The true and central truth of NFL free agency is this: In March, people forget how the NFL ages a person. In March, nobody is old.
In their search to find a suitably less expensive replacement for Dashon Goldson, the 49ers have been linked to Ed Reed and have talked to Charles Woodson and Nnamdi Asomugha, combined age 101, combined experience 496 games.
And why is that? Because (a) those are the names that are available, as free agency in the NFL is mostly about throwing out the old (and expensive) and picking up the new (and eventually more expensive). And (b) because we love familiar names.
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The problem is, these two forces work against each other, and the people inside the game understand something we seem to forget, namely that football ages a fella, fast.
In all other sports, age is helpful. Experience is invaluable in many circumstances. But in football, the half-life of a career is dramatically shorter because the sport is essentially bad for its participants. It also hurts them that management relentlessly seeks the cheaper and younger with a greater force than other sports. That’s another of the ancillary benefits of having a management-friendly labor deal.
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It is instructive that most of the nontenders teams put out on the market were of players 30 and above. It is how business is conducted in the NFL, and finding the rare 30-plus diamond in a field of played-out rough is exceedingly difficult.
But the public’s fascination with names works in direct opposition to the way business is actually conducted. The 49ers are far more likely to eschew Woodson, Asomugha and, if they ever get to him, Reed, for someone younger, even if that younger isn’t necessarily cheaper.
And even if you don’t buy the notion that all teams work in philosophical lockstep, there is also this: the 49er secondary doesn’t need a quick fix. The need is more comprehensive than that.
The secondary is the one segment of the team’s Super Bowl drive that deteriorated most demonstrably in the postseason, and is clearly the one area that 49ers feel most compelled to overhaul. The draft has a deep list of NFL-suitable cornerbacks and safeties, and the 49ers have two teams’ worth of draft choices, and BaalkBaugh (our eponymous collision of general manager Trent Baalke and coach Jim Harbaugh) surely must believe that the 2012 draft, which seems to have netted little, is the anomaly while the 2011 draft, which was brilliant, is the norm.
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Thus, while they bring in Woodson and Asomugha and maybe even Reed (though that seems increasingly likely), that stokes the fans far more than it stokes them. This is tire-kicking, to steal the line from other genius in town, and it should be done. It just isn’t likely to be done to the fan base’s satisfaction.
Think if you must, rather, that the 49ers will find their secondary help elsewhere, so as to make a cohesive longterm unit. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio prefers to play a relatively set 11, and Asomugha, Woodson and Reed are at the age where situational play is a more likely use for them. They are sexy names with brilliant resumes, and Reed and Woodson are likely to be Hall of Fame candidates five years to the day after their retirements, but they are tourniquets. Even at discounted prices, they are less appealing in the longer term than younger and fresher.
And that is why, ultimately, you probably will be less excited about who the 49ers actually sign than who they talked to. It is the difference between what is, and what we think it is.