Raise your hand if you've been the subject of a baseless trade rumor
Today it was Warren Sapp. Yesterday it was Ryan Leaf. Tomorrow, it could be Mike Alstott or Jamie Duncan.
These are the players and potential players in a great mind game called The Rumor Mill. Of course, we call it a mind game simply because that is the only place it is generally played.
Player trades, as most NFL fans can tell you, are relatively rare in the world of professional football, at least as compared to the other major sports. Trade speculation? Now that's about as rare as a mosquito in the Everglades.
It's an interesting game, this development of NFL trade rumors, interesting and somewhat baffling to those on the inside who are actually privy to tomorrow's news. What those in NFL personnel offices really know about the big trade that will hit the morning papers is that…well, it won't.
On Friday and Saturday, it was Sapp's turn in the mill. Despite posting more sacks over the past two seasons than any other player in the NFL, winning an NFL Defensive Player of the Year award and being under contract for some time to come, Sapp was still not safe from the whispers-turned-roars. The rumor: now that the Bucs have sack-man Simeon Rice they will trade sack-man Warren Sapp, perhaps to the cap-friendly Cincinnati Bengals.
But here's where the equation breaks down (given you get past the part about the Bucs wanting to trade a Pro Bowl defensive lineman): it's not so much whether the other team can afford to trade for a player but whether the original team can afford to trade him away.
Mark Dominik, the Buccaneers' Coordinator of Pro Personnel, admits to being quietly amused at times by the trade rumors brought to his attention by curious media. In the vast majority of the cases, the rumored deal is barely feasible.
"Most of the time I'm surprised at what I hear simply because of the ramifications (such a trade) would have with the cap," said Dominik. "Most of the time, big-name players have high signing bonuses. Those signing bonuses make it more difficult for teams to move them. You see trade rumors in the papers and hear about them on the radio, but the actual possibility of those trades happening is quite small."
It seems strange that the signing bonus – money already paid to the player by the original team on the day he puts pen to paper – can come back to haunt the process years down the road. The reason: for salary cap purposes, a signing bonus is prorated so that it hits a team cap equally each season over the course of the contract. A $10 million bonus on a five-year contract beginning this year would count $2 million against the cap in 2001, $2 million in 2002, etc.
That is, unless the player is released or traded. At the moment that occurs, the signing bonus salary-cap hit for every remaining year becomes due that season. In the above example, if the player was traded after one season, the $8 million left on the salary-cap effect of the $10 million signing bonus would hurt the team trading him away right then and there.
"With the salary cap and the way signing bonuses are pro-rated, players are not likely to move during the early parts of their contracts," Dominik explained. "If you read about a player getting an $8 to $10 million signing bonus, then two years later you hear he's going to be traded … financially, it's impossible for the team to make that move. It's too much of a salary cap hit to their own club."
Actually, your average NFL fan has probably heard enough about such wrangling over the past seven years to pass Salary Cap 101. The above explanation won't come as a surprise to many. Yet the rumors persist.
Why? Well, the dirty little secret of the trade rumor might be this: they're fun. There are probably not many Buc fans that would react to the news of a Sapp trade mildly; chances are, most would fall heavily on one side of the fence or the other. Instant debate.
"I think that has a lot to do with it," said Dominik. "And it does make for very interesting talk radio, because it gives people something to think about, to talk about, to have an opinion about. I think rumors sometimes get started just to create a conversation, rather than the actual facts. I would suggest people look into the player a little bit more, see what information is out there. Usually, contract information and other stuff is out there.
"The interesting thing about rumors is that you really don't know where they're starting from. Somebody sees a weakness on your team or a strength on your team and they just make assumptions. 'Okay, they've got one extra of this and they need one more of that, so they obviously want to make a move to address that.' This offseason has maybe been a little bit more interesting with trades, seeing Kevin Carter get traded. But then again, guys that are traded like Carter are usually in the last year or the second-to-last year of their contract. You won't see a guy get traded who's in the second year of a six-year deal. That just won't happen, so that's one way to dispell a rumor quickly. Just see how many years the player has left on his contract and that will give you a better feel of how likely it is to happen."
Quick – name the last Buccaneer starter that was traded to another team. The last five players traded away from Tampa Bay were Jeff Gooch (2001, recently rescinded), Eric Zeier (2001), Regan Upshaw (1999), Melvin Johnson (1998) and Errict Rhett (1998). Upshaw, Johnson and Rhett had all been starters at one point but had lost their jobs by the time they were dealt. The last to be dealt after a season he finished as a starter was QB Craig Erickson in 1995.
All in all, it is best to meet trade rumors involving marquee players with a healthy dose of skepticism. Apply the contract test to Warren Sapp and decide for yourself if you have faith in the current rumors afloat. Do the same, if you feel like it, when Alstott's name is mentioned, or Duncan's, or Marcus Jones' or Jeff Christy's.
Or don't. Have fun with it. Just be aware that the trade that actually happens is more likely to be one that you didn't hear about.
"They say not to believe everything that you read, and I would agree with that," said Dominik. "It's fun to think about these things, and it makes for interesting conversation, but I would say that less than 10% of the deals you hear about in rumors actually happen. And the ones that do happen, happen so fast because they are kept under the table."