Well the Peyton Manning Sweepstakes ended last Monday morning when Manning signed a five-year $96 million deal with the Denver Broncos, breaking the hearts of many teams wooing him to sign, including the Titans, 49ers, Cardinals, and the Dolphins. But after four neck surgeries, it’s hard to say whether or not the Broncos will get a return off the future hall of fame QB. However, the following free agent signings led to numerous awards like MVP’s, records being broken, and most importantly championships.
Just Missed the Cut
Steve Nash started his career as a Phoenix Sun, but it wasn’t until he moved to his next team, the Dallas Mavericks, that people got a glimpse of what Nash was capable of. In the 2000-01 season, the Mavericks made the playoffs after a more than a decade hiatus. They would follow that up with 3 more playoff appearances with Nash, but never got as far than in the 2002-03 playoffs, where they lost to the eventual champions, the San Antonio Spurs, in the Western Conference Finals four games to one. After regressing next year, Mavericks’ owner Mark Cuban had to make a decision. Cuban knew that Dirk Nowitzki was his future, and wasn’t convinced that the older Nash, 30 at the time, would help them reach that championship goal. Cuban offered Nash a long-term deal, but it didn’t match the deal the Suns were offering him, a six year contract worth $63 million, which Nash accepted.
In the season before Nash signed, the Suns were 29-53. In his first year with the Suns, Nash led them to an NBA best 62-20 record. It lead to his first of two consecutive MVP awards, being the first Canadian to do so. Also in a sweet taste of revenge, the Suns that year beat the Dallas Mavericks in the second round of the Playoffs, four games to two, before losing to once again eventual champs, the San Antonio Spurs in five games. The Suns would go on the contend for the next several years, but have recently struggled, leading many to speculate whether the Suns should cut ties with Nash. But the Suns are determined to have Nash retire at Phoenix, whether this year or five years from now, and it’s hard to argue that Nash hasn’t earned that right.
10. Deion Sanders
Deion Sanders is arguably one of the greatest athletes of all time, and most definitely in discussion as the greatest defensive backs of all time. So when “Prime Time” became a free agent after five years with the Atlanta Falcons, it became a bidding war to see who would sign the future hall of famer. The San Francisco 49ers ended up winning and signed him to a one year contract. The 49ers ended up cashing big with Sanders, as he proceeded to have one of his greatest seasons, grabbing six interceptions for an astonishing 303 yards, three of them for touchdowns. One of those touchdowns was against Sanders’ former team, the Atlanta Falcons. At the Georgia Dome, his first game back there since signing with San Francisco, Sanders got into a physical altercation with former teammate, Andre Rison. That scuffle didn’t faze him and he later caught an interception from Jeff George and ran it back 93 yards, high-stepping his way before reaching the end zone as only Sanders can do. Sanders ended the season as the NFL Defensive Player of the Year, and led the 49ers to Super Bowl XXIX, where they trounced the San Diego Chargers 49 to 26, which Deion contributed by recording an interception, putting the cherry on the top of an outstanding season.
9. Charles Woodson
Charles Woodson started his career with the Oakland Raiders, fresh off his Heisman victory. He was and still is the only primarily defensive player to do so. He had an immediate impact, catching five interceptions and was awarded the NFL Defensive Rookie of the year. He never matched those numbers in his following years with the Raiders, only snatching twelve interceptions during his last seven years with the Raiders. Injuries were the leading cause of his stumbling numbers, but it may have also been due to the fact the Raiders franchised him during his last two seasons with the team. After breaking his left leg in his final year with the Raiders, Oakland didn’t put the franchise tag on Woodson, allowing him to become a free agent. Not many teams were willing to sign Woodson to a long term deal due to his nagging injuries, but the Green Bay Packers took a chance of him, signing him to a 7-year contract, that could be worth up to $52.7 million with bonuses and incentives. Just like he did in his first year with the Raiders, Woodson had an immediate impact, catching a then career high eight interceptions. However, unlike his time with the Raiders, Woodson didn’t let up. His best year came in 2009, where he had nine interceptions, three for touchdowns, and became the NFL Defensive Player of that year, the second Packer to earn the title (Reggie White being the first), and the oldest defensive back to earn the title. And even though he sustained a broken collarbone at the end of the first half of Super Bowl XIV, it was his emotional speech to the team during halftime that gave the extra boost they need to win Charles Woodson’s first Super Bowl.
8. Barry Bonds
Love him or hate him (many people would lean towards the hate side), it’s hard to deny that Barry Bonds should be considered one of the greatest baseball players of all time. His career began with the Pittsburgh Pirates, where he blasted 176 home runs, collected 556 RBI, had 251 stolen bases, and collected two NL MVP’s in 1990 and 92, along with three Gold Glove Awards (90-92) and three Silver Slugger Awards (90-92). So when his contracted ended after the ’92 season, he was the most sought out free agent on the market. He ended up signing 6-year, $43.75 million contract with the San Francisco Giants, which was, at the time, the largest deal in baseball history. It was the team his father, Bobby Bonds, played for as well as his godfather and one of the greatest Giants of all time, Willie Mays. In his first year with the Giants, Bonds led the league in home runs (46), and RBI (126) and was awarded with his then third NL MVP, along with another Golden Glove and Silver Slugger award. That year and the six after, Bonds was the model of consistency, averaging 40 home runs a season. However, in the 2001 season, Bonds beat that average by a whopping 33, ending the season with a record breaking 73 home runs, beating the previous record of 70, then held by Mark McGwire. It was also that season that people began to question his increase bulk muscle and if his jump in home run numbers was related to steroid use, a question that only grew more as he was reaching Hank Aaron’s record of home runs (755).
Bonds did eventually break that record, ending his career with 762 home runs. He also has the record for most walks (2,558), intentional walks (688), and NL MVP Awards (7), winning four consecutively in 2001-04. Although he’s never won a world series, the impact that Bonds has created both on the field and off will always be remembered, no matter how notorious it may be.
7. Greg Maddux
After winning his first of four NL Cy Young Awards with the Chicago Cubs, Greg Maddux ended the 1992 season as one of the hottest free agent pitchers on the market. After talks of resigning with the Cubs fell through, the Atlanta Braves signed Maddux to a five year $28 million deal. Maddux made his debut against, of all teams, the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field. Maddux showed them what a mistake the Cubs made by shutting them out and winning the game 1-0. It was only the start of another great year for Maddux, who ended up 20-10 with a 2.36 ERA and earned his second straight Cy Young Award. His streak of winning the Cy Young Award would last last two more seasons, with 1995 being the year that the Braves won the World Series.
6. Reggie White
The Packers sure know how to pick the right free agents. Reggie White played the first eight years of his NFL career with the Philadelphia Eagles. He collected 124 sacks in his time with the Eagles before becoming a free agent at the end of the 1992 season. He ended up signing with the Green Bay Packers, and even though he didn’t match the numbers he had with Philadelphia, the impact he made on the defense as a whole is hard to argue. That defense led the Packers to their first playoff appearance since the 1982 season. It would only be a few years later that the Packers would win Super Bowl XXXI against the New England Patriots. Reggie White would end his tenure as a Packer in 1998, earning the AP Defensive Player of the Year at the age of 37.
5. Randy Johnson
The Arizona Diamondbacks, then a second-year franchise, took a chance on 34-year old Randy Johnson, and clearly that chance paid off for the young franchise. “The Big Unit”, in his first four season with the Diamondbacks, won four consecutive Cy Young Awards, with an ERA under 2.65 those four years. More importantly, he along with fellow all time great pitcher Curt Shilling, helped the Diamondbacks win the 2001 World Series against the juggernaut that was the New York Yankees. Johnson won his two starts in the series and in game 7, he pitched for 1&1/3 innings on zero days rest and ended up as the winning pitcher. In the 2004 season, his last with the Diamondbacks until 2007, he recorded the 17th ever perfect game. At the age of 40, he was the oldest pitcher ever to accomplish that feat. There was also one other feat that he accomplished during his time with the diamondbacks:
Well look who’s back in the top ten. After his one year with the San Francisco 49ers, the “Deion Sweepstakes” started once again, with the Dallas Cowboys winning the “contest” and signed “Prime Time” to a 7-year $35 million contract, making him, at the time, the highest paid defensive player in the NFL. Although limited by injuries in his first year with the Cowboys, Sanders helped Dallas win their third Superbowl in four years. During his time with the Cowboys, Sanders used his athleticism to contribute to the Dallas Offense and more importantly, Special Teams. In the 1996 season “Neon Deion” caught 36 receptions for 475 yards and a touchdown. In his last three year with the Cowboys, Sanders became a lethal punt returner, gaining 1126 yards, and returned four of them for touchdowns.
3. Kurt Warner
The story of Kurt Warner’s rise to elite NFL quarterback is so unimaginable, I’m surprised no one’s made a movie about it yet. Going undrafted in the 1994 NFL Draft, Warner tried out for the Green Bay Packers, but didn’t make the team. After working at a grocery store, Warner signed with the Iowa Barnstormers, an Arena Football Team. After spending a few years in the Arena Football league, the St. Louis Rams signed him and quickly shipped him off to play for the Amsterdam Admirals, a NFL Europe Team. Warner finally got his chance when Trent Green, who the team just signed as a free agent, tore his ACL in a preseason game. That injury gave birth to the “Greatest Show on Turf” as Warner, along with Marshall Faulk, Torry Holt, and Issac Bruce led the Rams to three consecutive 500+ point seasons. His first year with the Rams is arguably his career best, throwing for 4,353 yards, 41 touchdowns, and only 13 interceptions, on an Mike Martz offense, which means throw first, ask questions later. However the greatest accomplishment that Warner had that year was a Super Bowl win over Tennessee Titans, which had one of the greatest endings in Super Bowl history. Warner threw for 414 yards (a Super Bowl Record), 2 touchdowns and no interceptions. The Rams had to rely solely on Warner, due the Titans shutting down the Rams’ running game where they only collected 29 yards total on 13 attempts. Not bad for a guy who use to pack shelves at a grocery store.
2. Drew Brees
The Saints took a huge risk at signing Drew Brees to a 6-year, $60 million contract. Brees ended previous season as a San Diego Charger with a torn labrum in his THROWING shoulder, the worst case scenario for an upcoming free agent quarterback. Brees knew his time was done with the Chargers. San Diego had a rising star in Philip Rivers and offered Brees a contract that was far less valuable than Brees thought he deserved. Miami was interested in Brees, but his injury eventually caused the Dolphins to give up on signing Brees and instead traded for Minnesota Vikings QB Dante Culpepper, a move that the Dolphins haven’t recovered from since. The Saints ended up signing Brees, where he had to tackle one of the lowest season’s in Saints history, both record wise, and more importantly, mental and emotional, due to the natural disaster that was Hurricane Katrina. Brees, along with first-year head coach Sean Payton had to carry the burden of trying to help people of New Orleans regain some sense of joy that was taken away by the deadly hurricane, and luckily for Saints fans, Brees was more than up for the challenge, leading the Saints to a 10-6 record, up from their 3-13 record last year, and led them to the franchise’s first NFC Championship, where they lost to Chicago 39-14. Brees remained consistent the next couple of years, but that consistency didn’t lead to playoff appearances. If wasn’t until the 2009 season that the Saints accomplished another franchise first, winning a Super Bowl. In Super Bowl XLIV, the Saints defeated the favored Indianapolis Colts 31-17, with the lasting image being Brees holding his son Baylen.
Brees would end the final year of his contract with a record breaking 5,476 passing yards. No one has meant more to the Saints organization than Drew Brees. He took not just a franchise, but a city on that surgically repaired shoulder, and helped it heal after such a horrific tragedy. That’s why it’s more important than ever that the Saints resign Brees to a deal that will ensure that he will retire as a Saint. Franchising him was a huge mistake, and after “Bounty Gate” and the resulting suspension of Sean Payton, it’s more important then ever for the Saints organization to give whatever deal Drew Brees wants. He’s more than earned it.
1. Shaquille O’Neal
Shaquille O’Neal is, in my opinion, the most dominant center in the NBA ever. No one could match him in raw power. He was so dominant, opposing head coaches came up with a defensive strategy just for O’Neal, Hack-a-Shaq. That’s how much fear and respect the man has earned throughout his career. Already a nightmare to backboards and opposing centers during his first four years with Orlando, O’Neal became a free agent. Orlando, relying on Anfrenee “Penny” Hardaway, decided not to match the Lakers offer of 7-years for $120 million. That decision would backfire on the Magic, as Penny suffered a devastating knee injury in the 1997-98 season, an injury that Hardaway never truly recovered from. Nagging injuries also affected O’Neal during his first three seasons with the Lakers, missing at least 20 games in each season. However, it wasn’t until Phil Jackson became the head coach and the emergence of some guy named Kobe Bryant (obvious sarcasm), that the Lakers turned themselves into champions, winning three straight titles from 2000-02, with Shaquille becoming the Most Valuable Player in 2000, with a career best 29.7 PPG, 13.6 RPG, and a career best 3.8 APG.