Kurt Warner to the Cardinals, Drew Brees to the Saints, and Peyton Manning to the Broncos. Those are just a few of the best-known free agent signings in recent NFL history. We also can't forget the Dallas Cowboys' 2003 signing of undrafted Eastern Illinois quarterback, Tony Romo, or the Green Bay Packers inking Charles Woodson to a long-term deal in 2006.
However, if there is one thing of greater interest to football fans and analysts than a marquee free agent signing, it's the deal that could've been. It's the rumor that almost came to fruition. It's the player who agreed to a contract but backed out from signing on the dotted line at the last minute.
NFL coaches are no different. Many teams push just as hard for solid play callers on the sideline as they do for play callers on the field. The Miami Dolphins heavily courted Jim Harbaugh back in 2011, and just this past year, the New York Giants felt Crimson Tide fever as they reached out to Alabama head coach Nick Saban.
Manning in Tennessee? Favre in Chicago? Moss in Green Bay? Here 15 NFL free agent signings that almost happened.
15 Robert Griffin III To L.A. Rams in 2016
Robert Griffin III took the NFL by storm during his 2012 rookie season, posting stellar numbers for passer rating (102.4) and touchdown-to-interception ratio (4:1) for the Redskins. RGIII was named the 2012 Offensive Rookie of the Year and led Washington to a division title.
However, Griffin fell out of favor in D.C. after a litany of knee and ankle injuries derailed his final two seasons with the team. Management waived him in 2016, and he signed with the Cleveland Browns in late summer.
Yet, Griffin nearly joined the Los Angeles Rams, the team that originally had the chance to draft him at the number two spot before they traded the pick to Washington in 2012. Rumors swirled in early March, and according to Vincent Bonsignore of the Los Angeles Daily News, Griffin “very much” wanted to play for the Rams. It seemed like he would be a great fit for the team's offense, which featured star running back Todd Gurley and dynamic wide receiver Tavon Austin.
Of course, Griffin never ended up signing in Los Angeles, and the Rams instead selected Jared Goff as their future quarterback in the 2016 draft.
14 Sean Payton Considers Coaching the Raiders in 2004
Sean Payton's tenure as head coach of the New Orleans Saints hasn't always gone smoothly. In 2006, the first-year head coach led the Saints to the playoffs for the first time in six seasons and later guided the team to their only Super Bowl title in 2009. However, Payton also served a season-long suspension in 2012 for the infamous "Bounty-gate" scandal.
Through all the ups and downs, it's hard to imagine Payton coaching anywhere but New Orleans. Yet, he spent the 2003 season as an assistant coach for the Dallas Cowboys, and nearly joined the Oakland Raiders in 2004. According to then Cowboys head coach, Bill Parcells, Payton was very close to accepting Oakland's vacant head coaching position.
Parcells detailed in his autobiography how he advised Payton against the move, saying "You're going to get your chance. This just isn't the right one, kid."
Payton stayed in Dallas for the 2005 season before accepting the head-coaching job in The Big Easy. He went on to win over 90 games with the Saints.
13 Bill Parcells Considers Coaching the Saints in 2012
Speaking of "BountyGate" Bill Parcells almost became Sean Payton's coaching replacement for the Saints during the 2012 season. Payton pleaded with Parcells that he serve as interim coach in Payton's absence.
Payton went so far as to schedule a meeting between Parcells and Saints general manager Mickey Loomis. The team also agreed to let Parcells bring in former assistant coaches Eric Mangini and Al Groh if he accepted the job. Parcells pondered the offer for two weeks, weighing opinions from friends and colleagues. New York Giants legend Lawrence Taylor strongly urged him to take the job, but Parcells ultimately passed.
He was 70 years old at the time and didn't feel comfortable restarting his coaching career on a one-year term with an unfamiliar coaching staff. He admitted in his memoir, “Parcells: A Football Life” that he wanted to take the offer to help Payton, but was comfortable in his current lifestyle. Thus, the Saints moved ahead with Joe Vitt as interim coach for the 2012 season.
12 Eric Winston to the Chargers
The Cincinnati Bengals' offensive tackle, Eric Winston, doesn't possess the same star power as some of the other players on this list. Nonetheless, he is still a solid, reliable right tackle who would upgrade any team's offensive line. The San Diego Chargers were one such team eager for his services. They entered heavy contract negotiations with Winston after the Kansas City Chiefs released him in March of 2013.
Winston looked for an annual salary in the neighborhood of $3-4 million, according to NFL.com's Ian Rappaport. Unfortunately, the two sides couldn't come to an agreement.
Speaking on the Chargers' negotiations, Winston told SiriusXMSports, "Things kind of fell through."
"It's frustrating," he continued. "I still feel like I'm still playing at a pretty high level, and I feel I can contribute to a team."
Winston ended up signing with the Arizona Cardinals just a few months later. He took the $840,000 veterans' minimum but received a $160,000 signing bonus, a $250,000 roster bonus, and other performance incentives.
11 Eagles Nearly Hire Former NY Giants Coach Tom Coughlin in 2016
The Giants and Cowboys have perhaps the most vitriolic rivalry in the entire NFC. However, if there is one team that challenges Dallas as New York’s biggest foe, it’s the Philadelphia Eagles.
So when longtime Giants head coach, Tom Coughlin, resigned from his position in 2016, many were surprised by reports of his interest in joining Philadelphia’s coaching staff.
Coughlin won two Super Bowls over 12 seasons in New York, was beloved by fans for his success, and respected by players for his serious, win-at-all-costs attitude. Talks between Coughlin and Eagles management had “intensified” in early January 2016, but never led to a signing.
Adam Schefter, ESPN’s NFL insider, reported that Coughlin withdrew his name from consideration by mid-January, amid concerns that he wouldn’t be able to hire suitable assistant coaches. His offensive coordinator in New York, Ben McAdoo, became the Giants head coach that same month.
Coughlin has since been named a senior advisor to the NFL’s football operations department and was inducted into the Giants’ “Ring of Honor” in November. Imagine the awkwardness if he were to receive that honor as the Eagles’ head coach.
10 Dolphins Try to Hire Jim Harbaugh From Stanford in 2011
Jim Harbaugh guided the San Francisco 49ers to the Super Bowl in February 2013 and is now leading a resurgence for Michigan football as the Wolverines' head coach.
However, Harbaugh's coaching success in San Francisco and Michigan arguably would've never happened had Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross had his way in 2011.
Ross and Miami general manager Jeff Ireland flew out to Stanford University (where Harbaugh coached at the time) at the end of the 2010 season to try and court the coach to Miami, even while Tony Sparano was still with the team.
Ross reportedly offered Harbaugh upwards of $7-8 million per year. The two parties sat down in January 2011 to discuss, and Harbaugh considered the lucrative offer, although Miami management did not confirm nor deny that a meeting took place.
Harbaugh ended up signing with the 49ers on January 7, 2011. One day later, on January 8, the Dolphins signed Sparano to a two-year contract extension.
9 Barry Sanders Nearly Comes Out of Retirement to Join Dolphins in 2000
This “near-deal” was actually more of a rumor than it was a concrete discussion. Barry Sanders, the Lions’ All-Star running back, rushed for over 15,000 yards in just 10 seasons and served as the focal point of the team’s offense during that period. However, Sanders retired prematurely in 1999, reportedly upset with the Lions’ inability to field a solid group of players around him to contend for a Super Bowl.
In January 2000, the 31-year-old running back considered a return to the gridiron, this time, with the Miami Dolphins.
Sanders’ agent, David Ware, told the Miami Herald that if the All-Pro running back was in a position to consider another team, “Certainly Miami would be high on his list of places where he would like to play."
Ware warned that nothing was set in stone and that Sanders still had arbitration matters to tend to with the Lions.
Nonetheless, he continued on to say, “Barry likes South Florida...He owns a place down there, and he has connections to people down there. It makes sense.”
Ultimately, however, Sanders remained retired.
8 Matt Forte to the Patriots
Matt Forte signed a three-year, $12 million contract with the New York Jets in March 2016. However, the 31-year-old running back was close to signing with the Jets' AFC East Rival in New England. The Patriots were extremely close to acquiring the former Chicago Bear, according to ESPN NFL insider Adam Schefter.
The Jets were reportedly concerned over the health of Forte's knee after his physical. They waited to sign a deal until their concerns were assuaged. Forte grew restless and headed to the airport to board a flight to New England. According to Schefter's source, Forte was prepared to sign with the Patriots that evening.
Forte's actions forced the hand of Jets general manager Mike Maccagnan, and he signed the two-time Pro Bowler soon after.
Forte has been a solid addition for Gang Green, rushing for 759 yards and seven touchdowns through the team's first 11 games.
7 Phil Simms Visits the Cleveland Browns in 1995
Phil Simms led the Giants to two Super Bowl titles and established himself as a legend in Big Blue Nation. Shockingly, the Giants released Simms after the 1993 season, even though he had led the team back to the playoffs after a brief drought.
Simms accepted an NFL analyst role with ESPN, but soon entered discussions to join the Cleveland Browns. Browns head coach Bill Belichick met with Simms in New Jersey and convinced him to visit Cleveland and tour the team's practice facility. Team owner Art Modell also scheduled a news conference in March of 1995, presumably to announce Simms' signing.
"Phil and I came here to work out an agreement with the Cleveland Browns," Simms' agent, David Fishof, told The New York Times.
However, the deal never came together, in part because the Browns couldn't structure a deal that Simms felt comfortable with.
"They wanted to offer me the [veteran] minimum and I went 'Whoa.' I was almost sick to my stomach," Simms admitted to Newsday in 2014. "I'm not going through all that. I just said, 'I'm going home.' "
Simms returned to his television duties at ESPN.
6 Giants Nearly Hire Nick Saban in 2016
Nick Saban rules the college football world. As head coach of the Alabama Crimson Tide, Saban has won four National Championships and five SEC titles. Those totals don’t even account for his successful run with LSU in the early 2000’s.
The New York Giants took note of Saban’s unprecedented success at the NCAA level and reached out to him about their vacant head coaching position in 2016.
Boxing promoter Bob Arum was good friends with Giants owner Steve Tisch. Arum also happened to have a friend, Nick Khan, who knew people at CAA, the agency that represented Saban.
Arum detailed a conversation in which Khan requested he put CAA in touch with Tisch and Giants’ management.
“This was before they hired McAdoo, but after they announced Coughlin was leaving,” Arum told NorthJersey.com. “So I call Steve and I say, ‘Hey, Saban would be very interested.”
According to the New York Post, the Giants were prepared to offer Saban up to $10 million per year. Arum relayed the offer back to Khan at CAA, but the deal never materialized. Khan claimed that Saban’s wife, Terry, didn’t feel comfortable leaving the Tuscaloosa area, and thus, Saban couldn’t take the job.
5 5. Peyton Manning Nearly Signs with Titans in 2012
Don't let the calls of "Omaha!" fool you. Peyton Manning has deep ties in the Tennessee area. After all, he played college football at the University of Tennessee, so it's hardly surprising that he nearly joined the Titans as a free agent in 2012. Manning missed the entire 2011 season while rehabbing from neck surgery, and was looking for a new team to lead after leaving the Indianapolis Colts.
Of course, Manning ended up signing with the Denver Broncos and subsequently led the team to two Super Bowl appearances and one title. However, Manning made no secret of how close he came to signing with the Titans.
"I was pretty close," he told The Tennessean's Dave Ammenheuser in May 2016.
Team owner Bud Adams emptied the vault to court Manning. He offered the star quarterback a $25 million annual salary. "I want Mr. Manning with the Titans," Adams added. "I will be disappointed if it doesn't happen."
Ultimately, the deal didn't happen, and Adams expressed regret.
"I thought we'd be ahead of Denver," he said. "I thought he'd want to stay in Tennessee."
Manning also visited the Arizona Cardinals' practice facility during his free agency period but settled on the Broncos.
4 Elvis Dumervil Faxes Contract after Deadline, Denver Releases Him
Dumervil found out the hard way that a fax machine is NOT the best method of communication in the 21st century. What am I talking about? Well, back in March 2013, the Broncos tried to adjust their star pass rusher's guaranteed salary so they could lower his cap hit.
All signs pointed to Dumervil remaining in Denver, as he was under contract with the team until 2015. However, due to a bizarre series of events, the Broncos had to release Dumervil. What happened?
Team management negotiated Dumervil's annual salary from $12 million to $8 million. Dumervil agreed to the restructured deal but wasn't in person to sign his new contract. He was in Miami and had to fax his contract to Denver. The only problem was, the deadline to file NFL contracts hit at 2 pm and Dumervil couldn't send the contract to Denver in time. This mix-up forced Denver to release Dumervil in lieu of paying his $12 million salary. The linebacker promptly fired his agent and signed a five-year, $35 million deal with the Ravens.
3 Tony Romo Nearly Went to Denver in 2003
When the Cowboys signed Tony Romo as an undrafted free agent in 2003, they knew they had a talented player. Maybe they didn't foresee him setting team records in passing touchdowns and passing yards, but they knew they had a potential franchise quarterback.
According to Bill Parcells, the team convinced Romo to accept a $15,000 bonus to sign in Dallas at the time. Why so much for an undrafted player? It turned out that Broncos head coach Mike Shanahan was also keen on signing Romo.
Romo held Shanahan in high-esteem, a sentiment he made clear in the Cowboys’ documentary “Star Crossed: The Story of Quincy Carter & Tony Romo.”
“I really liked Denver because of coach Shanahan," Romo said. “I thought he was fantastic. I liked their system, all that stuff, but it also came down to who can I beat out? What team can I make?"
In the end, Romo felt his best bet was with Dallas. It’s safe to say his gamble paid off.
2 Randy Moss Talks with the Green Bay Packers in 2007
We all know how prolific Randy Moss and Tom Brady were during the Patriots’ near-perfect 18-1 season in 2007. Moss caught 23 of Brady’s 50 touchdown passes that year. Moss’ 23 touchdowns set an NFL record for a wide receiver in a single season.
However, Moss’ freakish run with Brady almost didn’t happen. In fact, it could’ve happened with Brett Favre in Green Bay. Before the 2007 season, the Packers were hot in pursuit of Oakland’s wide receiver. The two teams discussed draft pick compensation for Moss, and Favre texted Moss several times during the draft day weekend.
However, according to ESPN business analyst Andrew Brandt, who worked for the Packers at the time, the Patriots’ offer of a one-year deal tipped the scale in New England's favor. Moss was against the prospect of a two-year deal because he realized his value had diminished to a degree after an underwhelming run with the Raiders. With a bounce-back season, Moss could command a larger payday on the open market. The Packers wouldn’t budge on their two-year offer, so Raiders dealt Moss to New England.
1 Brett Favre Ponders Signing with the Bears in 2008
Brett Favre announced his "retirement" in March 2008 after a crushing playoff loss to the New York Giants in the NFC Championship game. However, as we all know, the post-football lifestyle didn't suit Favre for long. The Packers made the decision to go with Aaron Rodgers under center for the 2008 season, and Favre began having second thoughts.
Peter King of Sports Illustrated detailed a call he received from the Green Bay legend that summer. Favre wanted to request a release from Green Bay and sign with either the Vikings or the Bears. King was admittedly surprised, and advised Favre against the move, as the optics of signing with a division rival wouldn't go over well.
The Bears attracted Favre because they had no bonafide number one quarterback. In 2007, the Bears used Rex Grossman, Brian Griese, and Kyle Orton at the quarterback position. They finished the 2007 season at 7-9.
Of course, Favre shocked the world by going to the New York Jets, where he led Gang Green to a 9-7 record and threw 22 touchdown passes and 22 interceptions. The Bears went ahead with Orton, who led Chicago to an identical 9-7 record in 2008. Favre would end up in Minnesota for the 2009 season, and would eventually retire as a Viking in 2011.