The NFC North Swap Meet
It is stating the obvious to say free agency has changed professional sports. From its inception, free agency has significantly altered the sports landscape and particularly since 1992 in the NFL, when unrestricted free agency resulted in a lot of annual player movement.
But the 2014 NFL free agency period saw three defensive ends switching teams within their own division as though spinning around an NFC North Division carousel. Such a ride can nearly make a football fan dizzy.
This past March, Chicago Bears veteran defender Julius Peppers signed with the Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings defensive end Jared Allen (a team leader and active member of the community for six seasons) signed with the Bears, and another Bears defensive end, Corey Wootton, defected to the Vikings.
Certainly we're not proposing any kind of conspiracy or collusion among the teams involved. Free agency is generally between a player/agent and a team willing to pay the freight to sign him. But it’s just that the NFC North has appeared somewhat incestuous over the years, and this latest twist has brought it to a new level.
Consider the division’s history. Former Bears quarterback Jim McMahon was in Chicago for seven years, yet played for three teams in the division (then known as the NFC Central). He had been a lightning rod of attention in the Windy City, but after winning a Super Bowl title in 1985, he became an NFL journeyman in 1989 and eventually took the Vikings to the playoffs before winning another ring in Green Bay as a backup.
“When you fail miserably at drafting and developing talent, your instinct is to take it from someone else who has done an effective job of it.”
The Vikings, meanwhile, have been plundering the Packers squad for years, signing safety Darren Sharper, kicker Ryan Longwell and, most recently, Pro Bowl receiver Greg Jennings.
“When you fail miserably at drafting and developing talent, your instinct is to take it from someone else who has done an effective job of it,” Steve Carlson, a disgruntled Packer fan living in Minneapolis, said of the Vikings’ penchant for signing Packer free agents.
The Packers (who, since general manager Ted Thompson took over in 2005, only occasionally dip their collective toe into the free agent waters) grabbed nose tackle Gilbert Brown from Minnesota in 1993, but only after the Vikings waived him in his rookie training camp—so it can’t really be considered a move that would engender much cross-rival angst.
But there have been free agent moves that have caused difficult feelings between teams—and in 2006 the Vikings were at the center of it. Minnesota signed Seattle Seahawks guard Steve Hutchinson, a transitional free agent, by putting a clause in his contract (later called a “poison pill”) that Seattle could not structurally match.
Seattle returned fire four days later by signing Vikings wide receiver Nate Burleson to a contract with a poison pill of its own (and Seattle has been settling the score by signing former Vikings ever since—Sidney Rice, Heath Farwell, Tarvaris Jackson, and A.J. Jefferson are all on the Seattle roster).
The result of the Hutchinson deal was some bad feelings between both teams and a change to league rules, eliminating the poison pill in free agent contracts. Something, perhaps, that shouldn’t have been in there in the first place.
“I’m very, very happy for the players and free agency and the freedom that they have—I think it is the fair thing to do,” former Seattle (and Green Bay) head coach Mike Holmgren recently said about the poison pill clause. “But once lawyers and accountants start taking over the NFL, it’s just sad; it’s a sad thing sometimes.”
Agents and legal-minded folk have certainly worked the system; yet so have some players—perhaps no one more effectively than former Packers, Jets, and Vikings quarterback Brett Favre. After 16 legendary years in Green Bay, Favre was traded to the Jets for one season and then retired, so he could un-retire and play for Green Bay archrival Minnesota.
The Packers had demonstrated the conventional wisdom of trading Favre out of the division and conference, but Favre appeared to have revenge on his mind when he came to Minnesota, where he beat the Packers twice in 2009 on his new team’s way to the NFC title game.
Favre playing in purple caused the Title Town hero to be reviled, booed and burned in effigy. He then foolishly (if you don’t consider the money he made) played one more season as a Viking, allowing Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers—and an extremely upset Packer nation—to exact their own measure of revenge in two Packer wins over Minnesota. It is not certain whether some Packer fans will ever get over Favre’s “betrayal.”
So what of this current trio of turncoats? We can certainly understand why a player leaves—the 32-year-old Allen wasn’t going to get paid what he thought he was worth in Minnesota (just three years removed from nearly setting the all-time NFL single-season-sack record), Wootton was likely looking for greener pastures (aka a raise), and Peppers told the Packers’ team website, "The teams that have the good quarterbacks are the teams that win. That obviously factored into some of my decision making."
But why does a team want to sign a rival’s aging vet?
“Teams that face other teams on a consistent basis have a natural tendency to over-rate the abilities of players who’ve had a significant impact against them,” Carlson said. “I’m not sure of the stats, but Allen is a league-leader [No. 3] in sacks over the last four years—many coming against the Bears.”
When a free agent hits the market for a new contract, they spend little time looking back. The young Wootton is slated as a backup in Minnesota and the 34-year-old Peppers’s best years were spent in Carolina before he came to Chicago, so Allen becomes the biggest story at the defensive end swap meet—and he is likely to have left the most upset fans in his wake.
"Minnesota has great fans, so they're going to boo me," Allen told ProFootballTalk. "And why shouldn't they? I now play for a division rival, but I love the fans in Minnesota, I had six phenomenal years there. That organization, that state will always be a part of my life and again there is nothing but respect and joy and everything, so it'll be a fun time to play back against the—but I expect some boos."
It might be strange for Bears supporters who reviled every Jared Allen calf-roping sack dance to now be dreaming of him tying up Viking quarterbacks. But in the NFC North, it just comes with the territory.
The players move on and get theirs, but ultimately it’s the fans who pay a price. Kevin Ryan is an old-school Vikings fan living in Columbus who recalls the days of the Purple People Eaters, when players stayed with one team and you really got to connect with and support a player rather just than a jersey. But Ryan sees the way the league is today, so he tempers his fandom by taking a Buddhist approach to the ups and downs of his favorite team.
“Three of the four noble truths of Buddhism include ‘life is suffering; the cause of suffering is selfish desire; and for happiness, contentment, peace, one must overcome selfish desire,’” Ryan says. “So the life of the fan is suffering. The cause of our suffering is that we all want to win—our selfish desire. To overcome that, a Buddhist principle is to let go of everything, become detached. It’s your attachments that cause your suffering. That’s what I had to do with the Vikings players, become detached.”
While its tough for a Vikings fan to lose a fan favorite in Allen, younger, more contemporary fans know little else than free agent player movement and some see the changes as part of being an NFL fan. (Former Philadelphia wideout DeSean Jackson signed with NFC East-rival Washington this spring, which will surely ruffle some Eagles fans' feathers.)
It might be strange, or even slightly hypocritical, for Bears supporters who just last winter reviled every Jared Allen calf-roping sack dance, to now be dreaming of him tying up Viking quarterbacks. But in the NFC North, it just comes with the territory.
Just ask Chicago native Camrin Petramale, 25, who sees the addition of Allen as a way to inject some vitriol into a storied rivalry. Petramale favors wearing jerseys of Bears offensive performers, but he’s considering changing things up this season when he travels to Minnesota for the Chicago game in December.
“That would be worthwhile, getting an Allen Bears jersey for that game,” Petramale said. “I wouldn’t expect that jersey to come back in one piece, though.”