The NFL has been known for years as a league in which relatively few significant trades are made. A team takes the same salary-cap hit for trading a player as it would for cutting that player, which discourages trades in many cases.
In-season trades have been regarded as risky because the sport is so much about continuity and familiarity, and coaches usually think a player who's new to a club's offensive or defensive system will be weeks or even months away from being ready to be useful. Trading-deadline day in the NFL generally is greeted with yawns by front-executives and brings little or no activity league-wide.
But offseason trades, even involving top players, have become more commonplace in the past few years, as many teams have come to realize that, even with the salary-cap burdens involved, it's often better to get something in return for a marquee player than to allow him to leave via free agency and get nothing back. And on Tuesday, there even was a little bit of movement before the 4 p.m. trading deadline came and went.
It wasn't exactly frenzied by the standards of, say, a baseball trading-deadline day, but three quarterbacks -- two of them former starters -- and a capable offensive lineman did change teams. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers sent a draft pick to the San Francisco 49ers for their recently benched quarterback, Tim Rattay. The Miami Dolphins traded former starting quarterback A.J. Feeley and a draft choice to the San Diego Chargers for quarterback Cleo Lemon, and the Chargers sent guard Toniu Fonoti to the Minnesota Vikings for a draft selection.
The most significant of those swaps, in the short term, is the Rattay deal. Rattay had outlived his usefulness in San Francisco, with first-year 49ers coach Mike Nolan having just gone to prized rookie Alex Smith as his starting quarterback. Smith, the top overall choice in this year's draft, sat and watched while Rattay started in the early stages of this season. But the 49ers are a bad team with or without an experienced quarterback, so there was no sense in waiting any longer to throw Smith in there and let him learn from his mistakes. The 49ers are crossing their fingers that Smith never looks back and becomes entrenched as the starter for a decade or more.
But there could be a role for Rattay in Tampa. The Buccaneers are contenders at 5-1. They were left with two young quarterbacks, Chris Simms and Luke McCown, after losing starter Brian Griese to a season-ending knee injury suffered during last Sunday's win over the Dolphins. Simms takes over as the starter while Rattay begins a crash course on the offense, but Rattay could become an option at some point for Coach Jon Gruden if Simms falters or gets hurt.
The trade made Tuesday that could have the greatest long-term impact, though, is the Feeley-Lemon swap. Feeley failed as a starter in Miami after being obtained in a trade with the Philadelphia Eagles prior to last season. First-year Dolphins coach Nick Saban inherited Feeley from the previous regime in Miami, and dropped Feeley to third on the depth chart this season behind Gus Frerotte and Sage Rosenfels. But some in the league still think Feeley could be a capable backup, and the Chargers' acquisition of him reinforces the notion that San Diego will part with either Drew Brees or Philip Rivers after this season.
The Chargers obtained Rivers, the fourth overall pick in last year's draft, in a draft-day trade last year with the intention that he soon would be their starter. Brees, to that point, hadn't been the answer. But Rivers showed up late to training camp because of a contract dispute. Brees kept the starting job by default, then kept Rivers on the bench all of last season by being one of the league's top passers and leading the Chargers to the playoffs. Brees remains the starter now -- although he didn't get the long-term contract he wanted last offseason, with the club instead using its franchise-player tag to keep him off the free-agent market -- and Rivers remains on the bench.
The Chargers decided against letting go of Brees or Rivers last offseason, first wanting to see if Brees could have another superb season. But many people in the league already believed that the team would pick one quarterback or the other after this season and seek to get something in a trade for the other -- in Brees's case, that would mean first using the franchise tag on him again and then trading him -- and now that Feeley is in the fold, he could become the backup next season.
Fonoti is a talented player who was a second-round draft pick in 2002. But his work habits have been questioned, and he's eligible for unrestricted free agency in the spring. He's been sidelined by a hand injury and the Chargers are happy with the play of his replacement, Kris Dielman.
Still, he could be healthy within a week or two and could move into the Vikings' starting lineup soon thereafter. Opposing defenses consistently have been able to put pass-rush pressure on Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper this season with an up-the-middle push by defensive tackles. It isn't exactly the biggest of the problems facing the Vikings these days, but it is one of them.
Griese Headed to IR
The Buccaneers didn't put Griese on the injured reserve list Tuesday. But Gruden acknowledged today that Griese's injury is season-ending and the quarterback will be placed on IR.
"We did everything we could -- and Brian wanted to do everything also -- to get as much information as we could," Gruden said during a news briefing today. "There was a glimmer of hope that we could put it in a cast and possibly get him back in four to six weeks. But at the end of the research, this is an injury that's going to cause him to miss the rest of the season."
Griese reportedly tore his anterior cruciate ligament and medial collateral ligament and will have to undergo season-ending surgery.
To create a roster spot Tuesday for Rattay, the club released rookie fullback Rick Razzano. The Buccaneers have a tight salary-cap situation and also had to rework a contract or two to fit the prorated portion of Rattay's salary beneath their cap.
Earlier Tuesday, before completing the Rattay trade, the Buccaneers worked out a group of free-agent quarterbacks that included Shaun King and Jesse Palmer. They also explored the possibility of reacquiring their former Super Bowl-winning quarterback, Brad Johnson, from the Vikings but then zeroed in on Rattay, for whom they had attempted to trade before the season. The 49ers weren't willing to part with Rattay then, not knowing if Smith would be ready to be the starter at the outset of the season.
"It's a credit to [General Manager] Bruce Allen and [Director of Player Personnel] Ruston Webster for helping us get Tim Rattay, a guy we think can really play and a guy that fits the criteria of what we're looking for here," Gruden said. "He's a quality guy."
Rams To Be Without Bulger
The St. Louis Rams probably will be without quarterback Marc Bulger for several weeks. He suffered a sprained AC joint in his right shoulder during Monday night's loss to the Indianapolis Colts, the Rams' first game since Coach Mike Martz took a leave of absence because of a bacterial infection in his heart. Jamie Martin takes over as the Rams' starting quarterback, and rookie Ryan Fitzpatrick becomes the backup. It's unclear if the Rams will add a third healthy quarterback to their roster.