- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Tennessee Titans may have a hard time convincing NFL commissioner Roger Goodell that the Washington Redskins improperly talked to their best player or his agent before the Feb. 27 start of free agency.

Such cases are much easier to make than actually win in the NFL, which still operates under an “everybody does it” mentality when it comes to tampering, according to multiple league sources.

“No question we lost players over the years because of tampering, but it’s really tough to prove,” former Redskins and Houston Texans general manager Charlie Casserly said.

The NFL is investigating the Redskins for their involvement with defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth after the Titans, for whom he played the first seven years of his professional career, complained to the league about tampering. According to Yahoo Sports, the NFL already has interviewed at least two people about the case.

And whenever the investigation ends, people around the league don’t expect the Titans to come out ahead.

“To be honest, tampering goes on all the time,” one longtime NFL executive said. “If you wait until the first day of free agency to talk to a player’s agent, then you’re not in the mix. In my mind, once the team’s season is done, the player is a free agent.”

Since free agency started in 1993, only the San Francisco 49ers officially have been found guilty of tampering with a player. In March 2008, Goodell stripped them of a fifth-round draft pick and made them swap third-rounders with the Chicago Bears for tampering with linebacker Lance Briggs the previous October.

The expansion Carolina Panthers were fined $150,000 and forced to relinquish two picks when they tampered with Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator Dom Capers during the 1994 season. Capers went on to become Carolina’s first coach in 1995.

As with Capers, what complicated the Briggs case was that the tampering occurred during the season. The Bears were considering trading the unhappy Briggs before the mid-October deadline when they learned that the 49ers had talked to his agent, Drew Rosenhaus. An NFL source said the Bears were willing to accept a lesser price from the 49ers in return for not filing tampering charges than the one Goodell ultimately exacted, but San Francisco officials gambled that they wouldn’t be penalized.

Investigators talked to officials from both teams as well as to Briggs and Rosenhaus before the top executives of the 49ers and Bears were summoned to meet with Goodell. The frequent appearance of Rosenhaus’ number on the 49ers’ phone records just before the trade deadline helped convince the commissioner the team had tampered with Briggs.

Multiple officials around the league believe the tampering standard has been tightened since Goodell succeeded Paul Tagliabue in 2006. As evidence, they point to the lengthy suspensions handed out to wayward players like Pacman Jones, Tank Johnson and Chris Henry. One veteran personnel man said teams were warned this winter that “the league would be on the lookout so we had better be careful” about tampering. His team consequently ratcheted down its level of tampering.

However, the Redskins’ supposed early involvement with Haynesworth and agent Chad Speck, who also represents Washington receiver Malcolm Kelly, didn’t affect the Titans’ season. Redskins owner Dan Snyder likely will maintain that he and Speck talked about Kelly, not Haynesworth, at dinner during the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis in mid-February.

“I’m with the Redskins on this one,” the NFL executive said. “[Titans GM] Mike Reinfeldt is just trying to cover his [butt]. Everyone knew they weren’t going to be able to re-sign Haynesworth.”

It helps Tennessee’s case that coach Jeff Fisher, the longtime co-chair of the competition committee, is a master of league rules. But since Snyder often spends heavily on the first day of free agency, it perhaps wasn’t surprising he reeled in Haynesworth, this year’s biggest prize, so quickly. The Redskins signed Haynesworth to a deal that could be worth $100 million over seven years that included $41 million guaranteed - the richest deal in NFL history for a defensive player.

Stars switch teams in the first hours of free agency every year. Those deals aren’t all worked out during that brief time span; the parameters are often set at the combine.

“I won’t say that everybody in the league does it, but it’s certainly widespread,” Casserly said. “And it’s a lot more open than it was even five years ago.”

So much so that the NFL is strongly considering creating a window before the start of free agency during which agents can talk to teams about their clients with expiring contracts. Deals couldn’t be signed, but the agents would, at a minimum, get a good sense of the market for their clients.

If the Redskins are penalized in the Haynesworth signing, it could trigger that adjustment.

As is the rule with tampering cases, NFL officials are mum about who is being interviewed and when. In fact, the league likely will acknowledge that the case was thoroughly investigated only if it penalizes the Redskins.

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