Last year, the free-agent signing period started at 12:01 AM ET on Friday, March 5th. By the early afternoon of that same day, the Chicago Bears had already signed the biggest prize in the 2010 free agent class, Julius Peppers, to a six-year, $91.5 million deal.
The gullible public was spoon-fed a heartwarming story about how Chicago coach Lovie Smith, flew to North Carolina in a private plane, sat in the lobby of the Wilson Air Center adjacent to the Charlotte Airport and waited patiently until the clock struck midnight before contacting Peppers: "I was caught off-guard by that," Peppers said of Smith's recruiting trip. "My agent called me at midnight and told me that Lovie was at the airport."
Off guard? Perhaps. Surprised? Probably not. After all, Peppers' agent, Carl Carey, met with Bears during the NFL scouting combine a/k/a The Tampering Party. At the time, Carey had only one active contract in the NFL, so it stands to reason that the two sides were discussing more than the weather in Indianapolis, despite strict NFL rules mandating no contact between teams and agents before the official start of free agency.
Two days ago, ESPN's NFC West blogger Mike Sando reported that handshake deals prior to the start of free agency are rampant:
It's no secret teams have lined up handshake deals before the official start to free agency, usually beginning at the scouting combine in February.
"We all do it,'' one team executive told ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas for a 2008 story. "Up until a few years ago, there were still a few teams that wouldn't do it. But they were the last bastion and they finally gave in because they realized they were losing out on players at the start of free agency because they weren't doing it.''
Teams and agents have little incentive to report one another because all parties want to continue benefiting from business as usual. An agent I spoke with Monday said he expects business as usual from teams unwilling or unable to restrain themselves. He said teams have been operating that way for years, and in his experience, the teams were the ones initiating the contact.
Alex Marvez from Foxsports.com filed a similar report a while back on the NFL's dirty little secret:
On condition of anonymity, NFL executives from three different clubs told FOXSports.com the same thing. "All of this stuff goes on constantly," one of them said. "Rules are bent. Some are blatant about it. There's some man-to-man talk [between teams and agents]. You get a jump on the contract structure way in advance so you can find out whether the price is acceptable to you. If not, you move on to another player."
The league of course is turning a blind eye to these shenanigans: "We do not comment on speculative tampering matters or engage in interpreting the anti-tampering policy," an NFL spokesman said in the run-up to the Peppers signing.
With all of this out of the way, I think it's fairly safe to assume that when teams talk about having a "great plan in place" or are "loading up and going for it" when lockout ends, that's just a politically correct way of saying that they already have at the very least couple of handshake agreements ready to go, and probably more.
Which, finally, brings us to the Cowboys. Let's assume for the sake of argument that the Cowboys (like presumably all other NFL teams) already have a couple of handshake agreements in place, either with their own free agents, other free agents or players under contract who might extend, change or restructure their contracts. And add to that the fact that a couple of players are likely going to be released as well.
Within that vortex of possibilities, what do you think the Cowboys' first personnel move will be after the lockout ends?