NFL Teams Running Wild Before Free Agency Exemplifies Goodell's "Lack of Institutional Control"

All 32 teams basically violated the NFL's free agency three-day tampering period rule. Literally. Every. Team.



The Rule & THE MEMO

In 2013, the NFL instituted the "legal tampering period" rule. This rule gives teams a three-day negotiation period where they can, with limitations, begin to pitch their case to free agents on other teams. Therefore, while teams could officially start signing players for the 2015 season Tuesday at 4:00pm E.T., marking the beginning of the free agency period, teams were allowed to begin contacting agents for eligible for free agency on Saturday. It is supposed to give the player the best chance at a salary by allowing the current team one final chance to sign him but allowing a smooth and quick transition into another contract if that does not happen. Here are some of the rule's main points:

  • Teams may send written summaries of their position to agents of free agents currently under contract with another team. These summaries may include the contract term (i.e., length), compensation, signing bonuses, and similar provisions.
  • Teams can change their negotiation position based on the agent's response position.
  • Teams must say they are not making offers, just negotiating.
  • Teams cannot enter into contracts with free agents currently under contract with other teams, give contract drafts, enter into any sort of express or implied agreement or make promises about terms available after the free agency period begins, or give assurances regarding contracts executed in the future.

Hold up. How can a team negotiate a "position" with an agent without exchanging "offers" at the bargaining table?

The full memo that the NFL sent to all 32 teams reads: "Clubs were advised of the rules for the three-day negotiating period in PP-23-15 (attached). These rules include limitations such as that a club cannot make an 'offer;' or enter into a written or oral agreement of any kind, express or implied, or make promises or representations of any type concerning the terms or conditions of employment to be offered to any Unrestricted Free Agent for inclusion in a Player Contract after the start of the new League Year; or provide assurances of intent as to the future execution of an NFL Player Contract.

"Clubs were further advised that 'Any attempt to undermine the purpose of this negotiating period may be considered conduct detrimental to the League.' At this time, the League office is beginning investigations into a number of reported agreements with clubs. Violations will be dealt with accordingly."

Violators could be punished with mere fines to lost draft picks. With the range of sanctions being so wide, it is unclear how severely the commissioner and his office will tackle this display of mockery.

Ndamukong Suh: A Demonstration

Defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, formerly under contract with the Detroit Lions, was likely considered the hottest commodity in this year's free agency market after the Lions declined to grant him the pricey franchise tag and let him loose. On Saturday, the first day of the three-day free agency window, ESPN's Chris Mortensen tweeted that Suh was going to sign a six-year contract with the Miami Dolphins for $114 million with $60 million guaranteed. Putting the insane factor of that number aside, if it is true that the Dolphins made that offer clear as day to Suh, the team violated the NFL rule because there are specific contract figures.

Now check back to the rule's intent. The Lions made the decision to allocate the remainder of its salary cap allowance to other options, and by that time, I would imagine most teams have made similar decisions and do not need the one final chance the rule is intended to serve. It would make more sense to allow other teams to reach out to Suh and battle it out with his agent to make sure he gets a contract with another team.

Since Suh is coveted by many and feared by all, he is the perfect target for Goodell's mission to have order and gain respect, which reportedly makes the Dolphins "nervous." If I was in the front office there, I would be, too, despite the fact that the rule just delays the inevitable. It would be difficult for the Dolphins to assert that there were no contract terms before the free agency period began. The only thing predictable about Goodell is the inconsistency in his management of the league. 

The Effect (If Any)

The memo intended to scare the teams in hopes that they will play by Goodell's rules. It is no surprise that they chose to disobey him. Some teams actually released alleged contract terms, possibly deliberately slapping Goodell in the face. A multitude of reports over the weekend releasing tentative agreement terms besides between the Dolphins and Suh include the Chicago Bears with Pernell McPhee, the Kansas City Chiefs with Jeremy Maclin, the Oakland Raiders with Rodney Hudson, the Philadelphia Eagles with Byron Maxwell and Frank Gore, and the San Diego Chargers with Orlando Franklin. Now what?

Although the rule is basic, somewhat reasonable, and genuinely could have the best interests of the sport at heart, the NFL's public relations respect is at stake now more than ever. What purpose does contact before the signing period serve if the teams cannot show up to the negotiating table and make offers to feel out the likelihood of and terms of an agreement?

Maybe teams believe crossing the line is necessary to compete in the free agency bloodbath since, well, it looks like everyone else is willing to engage in questionable negotiations as well. According to one agent, it is not that the teams' free agency practices that changed from last year but instead the media coverage on such practices. If this is true, then appearing to create fair, competitive balance in the public eye is the driving force for Goodell making and enforcing this rule.

The truth of the matter is that the rule is a silly, hollow demonstration of the commissioner's absolute power. The teams could not care less about this three-day free agency window rule because it lacks substance, that is, until Goodell decides to make illustrations of a team or two and give equally ridiculous punishments. Once again, consistency will be thrown out the window in the commissioner's attempt to convince us that he has things under control.