There are so few surprises in free agency. Players identify which teams want their services. Teams target the players they desire. The contracts -- well, they're surprising, but only in their grandness, with fans arguing which teams overpaid and which players are overpaid. Seldom are the team and player both pleasantly surprised, especially in a mutually beneficial way.
And so it was that the night of Feb. 25, Jeff Saturday was talking about babysitters. The Indianapolis Colts center was 24 hours from becoming a free agent and didn't really know how to handle it. He hadn't been one since 1999, when he was waived by the Ravens and worked at an electrical company in North Carolina, lifting weights at night and hoping that another team would give him a chance.
Saturday and his wife, Karen, knew they'd need someone to watch their three kids while he visited other teams, probably the Ravens, Steelers, Dolphins and Redskins. Unfortunately for both Saturday and the Colts, staying in Indy wasn't an option. The Colts had almost no cap room, and after 10 seasons and two Pro Bowls, Saturday wasn't about to give Indianapolis a huge hometown discount.
"I didn't think there was any way it was going to work out with the Colts," Saturday says.
It was destined to be one of those sad moments in the NFL when continuity and greatness were sacrificed for money and pride.
Peyton Manning and Saturday have played in 138 starts, more than any quarterback-center combo since the Buffalo Bills' duo of Jim Kelly and Kent Hull (157 starts). No matter which team Saturday signed with, his role wouldn't be as diverse and challenging as his job in Indy. No other center has such varied responsibilities. Saturday doesn't just identify the "mike" linebacker and block. He studies personnel. He even reads coverages. He not only protects Manning but also corrects him, too, in case the quarterback overlooks a detail and calls the wrong play at the line of scrimmage.
Manning and Saturday talked every other day last week. The quarterback, on vacation in Florida, was nervous. Losing receiver Marvin Harrison was one thing; he missed 11 games in 2007, and Manning adjusted. Life without Saturday would be worse. When the center missed four games in 2008 with a right knee injury, the entire offense suffered. Manning's quarterback rating without Saturday was 12 points lower than with him. The Colts averaged six fewer points a game. Rushing yards dropped by an average of 29 yards.
In Buffalo, backup center Jamey Richard was playing phone tag with Saturday, wondering if he'd be taking over permanently. The former University at Buffalo star was the Colts' seventh-round pick in 2008, subbing for an injured Saturday. The rookie did well, considering the complexity of the Colts' offense.
"I had certain responsibilities, like calling the mike," Richard says. "But I didn't have total control." Not like Saturday does.
Still, Saturday knew it probably didn't matter.
"I don't think any player is irreplaceable," he says. So he and his wife mapped out teams to visit. But at 11 p.m. that February night, Saturday checked his voicemail, and there was a surprise from Colts GM Bill Polian: "There's an unexpected gift we're getting from the NFL."
Because of rules in the collective bargaining agreement, the cash spent on player costs (salaries and benefits) by teams fell below the predetermined percentage of total league revenue, in this case 59.5 percent. The salary cap increased by $4.05 million, to $127.05 million. The league basically told the team owners, you may not be able to spend your credit card limit, but we'll increase it, just in case.
Saturday happened to be the Colts' just in case.
The cap's expansion was unexpected, given the current economic climate, even in sports. For instance, the NBA's luxury-tax threshold -- its version of a salary cap -- is shrinking from $71.15 million to $69 million next season. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell took a 20 percent pay cut last week to avoid more layoffs at the league office (169 workers have already been let go). The Bucs, Redskins, Broncos, Panthers and Browns have had staff reductions, which makes contracts like the one Albert Haynesworth ($48 million guaranteed) signed that much harder to swallow.
The terms of Saturday's deal weren't released, but the entire re-signing was beautifully weird: Everybody won. Neither side had to cave. Less didn't have to be more, and more didn't have to be less. Says Saturday, "It was a super pleasant surprise."
Too bad it doesn't happen more often.
Seth Wickersham is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a columnist for ESPN.com.