton for five years and $26 million, with more than $10 million in guarantees. In the last four years, he's been plagued by injuries and inconsistency. His best season was last year, when he had 38 receptions for 484 yards and one touchdown -- hardly All-Pro numbers.

The Bucs also gave unproven quarterback Luke McCown a two-year, $7.5 million deal that is huge money for a career backup with few on-field credentials. They also brought in kicker Mike Nugent, who missed all but the 2008 season opener as a Jet, and isn't nearly as proven as incumbent Matt Bryant.

* The Jets, like the Bucs undergoing a reconstruction project, added to the $140 million they spent in free agency a year ago by grabbing a whole bunch of Baltimore players. Ravens linebacker Bart Scott (six years, $48 million, $22 million guaranteed), safety Jim Leonhard (three years, $6-plus million) and end Marques Douglas all landed in New Jersey, along with new coach Rex Ryan, the Ravens' former defensive coordinator.

Recession? What recession?

Throw in some of the money thrown around for throwers -- Warner's two-year, $23 million contract with the Cardinals, $19 million guaranteed; Kerry Collins' two-year, $15 million deal, with $8.5 million guaranteed; McCown; Dan Orlovsky, who went from the winless Lions to a three-year, $9.1 million contract with the Texans -- and you wonder how insulated and removed from the recession NFL owners feel.

Not that some of these contracts aren't warranted. Warner, for example, deserved top dollar for his role in turning the laughingstock Cardinals into a Super Bowl squad. Scott knows Ryan's aggressive defensive system inside-out and will be a leader for the Jets. Owens, for the first year with his previous three teams, performed well and rarely acted up.

Yet this generosity leads to the serious concerns that an uncapped season -- yes, that would be 2010 if a new collective bargaining agreement between owners and players is not reached this year -- could ruin pro football.

Absurd? Well, so were nine-figure contracts for defensive linemen once upon a time.

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