As the Rams embark upon an off season of dramatic roster change, let’s take a look at history to decide where they should go and how they go about it.
The last three Super Bowl Champions have been the Indianapolis Colts, the New York Giants and the Pittsburgh Steelers.
In 2006, the Colts had ONE unrestricted free agent on their roster, Adam Vinatieri. In fact, among that team’s starting 22 for most of the season, only defensive tackle Anthony McFarland, who came over in a deadline day trade from Tampa Bay, had ever played for another NFL team. The Colts had one player, guard Ryan Lilja, that had been plucked off waivers from Kansas City. The rest were either drafter or signed as undrafted free agents by the Colts.
In 2007, the Giants had a little bit more of a mosaic. Right tackle Kareem McKenzie was a free agent from the Jets, and Ram fans know all about waiver wire pickup Madison Hedgecock. On defense, tackle Fred Robbins was an under-the-radar free agent from Minnesota and linebackers Antonio Pierce and Kawika Mitchell were added as final pieces to a puzzle. Overall, 15 of 22 Giants starters were drafted players or undrafted free agents. And the only real high profile free agent signings from other teams were Plaxico Burress and Pierce. Aside from those two, nucleus players Eli Manning, Brandon Jacobs, Osi Umenyiora, Michael Strahan, Justin Tuck and Gibril Wilson were all Giant draft picks.
The Super Bowl Champion ’08 Steelers are more like Indy, although no team is quite like the Colts in terms of personnel aquisition. But Pittsburgh’s free agent ventures were to add pieces to the puzzle. Safety Ryan Clark was a backup in Washington before signing with the Steelers, center Justin Hartwig was brought in from Carolina when Jeff Hartings retired, and James Farrior was a failure in New York before arriving in Pittsburgh and enjoying tremendous success. When Jerome Bettis retired, Alan Faneca departed, Marvel Smith got hurt or Joey Porter was cut, Pittsburgh had guys to step in. In fact, when Burress left, they drafted a guy named Santonio Holmes. And when Porter was released, it was because they had James Harrison ready to take off. Anybody who watches knows two things…one, the Steelers nucleus ALL came from the draft and, two, none of their superstars are free agent acquisitions.
When he was here in St. Louis, Dick Vermeil always talked about his “program.” Not his team, but his program. When Fred Miller left, Ryan Tucker had been coached up to step in. Same for Andy McCollum when Mike Gruttadauria left, and for Billy Jenkins Jr., and James Hodgins, and Az Hakim and Dre’ Bly. There was a long term plan in place that was ruined when the Rams quit drafting well, and quit considering undrafted free agents.
Here’s what you consistently see in Indy, New York and Pittsburgh. When desperate teams steal their free agents, they’ve got someone ready to take over. After their Super Bowl wins, the Colts lost RB Dominic Rhodes and OT Tarik Glenn and the Giants lost S Gibril Wilson and DE Michael Strahan. Yet both teams returned to the playoffs. And those desperate teams like Washington, Dallas, the Jets, Oakland and Denver continually spin their wheels and fail to reach the Super Bowl.
So as the Rams begin free agency and we start to hear about Jordan Gross and Julius Peppers and Ray Lewis and Albert Haynesworth and Karlos Dansby…I hope they think about what works in this league. It’s drafting, teaching, coaching, developing…and then filling in through free agency when you need a player. If you need to fill holes with a 2-14 team, sign younger, cheaper players with upside. Overloading the Rams salary cap with stars won’t help in the long run.
You can’t build a National Football League team through free agency. I hope Billy Devaney and Steve Spagnuolo go old school and put the Rams together like the last three Super Bowl Champions have been.