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Collusion or Illusion? Did NFL Owners Plot Against 2013 Free Agents?

Dwight Freeney waited for close to three months for the phone to ring. Was he a victim of a conspiracy by a cabal of greedy billionaires or simply collateral damage of the new economic structure of the game?

Brian Spurlock-US PRESSWIRE

From Merriam-Webster:

COLLUSION (noun) "secret agreement or cooperation especially for an illegal or deceitful purpose".
ILLUSION (noun) 1) "the state or fact of being intellectually deceived or misled (2) an instance of such deception"

In a recent SBNation article, Dwight Freeney (signed by the Chargers after OLB Melvin Ingram tore his ACL during OTAs) claimed that the NFL's owners have colluded during this offseason to low-ball the 2013 free agent class. The part of the article that drew my attention was the following Freeney quote:

"I basically think the owners got together and decided not to spend the cash on free agents. I definitely think that's part of it. I think the owners made a pact. There's only 32 of them and none of them broke ranks. I think they all decided not to spend money."

Now, I seem to recall some free agents changing teams (or staying with their current teams) and getting paid a nice chunk of change to do so in the first few weeks of the 2013 free-agent signing period. How would this season compare to the last, though? And is there something to this collusion talk or is it just a way for a veteran near the end of a stellar (perhaps even Hall of Fame) career to soothe a damaged ego?

Accusations by NFL Players and the NFLPA of owners conspiring to not sign free agents or by somehow artificially lowering the price on players without an existing contract is nothing new. In fact, the union has accused the owners twice in three years (2010 & 2012) of such a conspiracy and is gathering information on THIS year, too. The 2010 activity (or lack thereof) produced a lawsuit in 2012.

To evaluate if there is merit to either Freeney's belief or the NFLPA's concerns for 2013, perhaps looking at last year's FA market and comparing it with this year's may help. Despite the lack of any offers made to the 42 RESTRICTED FA's last year, there did not seem to be any concern with collusion in the UNRESTRICTED Free Agent market. Peyton Manning and Mario Williams cashed in big while changing teams and so did Vincent Jackson.

Here is the detail of the top 10 FA's last season and the deals they got in 2012. I have listed their positions, names, age, length of the new contract, total contract value, and how many millions of dollars are guaranteed in the deal:

1. QB Peyton Manning (36) 5 Years - $96 Million (58 G)
2. OLB / DE Mario Williams (27) - 5 Years $100 Million (50 G)
3. G Carl Nicks (27) - 5 Years $47.5 Million (25 G)
4. QB Matt Flynn (27) - 3 Years $19.5 Million (8 G)
5. WR Vincent Jackson (29) - 5 Years $55.55 Million (26 G)
6. CB Cortland Finnegan (28) - 5 Years $50 Million (27 G)
7. CB Brandon Carr (26) - 5 years $50.1 Million (25.5 G)
8. WR Pierre Garcon (26) - 5 years $42.5Million (20.5)
9. WR Marques Colston (29) - 5 Years $40 Million (20 G)
10. T Jared Gaither (26) - 4 Years $24.6 Million (13.5 G)

All the FA's except for the last two on the list signed with a new team.

Now, let's see what the top 10 FA's from 2013 got:

1. QB Joe Flacco (28) - 6 Years $120.6 Million (62 G)
2. T Ryan Clady (26) - FRANCHISED $8.9 Million 1 year
3. DE Cliff Avril (27) - 2 Years $13.5 Million (5 G) (Plantar Fasciitis issues)
4. DE Michael Bennett (27) - 1 Year $4.5 Million (Torn Rotator Cuff)
5. DE Michael Johnson (26) FRANCHISED $11.175
6. WR Dwayne Bowe (28) - 5 Years $56 Million (26 G)
7. LB Paul Kruger (27) - 5 Years $40.5 Million (20 G)
8. T Sebastian Vollmer (28) - 4 Years $17 Million (8.25 G)
9. DE / OLB Elvis Dumervil (29) - 5 Years $26 Million (8.5 G)
10. WR Mike Wallace (26) - 5 Years $60 Million (30 G)

Five of the players on this list changed teams. Other differences included the use of the franchise tag for two of the FA's, the lower number of WR's and QB's in 2013, and NONE of the TOP RATED FA's this year being older than 30. Peyton Manning was the only player over 30 in 2012, but also the highest paid out of all of them. Two of the DE's this year are dealing with injuries, too.

Looking at the lists and taking into account another Freeney quote, specifically his message for the teams that passed on him in free agency, leads me to believe that THERE WAS COLLUSION.

"I'm going to make all of them regret it."

And Mr.Freeney, your new fans here at BFTB want to make sure that you know exactly WHICH teams colluded to screw you out of Millions of dollars. Through our painstaking research, we've determined that 13 teams conspired to keep you unsigned. The list of teams is: Texans, Eagles, Titans, Cowboys, Colts, Jaguars, Redskins, Dolphins, Bengals, and Giants.

Those teams colluded a little bit to keep you unsigned, Mr. Freeney, but our research further determined the worst colluders in the league were the Broncos, Chiefs, and the worst of the worst colluders of them all (in fact the worst of everything of them all), were the Raiders. We here at BFTB fully support you making ALL of these teams, especially the worst colluders out there, regret that they left you unsigned.

The Chargers and their fans care, Mr. Freeney. This is the team that called you. This is the team that is owned by the sainted Spanos family that ignored the evil plan hatched by the other owners. Yes, it was Dean Spanos that determined that the 2013 season played with Dwight Freeney sitting on his couch could not stand and broke ranks from the greedy pigs that held you down and out of the league for three months.

We Charger fans fully support your just desire to pour out righteous vengeance on the teams that wanted you unemployed this year. Preferably your vengeance can be poured out on game days like the fist of an angry god smiting the wrongdoers (who are named Manning, Smith, and Flynn), as we're sure that would help home game attendance.

Ok, now that I have had some fun, let's get real. The Dolphins and the Browns spent a lot of real money on players they thought would help their teams get better over the next 3 years, so obviously they were not "in on the plan". Teams that are owned by fools with more money than sense that whizz away their cash on foolish signings men willing to take chances to get the non-existent elusive last piece of the puzzle (the Cowboys and Redskins for example) had some severe cap problems this year, so they sat out of the FA market.

Finally, let's consider the merit of getting young cheap draft choices or even cheaper UDFA's on a team. Those rookies are probably able to match or exceed the production of a high priced veteran on the downslope (or perhaps downstroke) of their careers. These factors equal a lot of agents with quiet phones. Collusion is certainly a possibility, but the more likely explanation for the quiet phone was 5 sacks in 2012 from a player on the wrong side of 30. I am not really seeing collusion this season. Now, 2010 on the other hand... Well, let's just see what the courts say about that one.

"A secret between two men stays secret only if one is dead." - Old Russian Proverb (Paraphrased)

Last I checked, none of the 32 owners in February have passed away.