The life of an NFL executive comes with a unique set of challenges. If the team is winning, then an executive, in turn, reaps the benefits and praise as much as the players and coaching staff do, while remaining responsible to ensure that the club stays a winner. When success isn't as easy to come by, however, front office members are often the first to come under fire.
Bill Polian understands the life of a pro personnel exec as well anyone. A six-time NFL Executive of the Year, Polian held the position of general manager for three different teams (Buffalo, Carolina, and Indianapolis), winning five AFC Championships and one Super Bowl (XLI). With the start of NFL free agency less than a week away, Polian, now an analyst for ESPN, shared his thoughts the impending signing period.
In the past week, the Eagles have re-signed Riley Cooper and Jeremy Maclin and extended Jason Kelce, three players that the team originally acquired through the draft. General manager Howie Roseman recently spoke about the importance of building from within using homegrown talent, and on Thursday, Polian agreed that keeping players in-house is often the smart way to go.
"If your own players are quality players and you believe that they can help you win, then it's better off to pay them, I've always believed, because they're probably as good or better than (what) you're going to find in the market, number one. Number two, you know them better than you know a player from another team," Polian said via conference call. "You're paying a premium, but you're putting it into a person that you know, that you believe in, and that has no adjustment coming into your system. There's no system adjustment, there's no technique adjustment, there's no city adjustment, there's no culture adjustment— it's pretty seamless.
"When you have good players and you've drafted well… whether it be with high choices or with compensatory choices, when you draft well it necessarily follows that if you can keep those players, and the more you can keep, the better off you are. That's the right way to go, rather than going out and getting someone else's player."
NFL teams enter free agency in very different circumstances. Some teams with a lot of room under the salary cap look to finally emerge as a contender with one or two big signings. Some teams believe they are just a few mid-level pieces away from getting over the hump and winning a championship, and other teams elect to stay relatively quiet and to build their roster via the draft. No matter what a team's current situation is, Polian believes that free agency always presents obstacles, including having to deal with one of his central themes throughout his conference call: scheme fit.
"Whether you have a little money or a lot of money, the dangers are the same," said Polian. "It's only a question of degree. The dangers are: A) You don't know the player as well as you know a player who is coming out of the draft, and certainly not as well as you know a player who is your player, that's number one. Number two, the best players are signed, so these are essentially 'B' players whose agents are looking for 'A' money, so that in itself is not the best of buys. You recognize that as a general manager, and there are some situations that you are forced to deal with, so you just bite the bullet and do it.
"The third (danger) is that when a player changes teams and changes systems and changes his locale, he's going to have an adjustment period, and I think that is something that is missed by most analysts and by most fans. Football is not a seamless transition. Basketball is, baseball is, hockey, to some degree is; football is not. Systems change, people have a difficult time enough adjusting to begin with, and then if you have a system change or a technique change, it's even worse. You can typically find that a player doesn't play to his maximum in the first year in a new free-agent situation. It may take him a year to get adjust, and that's a year that you've lost but you've paid pretty big money for, so that's the other danger."
When the clock strikes 4 PM on Tuesday, all 32 NFL teams will be picking up the phone and trying to find the right moves for the present and the future of their organizations. The allure is definitely there: for whatever the reasons may be, high-quality NFL players are available to each and every team, for the right price, of course. But as Polian said, sometimes the team that makes the biggest splash ultimately has the hardest time staying afloat.
"Keep this in mind: free agency is not free," cautioned Polian. "It costs two things that you never get back – time and money. When you have a good team… and when you have a good personnel department that drafts well… then it behooves you to be restrained in free agency because you need the money, A) To sign your own players and B) To be in a position where you make very, very good judgments on a few players in free agency, and if those judgments come up that you're not interested, so be it. No problem at all, you'll fill in the needs with your terrific scouting staff and your terrific scouting system … Fans want you to go out now and play fantasy football now, but that's the last thing you should be doing because that money, if you miss, is gone and it never comes back.
"There is no perfect world in free agency. From a club standpoint, it's very difficult. I found it the most difficult thing I had to do as a general manager on virtually every front, but we'll see how it goes forward."