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Mike Reiss | Football notes

For 49ers, it didn't pan out

They didn't strike gold in free agency

Email|Print| Text size + By Mike Reiss
Globe Staff / February 24, 2008

The 49ers thought they had struck gold, but what happened next was a reminder that free agency alone is not a cure-all.

At this time last year, San Francisco blitzed the market by signing cornerback Nate Clements to a massive deal, highlighting a shopping spree that included defensive tackle Aubrayo Franklin, safety Michael Lewis, outside linebacker Tully Banta-Cain, and receiver Ashley Lelie.

The liberal spending in free agency, coupled with the team's strong finishing kick from 2006, created a buzz across the NFL. The 49ers were fingered by many as a team on the rise.

But as is often the case, March's headlines had little to do with wins and losses come September. In what has seemingly become an annual reminder of how the importance of free agency can be overstated, the 49ers went in the opposite direction, finishing 5-11.

So as free agency officially begins Friday at 12:01 a.m., fans across the NFL might keep the 49ers in mind before latching onto hope that the answer to all of a team's problems can be found on the open market.

"It can look good on paper because it's a quick fix and fans can say, 'They're trying to get better,' but you can't lose sight of the bigger picture," said 49ers general manager Scot McCloughan.

That bigger picture, McCloughan believes, is building the core of a team through the draft and adding supplementary parts through free agency. McCloughan feels the 49ers continue to do that - linebacker Patrick Willis is the reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year - although their free agent splash last year perhaps created the perception otherwise.

The Giants are another example of how free agency can be overrated. This year's Super Bowl champs were quiet on the open market last offseason, with one of the top moves the bargain-basement signing of linebacker Kawika Mitchell.

If anything, the signing of Mitchell to a one-year, $1 million contract ($250,000 signing bonus) showed where the true value in free agency lies for many clubs. A second-round pick of the Chiefs in 2003, Mitchell was looking to restore his name, so he was willing to take less in a short-term contract. He ended up starting all 20 games for the Giants, who were also energized by a terrific draft class.

With the varying approaches of the 49ers and Giants illustrating some of the pitfalls of overaggressive spending and the benefits of lower-priced options, why do teams seemingly make the same mistakes each year?

McCloughan had some thoughts on the subject:

A chance to cool the hot seat. For some coaches and general managers whose job security is tenuous, free agency can buy time. "It's hard, especially when you get to the point when you're thinking, 'Am I going to be around next year? Am I back Year 2, 3, or 4, or do I have to win this year?' "

Failing to account for a change in systems. While a player might have been productive in one scheme and created a strong market for himself, it can be difficult to assess how his skills will transfer to a new team's style. "A lot of times, in free agency, you are getting guys who have been trained different, and you can't lose sight of that because some guys have trouble fitting into the new system. That's why it's so important to draft. You get your guys and you get to develop them yourself."

Don't forget about the locker room fit. Adding a high-priced player can sometimes lead to resentment from others in the locker room. That was a key consideration for McCloughan in pursuing Clements, a signing he still feels good about. "You have to ask, 'How will the players already on the roster react to a Nate Clements coming in and being the highest-paid corner in the NFL?' You want to make sure it's the right type of guy, because it affects every guy in the room."

The idea that one player can sway an entire season. If there is a reason to extend and overpay a player - as the 49ers did for Clements and the Patriots for Adalius Thomas - it's the idea that the addition could be the final piece to a championship puzzle. "When I was up in Green Bay, we got Reggie White and that put us over the top. We were already a dang good football team, but it gave us that added push."

Looking back, McCloughan can live with the 49ers' free agent decisions last year, mainly because they strengthened the team's defense. It was a sputtering offense that ultimately hurt them most.

At the same time, don't expect the 49ers to make a Clements-like signing this year.

"We don't want to be known as a free agency team," McCloughan said. "Our approach is that it's a tool you have to use, a valuable tool, but what we're trying to do is draft well and identify guys we want around and do an extension prior to free agency. We're lucky enough to have some money in free agency, but we're not going to spend just to spend."

Clear quarterback signals

In one of his first major decisions as coach of the Redskins, Jim Zorn emphatically stated that there will be no quarterback controversy.

Walpole's Todd Collins came on late in the season and led the Redskins to a playoff berth in place of injured starter Jason Campbell, but Zorn left no doubt that Campbell is his guy.

Collins is a free agent, and while the Redskins are interested in retaining him, the naming of Campbell as the starter could sway his thinking. Collins presumably would like to land in a situation where he has a chance to contend for a No. 1 job.

"Jason Campbell is going to be the No. 1 QB," Zorn told reporters. "I'll try to speak with Todd and make sure that he knows he's important to this club. But he's not going to get that chance, because Jason Campbell is our starting QB.

"I'll tell you why: Jason Campbell must know that he is the starter. I don't want to go into this minicamp, I don't want to go into the training camp with him not knowing. Or have this thing up for grabs."

At the same time, Zorn reached out to Collins.

"I also want Todd to know that he's very important and he needs to be fighting to be that No. 1 QB," Zorn said. "Then, down the road, who knows what happens?"

It was a notable contrast to the approach of Jets coach Eric Mangini, who wants an open competition between quarterbacks Kellen Clemens and Chad Pennington. Zorn obviously felt decisiveness was the best course of action, and another factor is that the Redskins have a lot more invested in Campbell, a 2005 first-round draft choice.

"I don't want Jason Campbell to feel like, 'Oh my gosh, if I make one mistake I'm going to be pulled,' " said Zorn. "That's not the way to go into any camp and it's not the way to go into any football season.

"He's going to play 16 games. He's going to lead us into the playoffs, as far as I'm concerned. And that's that."

McDonough is a talented scout

Indianapolis is overflowing with talent scouts at the ongoing NFL combine, with Hingham's Terry McDonough right in the thick of things. McDonough, the son of late Globe columnist Will McDonough, serves as an executive scout for the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio spoke of McDonough's influence in identifying talent.

"I think he's one of the best evaluators in the business," Del Rio said. "One of the things that stands out to me is that he does a great job uncovering talent, and having strong opinions, but doing it in the framework of team."

Del Rio and McDonough first worked together in Baltimore, Del Rio as an assistant coach, McDonough as an Eastern college supervisor. Del Rio recalls McDonough sharing strong opinions that University of Miami linebacker Ray Lewis and Tennessee running back Jamal Lewis, who still star in the NFL, would be excellent players.

Like most scouts, McDonough isn't always on the mark, but Del Rio views him as a key piece in the Jaguars' team-building effort.

"I like that he'll stand on his own on something; he has very strong convictions and beliefs," he said. "Some guys just have the ability to uncover talent and they know what fits, what you like, what you are, what you stand for.

"It goes beyond just taking a guy's measurables, and he's definitely an opinion I trust."

Etc.

Seeds planted for change?
The NFL's Competition Committee continues to explore the possibility of reseeding playoff teams, with the idea of putting more of an emphasis on overall record instead of winning the division. As it stands, division winners get the top four seeds; but this past season, two wild-card teams had better records than division winners. Part of the motivation for a potential change is to make late-season games more meaningful. Opinion has been varied among league officials at the combine, with Colts coach Tony Dungy sounding happy with the status quo. "I've probably been old school and think the division champs should get some type of award," he said, "but I'm certainly open to listening and seeing if they could help out maybe those last three weeks in the regular season."

No restrictions on anytime calling
Remember the games in which coaches were waiting until the last possible moment to call a timeout on last-second field goals? At the time, there was talk that the league may consider instituting a rule that restricted such calls, but the issue, after lengthy discussion, is not being pursued. "We can't legislate when you can call timeouts and when you cannot call timeouts," said Titans coach Jeff Fisher, co-chair of the Competition Committee. "I don't think it's going to be an ongoing issue. I think it was just an early-season trend and I don't think we'll see much more of it."

There's a lot on the line
Teams looking for an offensive tackle have come to the right draft, according to Steelers director of football operations Kevin Colbert. "It's the best group I've seen in 24 years collectively, and it was a good group before the juniors were added to it," he said. "The majority of them can play on the left side or play both sides. It's unusual to have that many guys that big and that athletic and that productive. I think you can get a tackle in [the first] three rounds." Michigan's Jake Long is widely considered the top tackle on the board, with Boise State's Ryan Clady, Boston College's Gosder Cherilus, Vanderbilt's Chris Williams, Pittsburgh's Jeff Otah, and Southern Cal's Sam Baker among the highly-rated group.

Problem is right in front of him
When Browns coach Romeo Crennel pinpoints his team's greatest need, he looks to the front seven on defense, noting, "That's an area we're going to try to concentrate on through free agency and through the draft." Specifically, the Browns weren't strong enough against the run, ranking 29th in yards allowed per carry (4.5) and 31st in first downs surrendered per game. The Browns are without a first-round pick this year - they traded it to Dallas to select Brady Quinn - so look for them to be aggressive in free agency.

He's not an everyman
Former Patriots linebacker Tully Banta-Cain signed a three-year, $8.7 million contract with the 49ers last season, but he doesn't appear to be the every-down player they hoped he'd be. "I think when it's all said and done, he is what he was [in New England]," said San Francisco general manager Scot McCloughan. "He's not a premier, front-line, every-snap guy. He's a situational pass rusher. Hopefully we can add some depth this year where we can do that more with him. He has some natural pass rush, which is hard to find."

No rush for Strahan
Unlike last year, when the status of defensive end Michael Strahan was unclear entering training camp, Giants co-owner John Mara hopes to see it resolved sooner in 2008. For now, he's willing to be patient. "He's earned the right to take his time," Mara said. "I don't want to drag it out into training camp, obviously, but we do have a little depth at that position. We certainly want him back. I don't have a feel yet for where he's going to go."

Extra points
The Vikings have given receiver Troy Williamson, the seventh selection in the 2005 draft, permission to shop himself in a trade. Williamson, who is coming off an 18-catch season, has been a disappointment . . . Bentley College offensive lineman Mackenzy Bernadeau (6 feet 4 inches, 303 pounds), who has drawn the interest of NFL scouts, is scheduled to work out at Boston College's Pro Day March 18, according to his agent, Eugene Lee . . . Rams executive vice president of player personnel Billy Devaney on BC quarterback Matt Ryan: "I like everything about the guy. The intangibles, everything that it takes to play the position off the field, the leadership, the intelligence. Being a team guy, this guy has 'it.' Whatever it is to play that position, he's got it. I think this guy is going to be a heck of a player for a long time." . . . The Rams are looking to add a pass-rushing defensive end, as their ends totaled 4.5 sacks over the entire season . . . Count Bills coach Dick Jauron among those in favor of having a defensive player with a communication device in his helmet, a proposal owners are expected to vote on next month. "[Without it], I think it's a distinctive advantage for the offense," he said . . . Bears coach Lovie Smith confirmed that the team won't re-sign starting guard Ruben Brown, a 13-year veteran who played the last four seasons in Chicago . . . Thursday is the deadline for teams to place tender offers on restricted free agents.

Did you know?
In a rematch of the Super Bowl, the Giants and Patriots are scheduled to meet in the final game of the 2008 preseason, according to Mara.

Mike Reiss can be reached at mreiss@globe.com

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