Saturday, March 16, 2013

Why It Doesn’t Pay to Get Too Invested in an NFL Team

Purple Majesty - Baltimore Ravens Super Bowl Champions
The Cover of Janice’s Souvenir book on the 2012 Baltimore Ravens.. Never mind that most of the star players featured are now with other teams!

And the bleeding and chaos goes on! The Free Agency spring in the NFL has ripped teams to shreds, scattered star players to the 4 winds (or points of the compass), and ultimately altered their identities completely from what they were last year. The question then becomes: How can one invest in a team, say in one's affiliated city or town, if the players change every year and the gamers who helped win the ‘Big One’ suddenly appear on an enemy’s payroll? It makes no sense. How can you be invested in the TEAM if the team is an illusion of your mind, and alters its constitution from what you’d identified with heart and soul?

Right now wifey Janice is at “sixes and sevens”, to use the Bajan expression, after her beloved Superbowl -winning team has been rent asunder by free agency. No sooner had she received her ‘Purple Majesty’ book on the Baltimore Ravens’ magic 2012 run to the Superbowl, than the bad news began – repeatedly announcing major defections over the NFL channel.

So she has seen LB Paul Krueger get snatched up by divisional enemy Cleveland (Browns), even as receiver Anquan Boldin was grabbed by the 49’ers – the same Niners the Ravens beat in the SuperBowl! Next, cornerback Cary Williams signed with the Eagles for $17 million, while linebacker Dannell Ellerbee signed with the Miami Dolphins for another multi-million dollar deal. Meanwhile, icon Ray Lewis has retired even as secondary hitter (safety) Ed Reed is making plans to sign with the Texans.

Janice, like all red-blooded pro-football fans, believes her team will still be a contender, but she has no illusions about them repeating as SuperBowl champs. With the fluidity of free agency there are no guarantees of that anymore. The Pack perhaps had the best chance to repeat after their 2010 Superbowl run, and 2011 win, but they let a key piece of their defense (Cullen Jenkins) go, and they then tried to compensate the lack of stops with INTs –picks. Didn’t work! Though they finished 15-1 they got bounced from the playoffs in a one and done. Their D wasn’t good enough to hold off Ely Manning and the Giants.

Speaking of the Pack, they have just seen Greg Jennings, a seven-year receiver, sign with divisional enemy Minnesota, otherwise known to Packer fans as the “Vi-queens”. According to one report in The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Jennings wanted more of a spotlight. He wanted out of an offense that featured multiple receivers. According to the Journal-Sentinel: “That was the echo in Jennings' news conference Friday. Just as he expressed subtle frustration upon returning from his core muscle injury, Jennings hinted that his role in Green Bay's offense was diminishing.”

The real problem, of course, is “cap space”. While teams in the NFL can buy a lot of talent, that buy power is limited by what’s called the cap. Unlike baseball, where the richest teams (like the New York Yankees) can buy as much baseball power as they want – hence could ‘steal’ star pitcher C.C. Sabathia from the Brewers at the end of 2008 by offering him a $61 m contract- football decided to limit such buying power to make a more equitable competitive system. The result? No one team has been able to become a powerhouse, or repeat a Superbowl in nearly ten years. The NE Patriots were the last to do it, for the 2004 season.

The Ravens’ fans knew they’d have problems keeping talent once QB Joe Flacco wrapped up a $120 million deal, for about $20m a year. That signing – while it assured Baltimore of a top flight quarterback, meant limited ability to retain talent for other positions from a SB-Championship team. Since most of the outstanding players who left, such as Krueger, Williams, Reed, Boldin etc demanded on the order of $6m a year each, there wasn’t the money to keep them. Boldin’s case is one of the saddest since he actually had $6m coming this year as part of an already signed contract, but Ozzie Newsome of the Ravens’ brain trust asked him to take a pay cut. “Take one for the team”!  Boldin, who arguably saved the Ravens’ butts in the Superbowl – making a spectacular sideline catch in the 4th quarter to sustain a drive and set up for a game winning field goal- didn’t see why he should be the one to take a hit on his promised contract. So he signed with the Niners, in exchange for which the Ravens get a 6th round pick.

More puzzling for the Ravens' fans was the outright release of heavy hitter Bernard Pollard on the basis of enhancing "team chemistry". Huh!? You let a hitter like Pollard go because of his intensity (recall his hit on RB Steven Attwood of the Pats in the AFC  Championship) and maybe not being a 'Caspar Milquetoast' PR pawn for Roger Goodell? C'mon! Pollard, as Janice put it, epitomized what it meant to "Play like a RAVEN!"

The Packers themselves have about $18m left under their salary cap, which sounds like a lot except they still have to sign star QB Aaron Rodgers and star LB Clay Mathews. They will be lucky to have $5m left after that, so no wonder owner Ted Thompson is tight-fisted and let running back Steven Jackson go to the Falcons instead of signing him. (The Pack has a serious need for RB and I personally don’t believe their present ‘committee’ can get it done.)

Sadly, while the NFL’s cap-driven free agent system spreads talent around, it doesn’t allow for stable teams, i.e. that a town can really identify with. Thus, the current system is radically unlike what we had in the 50s, 60 where players might spend 10 years with the same team and hence became icons with that team. Think of QB Bart Starr or LB Ray Nitschke with the Packers.

With NFL teams – most of them, except maybe the bottom feeders- lacking a persistent identity, fans are really following the name, or the logo. Or perhaps some vested memory of the great team that was, living on in stable form in a ‘Hall of Fame’.  This at least affords some consolation as a demoralized fan beholds his team re-incarnating in a different form every year, and facing the same task of having to learn players' names anew.

As for Janice, when she pages through her ‘Purple Majesty’ book and gazes at the photos of the Ravens of 2012, a bittersweet shadow will stalk her: that most of the players she’s looking at are no longer there. They no longer exist as Baltimore Ravens. Hence, when she perhaps peers at her book next year, she will see the faces of San Francisco Forty-Niners, Philadelphia Eagles, Miami Dolphins, Cleveland Browns and Houston Texans. The players who celebrated the Ravens’ SB win so joyously at M&T Bank Stadium last month will now be the pride of other teams, and so it goes.

As for me, I continue to follow the Green Bay Packers, but I never purchase any team 'souvenir' books. It's enough for me just to get a newspaper (e.g. Green Bay Press Gazette) detailing the championship win, for that date and year!

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