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Why Is the NFL’s Trade Deadline So Boring?

The National Football League moved the trade deadline back two weeks this season. The idea was to provoke a flurry of activity akin to the days leading up to July 31 in Major League Baseball, which this past year saw future Hall of Famer Ichiro Suzuki traded to the New York Yankees, or the National Basketball Association’s All-Star Break, which two years ago saw Carmelo Anthony force a trade to the New York Knicks.

We will have to see whether the new NFL trading deadline produces the result the owners intended. Wait, what? The trading deadline already passed? And a grand total of one player was traded?

Indeed, the November 1 deadline slipped by with hardly any notice. The New England Patriots sent their fourth-round draft pick next year to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to get troubled but talented cornerback Aqib Talib. Midseason trades are rare in the NFL, minimizing fan excitement and undermining league parity. The biggest losers may be the players, who have less control over their destinies than do athletes in other sports. Unlike this season’s replacement referee saga, however, this isn’t only the fault of the team owners; it stems from the nature of the game itself.

In baseball and basketball, midseason trades typically offer teams with disparate fortunes a win-win proposition: a team headed for the playoffs gives up drafts picks or young prospects, while a struggling team gives up a proven veteran. A team with a chance at the championship bets on the present; a team with no chance bets on the future. The same dynamic exists in football, and more frequent injuries arguably up demand for midseason replacements.

But there has not been a headline-making midseason football trade since the Randy Moss saga two seasons ago, and even that was notable for reasons more suited to Page Six than the sports section. (Well past his prime, Moss was sent to his first team, the Vikings, where his attitude, including a complaint about the catering, got him cut.) The last consequential midseason trade—the famous Herschel Walker trade that birthed the Dallas Cowboys’ dynasty—occurred in 1989. 

Bill Polian, the former general manager of the Buffalo Bills, Carolina Panthers, and Indianapolis Colts and a former member of the NFL Competition Committee, explained to me that a key obstacle to trades is the intricacy of offensive and defensive systems. “Marco Scutaro is playing exactly the same position on defense and doing the same things at the plate as he did in Colorado,” Polian said, referring to an infielder whom the Rockies traded to the San Francisco Giants before the deadline this season. “That would not be the case for an offensive lineman being traded from the Houston Texans to the Buffalo Bills.” (Ironically, Talib will have to assiduously study the Patriots playbook after serving a four-game suspension for illicit use of Adderall.)

Polian, who is currently an ESPN analyst, added, “The term is ‘system fit.’ You don’t have very many system fits, particularly during the season.”

Charley Casserly, who has been general manager for the Washington Redskins and the Texans, seconded these observations. He also observed that the NFL’s hard salary cap—which is stricter than the NBA’s “soft” cap and MLB’s lack of one—makes trades trickier. “You’re taking on a bigger salary than a draft pick,” he explained, noting that the NFL’s new collective bargaining agreement makes rookie salaries even cheaper, therefore making draft picks more valuable. (Most football trades exchange veterans for draft picks rather than veterans for other veterans.)

One of the few midseason trades Polian ever made illustrates the rare circumstances in which successful GMs will pull the trigger. In 2006, 5-0 but struggling to stop the run, the Colts gave up a second-round pick to the Bucaneeers for defensive lineman Anthony McFarland, only because McFarland had played for Colts coach Tony Dungy in the exact same defense. “We said at the time, this is the perfect system fit,” said Polian. He added, “We knew what we were getting as a human being and a teammate.” The Colts won the Super Bowl that season.

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It’s not hard to see why such deals are the exception rather than the rule. But it’s a rare instance in which football junkies, who live for things like this, are denied their fix.

It’s also a rare instance in which the NFL does not encourage its ideal of parity. After all, the best strategy for a rebuilding team is to mortgage the present for the future. The draft, which gives the worst teams the highest picks without a complicating, NBA-style lottery, affirms this strategy, and similarly, in a league that encouraged trading, the putrid Kansas City Chiefs would ship Pro Bowl linebacker Tamba Hali or standout wide receiver Dwayne Bowe to a contender for a draft pick. Instead, in a case of unaligned incentives, the Chiefs will get their high draft pick but keep their pricey veterans. It may give the Chiefs one more competitive game in December, but it may also prevent them from successfully rebuilding for another year or two.

Finally, football players who are unhappy with their situations are left with far less recourse than their baseball or basketball counterparts. Instead, they are at the mercy of general-like coaches and admiral-esque GMs; if they pout, they may get to play fewer downs, limiting their abilities to demonstrate their worth before they are free agents. 

There is probably an extent to which football’s military-style culture is unavoidable—the price you pay for a sport in which each snap involves the meticulously planned, immaculately coordinated movement of 11 men on each side of the ball. But the league should do more to try to mitigate this negative side effect. It could start by moving the deadline back another month, as Casserly proposed some two decades ago, which would give teams another month to make deals and, more importantly, another month to decide if they have a good shot at a postseason run or, alternatively, a good shot at not needing to win any more games that season.

“We are the ultimate team sport,” argued Polian. “There is no Carmelo—the closest you come to that is a quarterback, and those guys are by and large such great team guys that they’re the last people that would cause problems.” However, most players are not quarterbacks, but rather cogs with short, risky careers and limited career mobility—just as most GMs did not, like Bill Polian, have Peyton Manning as their quarterback.