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Tampering? Not this time amid expected frenzy

by | Senior Writer

When the NFL releases a schedule for this week, it should remember to include three very important words: Free ... for ... all ... because that's what we're looking at folks. It's a brave new world out there where, basically, anything goes in the name of expediency.

And don't think the NFL doesn't know.

When its owners last week reached a deal on a 10-year proposal, the NFL produced a schedule that allowed for a four-day window where teams had exclusive negotiating rights to their own players and drafted rookies -- both of whom they could sign.

Included in that window, however, was an ability to negotiate with undrafted rookie free agents, as well as other clubs' unrestricted free agents, restricted free agents and franchise players. But there was a catch: You couldn't sign them. That would happen four days later when the league calendar began.

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In essence, what the NFL was trying to do was lift the veil on tampering. It said clubs had four days to contact, but not sign, unrestricted free agents, and four days to talk about ... but not consummate ... trades. Now, there are reports that the league's new schedule will allow teams to contact unrestricted free agents Tuesday but not sign them until Friday.

Great. Only who's kidding whom? Do you honestly believe clubs are willing to wait until Tuesday before making their first moves on unrestricted free agents? Please. Those moves are already in motion, with one former GM telling me Monday he believes they've been in the works for "a couple of weeks."

I wouldn't be surprised. I can't imagine the NFL would be, either. It may issue guidelines for clubs to follow, but they look a lot more like suggestions that are difficult -- no, make that impossible -- to police. I mean, how do you prove illegal contact in a week where there will be hundreds of transactions happening at once?

You don't.

The league is happy just to be back in business, and with the blizzard of roster movements this week the last thing it needs is to track down a complaint about illegal contact. Heck, when Tennessee complained two years ago after Washington signed Albert Haynesworth immediately after the start of free agency, the NFL found no evidence of -- how do we put this? -- irregular behavior after what it called "an extensive review" of the case.

So now you're telling me it will squeeze six months of transactions into one week, set timelines and expect clubs to nod and wait on the starter's gun? There's a better chance of Brett Favre playing for Green Bay this fall. Face it, people: It's a Darwinian world out there, and if you snooze, you lose.

The NFL will do what it must, which is to issue a calendar of events it expects its clubs to follow. But expecting them to follow and actually having them do it are two very different things, and this is one instance where I do believe anything goes. I think the league does, too, otherwise, why would it allow teams to contact unrestricted free agents three days before they can be signed? It seems to be condoning what it probably suspects is happening, anyway.

"It's not tampering because it's permitted," NFL general counsel Jeff Pash said last week. "I would hope it's a one-time thing."

I would, too, just as I would hope the lockout is a one-time thing. It's an extraordinary year for the NFL where extraordinary events have taken place and are about to take place, but jumping the gun on free agency or trade talks can't be viewed as one of them. That doesn't mean you legitimize it; it just means you recognize it for what it is -- something you really can't control.

NFL clubs aren't stupid. They know it's a free-for-all this week, and they're not going to be left behind. It was tough enough to detect tampering when there were clearly defined boundaries, and the league year didn't start until the beginning of March. Imagine how difficult it is to trace now that everything is happening at once.

So get ready, people. The rush not only is about to begin; it already is on.


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