Salary cap, adjustment period hurt trade market
By Len Pasquarelli
For a still nascent Indianapolis Colts franchise, it was the ultimate Halloween treat, the 1987 three-team megadeal that brought Hall of Fame tailback Eric Dickerson, still in his prime, to a team struggling for identity in a state noted more for its basketball.
INSIDE TIP SHEET
The Texans have paid QB David Carr a great deal of money, but have few wins in return. They now have a couple of months to decide whether to exercise one of two options that would keep him from becoming an unrestricted free agent. Story
The deal, consummated just before the NFL trading deadline, which had been moved back in 1987 because of the player strike earlier in that season, brought a sense of legitimacy to the Colts. And the addition of Dickerson, a high-profile star around whom then-coach Ron Meyer reconstructed his offense, also brought the Colts their first playoff berth as a relocated and reincarnated franchise.
Halloween and the 18th anniversary of the blockbuster Dickerson trade, in which 10 players and draft choices switched teams, including linebacker Cornelius Bennett, is only 2˝ weeks away. And the NFL trading deadline arrives on Tuesday afternoon. The two are perhaps forever intertwined. Why so? Because there has never really been a deadline day trade quite like the Halloween swap that sent Dickerson packing from the Los Angeles Rams, and there might never be.
Certainly, there won't be next Tuesday, that's for sure.
Although the NFL's offseason trade winds have grown a little gustier in the past three years, with at least a dozen starting-caliber wide receivers changing teams and several other trades of note, they are typically calm once the regular season begins. And around the trading deadline, the bartering that increased in the offseason, gets muted. This season, save for rumors involving Cowboys backup tailback Anthony Thomas and San Diego starting guard Toniu Fonoti, who seems to have fallen out of favor with Chargers management, there are few names being kicked around in even the most casual trade discussions.
And that is not surprising.
Since the Dickerson blockbuster of '87, the trade market at deadline time has been, well, a bust. There have been few memorable deadline trades. Heck, there have been few deals, period, at deadline time. Last season represented a flurry of sorts, with three trades, all of them involving wide receivers. Quincy Morgan was shipped from Cleveland to Dallas for Antonio Bryant. Jerry Rice went from Oakland to Seattle in exchange for a draft choice. And the Chargers acquired Keenan McCardell from Tampa Bay, where he had refused to report because of a contract dispute, for a pair of draft picks.
Those three deals, though, represented one more trade than had been consummated, total, at the three previous league trading deadlines.
"It's not like baseball, where you get a lot of action at the [trade] deadline," said Baltimore Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome. "Yeah, the number [of trades] overall has picked up some over the last few offseasons, even into the summer with camps. But once the season starts, rosters are set, your [salary] cap is defined, it's hard. We're never going to see, I don't think, a [flurry] of trades at the deadline, not like in other sports."
In fact, since the Dickerson trade in 1987, there have been only 17 deadline-day deals in the NFL, even counting the three last season. In five of the 17 years since the Dickerson trade, there were no deadline deals. Even factoring in trades struck within a week of the annual deadline, which historically is set for the Tuesday following the sixth weekend of the season, the total number swells by only eight more. It should be noted that the biggest trade in NFL history, the Herschel Walker trade from Dallas to Minnesota in 1989, a deal that included 18 players and draft choices, came four days before that season's deadline. But the Dickerson and Walker deals certainly were aberrations.
Most of the players who have changed addresses in deadline deals -- a litany that includes the likes of quarterback Steve Pelluer, linebacker Alex Gordon, tailbacks Tim Worley and Napoleon McCallum and Karim Abdul-Jabbar, defensive lineman Stalin Colinet and guard Kelvin Garmon -- have been nondescript. Few players dealt at the deadline have made much of a difference to their new franchises. There have been some exceptions, such as McCardell, who brought maturity to a young San Diego wide receiver corps last season, but not many.
Certainly the complexities of the salary cap are a deterrent to trades. So is the timing of the deadline. Six weeks into the season is kind of a "no man's land," with few teams out of the playoff chase and most winning franchises not inclined to disturb equilibrium by adding a new player to the locker room dynamic. There is also some merit to the notion that a player acquired in October won't be of much aid until sometime in November, or until he learns his new team's playbook.
"The [rationale] is that bringing in a guy in October really isn't going to make that much of a difference," said Jets coach Herm Edwards. "So you don't hear much [trade] talk."
This year, it seems, there is even less grist in the rumor mill than usual. An injury during this weekend's game could send some teams scrambling, and perhaps fuel a deal or two for a spare safety or a backup offensive lineman, but most league general managers and personnel directors anticipate very little action.
Arguably the highest-profile name being kicked around is Washington linebacker LaVar Arrington, the second overall choice in the 2000 draft and a three-time Pro Bowl player, but a guy who can't even get on the field anymore. There are some teams, at least two with whom we regularly speak, intrigued by the prospect of adding Arrington to their roster. In reality, though, Arrington is essentially untradable because the Redskins can't absorb the impact that trading him would have on their 2005 salary cap. Because of past signing bonuses, Arrington would count about $12 million against the Washington cap if he was traded this year.
And so Arrington, who has played just two snaps in the last two games, will remain with the Redskins until the offseason, when he will almost certainly be released before July, when he is due an exorbitant roster bonus. He won't be traded and neither will many other players be dealt, by next Tuesday's deadline.
The league's offensive rookie of the year in 2001, Thomas has fallen precipitously down the Dallas depth chart, has carried just nine times for 14 yards, and has been shopped around to other teams for the past two weeks. At age 27, one might think a team in need of a back should take a chance on the "A-Train," but Dallas has gotten few nibbles for the five-year veteran runner.
Fonoti might be the player most likely to be dealt next week. A four-year veteran and just 24 years old, the former second-round draft choice has 32 starts on his résumé, including all 16 games in 2004. He is recovering from a broken hand, and has lost his starting job to youngster Kris Dielman, but is still a starting-caliber lineman.
In the final year of his contract, and scheduled to earn a modest base salary of $455,000 for this season, Fonoti will probably have to sign an extension to facilitate a trade. No team is going to deal for him and then have him depart as a free agent after the season. But there have been discussions with teams about extending his contract, and some talks between the Chargers and interested suitors, and a trade could happen.
What probably won't happen in the league on deadline day, however, are any trades of blockbuster proportion. The impact of the deadline-day trade involving Dickerson in 1987 is likely to never be matched.