Goodell realizes tampering must be addressed

PALM BEACH, Fla. -- One of the smartest ideas on the table at this year's owners meeting isn't something that is going to create a lot of buzz. It's the proposal by the league's competition committee that would create a moratorium on player signings until at least five to seven days have passed after the start of the unrestricted free-agent period.

Yes, I know it sounds a bit complicated right now. But it's something that definitely needs to happen in a league where tampering is becoming a bigger problem every offseason.

To understand how much the league wants to gain control over tampering, just consider the punishment that commissioner Roger Goodell recently gave the San Francisco 49ers after ruling that they illegally contacted Chicago Bears linebacker Lance Briggs last fall.

Not only was the penalty harsh -- the 49ers lost a fifth-round pick in this year's draft and also had to swap third-round picks with Chicago, a move that gave the Bears a higher selection in that round -- but it also was rare. No NFL team had been disciplined for tampering since 1995. That fact alone proves how seriously Goodell wants to start treating this issue.

The Briggs story is a perfect example of what's been happening when current players are about to become free agents. NFL rules prohibit teams from contacting prospective free agents until the new league calendar year begins (that was midnight on Feb. 28 this year), but too often agents are arranging contracts for their players with prospective clubs before that date. That habit, which has become commonplace at events like the scouting combine, is starting to frustrate some teams.

As Kansas City Chiefs head coach Herm Edwards said, "Everybody knows about the 12 o'clock rule. But some teams have watches that run faster than others."

"It comes down to the system," said Tennessee Titans head coach Jeff Fisher, who co-chairs the competition committee with Atlanta Falcons president Rich McKay. "We recommended the moratorium because we believed it would help. You have a few teams at a disadvantage because they're waiting until 12:01 a.m. on the day free agency starts. If you have everybody waiting for five to seven days, it gives you a chance to better enforce the rules."

Many coaches agree that the moratorium, which likely will be voted on at the next owners meeting in May, sounds like a good idea for one simple reason: It demands that everybody plays by the same rules. It's also critical because free agency has changed significantly over the past five or six years.

A decade ago, it wasn't uncommon for an unrestricted free agent to visit as many as three or four teams before settling on a new employer or returning to his old club. In fact, Hall of Fame defensive end Reggie White spent a month pondering how he'd handle being one of the league's first free agents before eventually signing with the Green Bay Packers in April 1993.

Those days have long since passed. More teams have realized the value of keeping their own players instead of chasing fool's gold in free agency and that's made it harder to find exceptional veteran talent on the open market. That means there are fewer unrestricted free agents who can impact teams and they immediately become hotter commodities in the offseason. As a result, more teams are now pushing the boundaries of fair play to acquire them.

Edwards is one person who believes that things are going a little too far these days. In a published story in The Kansas City Star last week, he suggested the Chiefs failed to sign center Jeff Faine and kicker Josh Brown because they were abiding by the league's rules prohibiting contact with such players until their contracts expired.

When asked why the Chiefs didn't acquire those players -- Faine signed with Tampa Bay within hours of the start of free agency while Brown finalized a deal with St. Louis before the Chiefs could sell him on visiting their franchise -- Edwards told the paper, "There were probably some deals done [before the start of free agency.]"

Edwards wasn't so willing to talk about those players during an AFC coaches breakfast on Tuesday, but he did maintain his stance about tampering overall.

"We always find ways to stretch the rules in life," Edwards said. "[The moratorium] will help because all you really want is a level playing field. I know of situations that have come up where you have guys who won't even get on the plane [to visit teams] anymore. Their agents will tell you they want this, this and this or they're just not coming."

The important point to be made here is that most coaches see tampering as a problem that evolves out of casual conversations. They say it usually occurs when an agent is talking with a coach or a general manager about a player under contract and before long the discussion has turned to a player who is about to become a free agent.

"You may have an agent calling and asking about Dwight Freeney or Marvin Harrison and the next thing you know he's asking what you think about Chris Chambers," said Indianapolis head coach Tony Dungy. "That's how things get done. It starts with people just talking. But then 12:01 comes and you see players signing complicated deals and you know what has happened. That's when you get into the question of how you police this."

Though monitoring all tampering would still be difficult with a moratorium, it's obvious the league will be tougher when it discovers violations. The Briggs case alone is proof of that. The Bears allege the 49ers tampered with Briggs because the team had a couple phone conversations with Briggs' agent, Drew Rosenhaus, last fall.
Though the 49ers have denied that those discussions were about Briggs, Goodell found enough evidence to feel comfortable hammering San Francisco.

"They had improper contact with a player's agent," Goodell said during a Monday news conference.

The issue now is whether more teams will pay attention to the statement Goodell made and vote for this moratorium. Goodell already has made a point of stressing integrity at these meetings and this would be another step in the right direction. After all, free agency isn't the same game it was when the NFL adopted it 15 years ago. And if there's been that much change in the system, there clearly needs to be some altering of the rules.

Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.