Edgerrin James left Indianapolis last spring and signed with Arizona, presumably a big blow to the Colts and a big lift for the Cardinals.
So Indy won the Super Bowl and Arizona finished at its normal 5-11. James averaged 3.4 yards a carry and rookie Joseph Addai combined with Dominic Rhodes to run for 1,722 yards for the Colts, 98 more than James and Rhodes had combined in 2005.
That's why despite the hype, free agency can be a tease. Good teams fill gaps with midlevel role players; bad ones try to make a splash with big names and fall flat.
It won't change when the signing period begins Friday. The best players have been re-signed or protected and a gaggle of good-but-not-great players are likely to be overpaid by teams desperate to fill holes.
Pending last minute signings or unexpected releases (Michael Strahan?), the best players on the market will include Baltimore linebacker Adalius Thomas and two Buffalo Bills: linebacker London Fletcher and cornerback Nate Clements.
"I don't think we're going for a, quote, `mortgage the future,' type of thing," Buffalo general manager Marv Levy said in announcing that he would let Clements become a free agent. "That's the decision that was made."
The Bills are a bit unique and their reluctance to pay Clements _ believed to be asking for about $18 million guaranteed _ is a sign of the high revenue/low revenue split in the NFL. Buffalo is at the bottom of that divide and Levy says it would have to budget for Clements upfront money for one season instead of amortizing it over six years the way almost every one else will do.
Although Clements is a rare shutdown cornerback and the versatile Thomas can be an impact player in the right defense, neither will get a rebuilding team to the Super Bowl. The few who might already help do that are signed or have been protected as franchise players, including defensive end Dwight Freeney of the Colts and linebacker Lance Briggs of the Bears.
In the 14 years of free agency, few superstars have moved while in their prime.
In fact, the best was the first, the late Reggie White, who went from Philadelphia to Green Bay in 1993 when free agency began. He ended up helping the Packers win one Super Bowl and get to another.
The latest key signing was Drew Brees, not quite a superstar but certainly a franchise quarterback. He signed with New Orleans last year and led a team that had been 3-13 in 2005 to the NFC championship game. But Brees was a rarity, and he was coming off a serious shoulder injury. San Diego couldn't afford to keep him and the up-and-coming Philip Rivers.
The best QB available this year (barring trades) is 37-year-old Jeff Garcia, who led the Eagles to the playoffs when Donovan McNabb was hurt, but needs to play in a West Coast offense. The others are castoffs such as Aaron Brooks, let go after one year with the Raiders, and perhaps Drew Bledsoe, Joey Harrington or Patrick Ramsey, who are likely to be let go by their current clubs.
Then there are the players who fit systems, such as Cato June, the Indianapolis linebacker who is fine in Tony Dungy's scheme that emphasizes speed, but might not fit well somewhere else. Still, as a starter on a Super Bowl team, someone will find him attractive, especially in a year when most teams are well under the $109 million salary cap.
Washington, for example, has been a big and early spender since Daniel Snyder bought the team in 1999.
Snyder, who has no real general manager, has run the Redskins like a fantasy franchise and has managed to divest himself of the likes of Champ Bailey in a trade for Clinton Portis and Antonio Pierce, while last season spending $30 million on Adam Archuleta, who didn't fit the defense and wound up as a third-string safety playing only on special teams.
Snyder could be interested in Fletcher, who would fill the void at middle linebacker left when he let Pierce go to the Gints two years ago by declining to match a relatively moderate bid by New York.
Fletcher is a locker-room leader who played for St. Louis' Super Bowl teams in 1999 and 2001 and for Gregg Williams, the Redskins' assistant head coach for defense, who was the head coach in Buffalo. But he also is 32 and closer to a coaching career than to a Super Bowl.
One player Snyder might jump at is Strahan, although he's not available at the moment.
At 35, he has two years left on his contract with the Giants at $4 million per season and wants to renegotiate _ in part to pay for an expensive divorce. Would he be released? Maybe, because New York has three good young defensive ends: Osi Umenyiora, Matthias Kiwanuka and Justin Tuck, and could use the cap money for help elsewhere.
Strahan fits the Snyder profile: a star from a division opponent. But while he has played well when healthy, he missed half the 2004 and 2006 seasons with injuries, a very common problem for aging players at that position.
The best way to approach free agency is to look at teams that win consistently.
New England, which won Super Bowls in 2002, 2004 and 2005 and almost got there last season, has rarely signed big-name free agents. It got Corey Dillon in a trade; Rodney Harrison after he was cut by San Diego late in training camp; and its biggest signing, Rosevelt Colvin, took two years to become a starter, in part because of injury.
Nor have the Patriots been afraid to let big-name players go, from Lawyer Milloy through Willie McGinest to Deion Branch, who brought them a first-round draft pick in a trade to Seattle last season. But recognizing their secondary problems, they protected cornerback Asante Samuel with the franchise tag this year.
Indianapolis allowed James to leave and has hemorrhaged defenders to ensure it can pay Peyton Manning, Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne. The defectors include linebackers who have thrived elsewhere in Marcus Washington, Mike Peterson and David Thornton. The Colts might lose another in June, although June is likely to be less successful in a defense that doesn't emphasize speed over size.
Don't feel for Indianapolis or New England. Feel more, if you're so inclined, for teams that think they can use free agency to jump from bottom to top.
They just don't get it.