This offseason, while some NFL teams have grabbed national headlines with major free agent signings, in Green Bay it's been relatively quiet on the contract front. And from the Packers' perspective, that's a good thing.
While other teams are undergoing significant rebuilding efforts, in 2004 the Packers will return starters at every position, something that wouldn't have been possible if not for the re-signing of Chad Clifton at the beginning of the month.
Since that deal, the Packers have made other moves in free agency, including the signings of Mark Roman and Michael Hawthorne last week.
Working to negotiate those deals and others, while ensuring that the Packers stay within the NFL Salary Cap, is Vice President of Player Finance Andrew Brandt, who sat down for an exclusive interview with Packers.com.
Packers.com: This is certainly a busy time of the year for you, but from an outside perspective the Packers haven't made a lot of moves in free agency. In general, what is the Packers' mission in free agency?
Andrew Brandt: "Free agency means different things to different people. I think some people think free agency means spending sprees on other teams' top players. Other people see it as more of an in-house thing. Some people see it as a chance to let other teams spend their money while they wait and see what's left afterwards.
"I think every team has to have its own philosophy regarding free agency. Ours has been traditionally one that's worked for us and that is to have highest priority on signing our own free agents, our own players coming up for contract -- and in some cases that means players coming up for contract not even this year but in a future year -- and picking our spots with other teams' free agents.
"This year is as good as example as any. Our top priority, obviously, was keeping our own, and Chad Clifton represented our one marquee free agent and we ensured that we would have him on the roster in two ways: first, we put our franchise tag on him, which was very Cap restrictive, but in the end we negotiated a long-term deal that we're very happy with and he's happy with. So he's retained for another six years.
"We then picked our spots on a couple defensive backs, staying in-house to sign Michael Hawthorne, who was a valuable guy in our secondary last season, while also acquiring former Cincinnati Bengal Mark Roman, a safety we targeted from the very beginning of free agency. So, in general, we made sure we protected our own and then have hit free agency in limited, selective targets."
As successful as the Packers have been at re-signing their own talent, and as successful as the team has been in recent years because of that approach, that methodology certainly doesn't grab headlines like, say, the 2004 approach of the Philadelphia Eagles, who signed Jevon Kearse and Terrell Owens in recent weeks. Externally, fans often get frustrated by the fact that the Packers aren't bringing in any 'big name' players, losing sight of the fact that the Packers aren't losing any 'big name' players either. Internally, is there ever a similar frustration? Is there an urge when you see those marquee names available on the market to want to go after them?
"Well, there is. I always talk about how the first 10 days of free agency is when the true overpaying in pro football happens. I'm speaking to studies that the NFL shows us every year, and those history studies show a few things. For example, over half the players signed in the first two weeks of March are not going to fulfill their contracts. So in a couple years, half of those teams will be looking at themselves and saying, 'What have we done?'
"The other thing that's most important to learn from some of these studies is that teams that make noise in March rarely make noise in January. That's an instructive fact, and that's not mentioned to denigrate any of these teams that are spending big in free agency. It's just a fact that the teams that spend the most on free agents are not necessarily the ones that compete deep into the playoffs."
Building off of that, since the dawn of free agency, it's the Green Bay Packers who have produced the NFL's best overall record. Obviously that wouldn't be possible if not for the Salary Cap, but even given the Cap, can you explain how the Packers philosophy in free agency allows that to happen?
"I'll answer it this way. The catchphrase in the NFL right now is 'window of opportunity.' Everybody has this window of opportunity and this ability to get things done in a limited time frame, and some people define it as one to two years, some people define it as three to four years. If we're proud of anything it's the fact that we have kept that window open for a long period of time.
"I know that the Packers' record over 10 years is the best in the free agency area. I know the Packers' record over the last five years is in the top two or three. The Packers and Eagles are the only two teams in the NFC to make the playoffs the past two years.
"So, yes, there are a lot of things out there that speak well for us, but I think the overriding factor is we've concentrated on solid drafting, solid personnel acquisitions and solid Cap management. And, yes, we've made our mistakes and that's constantly pointed out to us. No one is perfect, but we hope to be as good as anyone.
"As for the 'sexiness' of other teams' free agent signings, last year we signed one of the best pass rushers in free agency, one of the best young defensive tackles in free agency and one of the best linebackers in free agency. Their names were Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila, Cletidus Hunt and Na'il Diggs. Now, it doesn't get a lot of attention because they're already on our team, but the point is that they could be on someone else's team right now. Chad Clifton could be on someone else's team right now."
Speaking of which, the Packers have never lost a player to free agency coming off of a Pro Bowl season, correct?
"Correct. And we've had to pay top dollar at times, as with Darren Sharper who was coming off a Pro Bowl season in 2001.
"But when I came here five years ago I saw there had been players that had enjoyed extreme leverage because they were coming off that big season, so I sort of instituted a philosophy to get to players before they hit that point, if you can. Obviously you can't always do that.
"But with players that we've approached prior to free agency, and that may be six months prior or a year-and-a-half prior, you're making a bet. You're taking a risk because they may get injured, or they may not perform to the level that you expected. And they're taking a risk that they'll make less than they could make by going into free agency and getting into a potential bidding situation with other teams. But that philosophy has worked well for us."
Speaking of which, when you look this offseason at what the Eagles paid for Jevon Kearse, who is clearly one of the NFL's greatest players, but who has struggled with some injuries, how does that make you feel looking back on the negations with Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila last year?
"For us, it validates our deal with Kabeer. It was very quiet how financially and emotionally invested the Eagles were in attracting Kabeer last year, because we were able to fend off an offer sheet. But that's probably as stressful a time as I've had in my five years here because the Eagles had weapons at their disposal Cap-wise that we didn't have, and they were prepared to do something with Kabeer that would have forced a major alteration of our roster. But we grinded through it and we were able to sign a deal on our terms."
Obviously free agency is a battle between what teams want to do and what they can afford to do. As generally as possible, describe how you work with GM/Head Coach Mike Sherman and the personnel side of the organization to set a plan for free agency.
"My role here is kind of a fulcrum role where I funnel between the administrative side and the football side. This time of year, obviously I'm spending a disproportionate amount of time with the football side, meeting a lot with personnel guys like Mark Hatley, Reggie McKenzie, John Schneider, and of course with Mike Sherman, while also reporting to John Jones about what's going on in terms of the football side and projecting some budgetary costs.
"But the meetings are very productive because we share feelings about what we think we should do, and we talk about Cap issues and restraints. I frequently give them a picture of 'what if?' And that's the thing about my role is that I have to project so many scenarios. I'll be asked, 'Can I get this player?' And I have to answer, 'Yes, but -- .' Or, 'Yes, if the price is X, but not Y.' Or, 'Yes, if we don't retain this other player.' There are just so many crystal ball situations that we talk about.
"It's almost analogous to the draft, when who we draft depends on the availability of other players and what other teams have done. And actually it all funnels together, draft and free agency."
You mentioned that Mark Roman was a player the Packers targeted from the very beginning of free agency. But in situations where a veteran like John Lynch becomes available, who you didn't necessarily know you might have a chance to sign, do you just know immediately that his existing contract is structured in such a way that you can't even consider acquiring him, or do you crystal ball those situations as well?
"We definitely crystal ball those things, but ultimately it comes down to what our priorities are personnel-wise and how we can fit him in Cap-wise. That's a situation where we had already targeted a player we liked (Roman) and John Lynch did not affect our plans one bit. But things do come up."
And even though a player like Lynch doesn't end up being a factor in free agency for the Packers, you at least consider options to acquire such a player, correct?
"Yes, you have to. And that brings up another misconception that people have regarding free agency, which is that it ends in March or April. We are living proof that free agency is a blueprint throughout the year and it's fluid.
"I look at our roster going into training camp last season, this is July, and we did not have Gilbert Brown, Wesley Walls, Michael Hawthorne, Grady Jackson or Larry Smith. Those are five players out of the 53-man roster that we didn't have in training camp. So we're living proof that free agency is a fluid situation.
"Two years ago, we added our starting middle linebacker for that season, Hardy Nickerson, in June. Our starting middle linebacker last year, Nick Barnett, was added in late April, at the draft. So the situation always changes and I have to be prepared. And when people ask me, 'How much Cap room do the Packers have, what can you do?,' it's a hard question to answer because we have some Cap room, but if it has to last through December, that's harder than if it has to last through just April or May."
That brings up Grady Jackson, who was a major mid-season acquisition for the Packers last year. How can you forecast how much money you might need tucked away for when a need arises during the season or when a player of Jackson's caliber suddenly becomes available?
"There are different flashpoints on the calendar. Obviously my world is crazy in February because I'm trying to get into the new league year, which begins March 1, by creating a little bit of a nest egg for free agency. Then we get to the draft and signing those players. Then in June we might add a player or two, and once we get into the season I like to have a certain amount of Cap money, which I won't reveal, ready for those situations.
"Because when a guy like Grady Jackson is released, like he was by the New Orleans Saints last year, within five minutes of his name coming on the wire I've got three people at my door asking if we can afford him. And we can, although it might affect negotiations on a contract extension or a number of other things.
"What always eats into our money at training camp, for example, is injuries. We're paying players that aren't on the roster, but they count full on the Cap.
"We had more players on injured reserve last year than any other team in the league. They weren't marquee players, but they count. So the Bobby Jacksons and Devin Lewises and Adam Tates, who many fans probably don't even know, were counting on the Cap. Those are things that eat up your Cap room."
So, all of that said, and as difficult as it is to summarize, after the recent signings of Chad Clifton, Mark Roman, Michael Hawthorne and others, what is the Packers' current Cap situation? For example, do the Packers have room to go out and sign another veteran punter as a potential replacement for Josh Bidwell?
"My best answer there is that Cap room can be made, but it's artificial. What you're really dealing with is now versus later. We have these discussions all the time, if not every week, about how much to allow for short-term gain that may potentially bring long-term pain.
"Can we make Cap room? Yes. And when people ask me if we can do X, Y and Z, I almost want to say, 'If we're only worried about 2004, yes.' But I'm always trying to keep an eye on if we're going to be healthy long-term Cap-wise. So the answer is, there are always ways to make Cap room, but there are no magic bullets that allow for Cap room now but that don't have an impact later.
"I understand we have this limited time with this Hall of Fame talent named Brett Favre and that we have to build around him, but you just want to balance that with having a plan for the future. Hopefully we've done that as well as anyone to where we're not going to be left in the 'Cap jail' that has hindered so many other NFL teams, where they go through a lull where they're winning four, five or six games for two, three or four years until they're back at an elite level. Our constant goal is to not let that happen."
Over the past few years, the Washington Redskins have gone through some offseasons of major free agent spending, which, according to reports, could make things difficult for that organization long-term. But is there an advantage to be gained by the way the Redskins are handling free agency, compared to the way it's handled in Green Bay?
"It's always a concern. The Cap is a saving grace because it is a self-regulator, but it may not self-regulate for three or four years, so you'll see excessive spending and it won't catch up to a team for three or four years. That's the delayed reaction of the Salary Cap.
"So, yes, it's a concern, because cash is king. Players' contracts are judged by the media, and sometimes other players, not by the contract itself but by the bonus. And the bonus is prorated over the course of the deal, so if a player is released, traded or retires, the amortized part of that accelerates immediately. So if you give a guy a $6 million bonus over six years, it counts $1 million a year against the Cap. But if you cut him after two years you accelerate $4 million to your Cap immediately.
"So there are tremendous ramifications if these deals don't work out. We've been lucky in that we've only had to deal with a few of those situations, but we've tried to avoid them as much as possible. And the truth of the matter is that we're still dealing with 'dead money' issues prior to our regime here. That's the delayed effect of the Cap."
So how do you feel about the Packers coming out of this period of free agency?
"Statistics show that we are the only team in the NFL to be returning all of our starters. Obviously we're looking to upgrade at a couple of spots, but that is truly unique in this free agency period, and the accelerated dealing with Kabeer and Na'il last year helped that process, because absent our proactive nature, our list of marquee free agents wouldn't have just included Chad Clifton this offseason, but also Na'il Diggs, Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila, Mark Tauscher and Grady Jackson.
"We've managed to keep our team together and we're trying to shore up a couple of spots. We've started to do that and that will continue through the draft.
"I don't want to bring tension to myself in this interview, but there's a rumbling in the distance for next year's free agent class that includes several starters. So even though this year we've only had to deal with re-signing one marquee free agent, next year it will balance out as we have to determine what we want to do about several starters. That's always in the back of my mind as well."
So considering that renegotiations prior to free agency have served the Packers so well in the past, how soon will you begin that process?
"It certainly won't start until the summer at the earliest because we have to get through this free agency period and the draft and see where we are. We have potential plans if we don't retain one or a few of those guys, but the key to renegotiating one or more of those contracts before the end of the 2004 season is Cap room, and to determine that we have to do some prioritizing.
"So once we get past this whole period in the summer, we start prioritizing next year's group. I'll actually start closing the book on 2004 by August and then I'm looking at 2005 and the whole process starts over again."