The NFL is all about one thing: winning football games.
A team that wins consistently generates more income and has a larger fan base than a team that doesn't win on a consistent basis.
NFL head coaches are paid millions of dollars per year to win immediately, placing an extraordinary amount of pressure on them. With this in mind, it's no wonder the cruel reality of the NFL is there is simply no loyalty when it comes to players.
If it increases the chances of winning, a head coach is just as willing to rid the team of the face of the franchise as he is a little-used backup tight end. To quote Sean Crowe in his recent Matt Cassel article, Bill Belichick would “trade his own son if he thought it would help the Patriots win a football game.”
While this speaks directly of three-time Super Bowl champ Belichick in particular, this fits the description of virtually every coach and team president in the NFL.
The '09 offseason has seen quite a few teams say goodbye to players who had been with that one team for their whole career. To name a few: Derrick Brooks (14 years), Brian Dawkins and Marvin Harrison (13 years), Orlando Pace (12 years), and Torry Holt and Chris McAlister (10 years).
Guys like Ray Lewis (13 years) and LaDainian Tomlinson (eight years) came close to joining new teams. Julius Peppers (seven years) very well still could leave the Panthers, the only team he's ever known.
In a perfect world, these players would retire after a long and successful career, having worn the same uniform their whole life – Dan Marino with the Miami Dolphins, Lawrence Taylor with the New York Giants, and Walter Payton with the Chicago Bears.
Not in football.
All of the players who left their teams this past offseason are on the decline of their career but still felt they have something left to offer.
Harrison was a second or third receiver by the end of his tenure with Indianapolis. Dawkins had lost a step and the Eagles were frequently implementing three-safety sets to keep him fresh down the stretch and in the playoffs. McAlister was coming off a season-ending injury. Pace had played just 11 games in the past three seasons and had become a fixture on the injured reserve list.
Part of me wonders why these players couldn't have still been brought back. They're icons in their respective city.
I think their teams should be able to offer them a two-year deal or so, almost as a player coach, before the player retired and started garnering attention for the Hall of Fame.
Leadership and experience alone should be enough to keep these guys around. Right?
The NFL is business. Strictly business.
Look at the Eagles for example. Dawkins signed with the Denver Broncos, with hardly a counteroffer from the Eagles. At 35 years old, he was coming off his seventh Pro Bowl season, in which he helped the Eagles' secondary rank third in the NFL in fewest passing yards allowed per game, while taking the team to within a game of the Super Bowl. What more does management want from their franchise player?
Start to break it down, however, and you will see the reasons.
Dawkins is 35 years old, in a league where most players have been retired and living like kings for several years already. He's lost a step or two. His tackling has regressed slightly and he's become almost a liability in pass coverage. Why else was Quintin Demps covering All-World receiver Larry Fitzgerald in the NFC Championship Game?
Enter Sean Jones, the free agent acquisition the Eagles picked up from the Cleveland Browns.
Jones probably won't be able to motivate his teammates quite like Dawkins (no one can, other than maybe Ray Lewis for the Ravens), and he most likely won't come out of the tunnel doing a crawl or some sort of crazy dance, and I doubt he'll become arguably the most popular athlete in Philadelphia sports history. However, Jones has finished third among safeties in interceptions over the last three years and his presence provides an instant upgrade to the secondary.
Every one of these teams has their reasons.
For the Colts, Harrison has slowed down to the point where teams wonder if he can still even be a No. 2 receiver in this league. Plus, Indianapolis has former first-round pick Anthony Gonzalez waiting for his opportunity to prove he can fill the void left by Harrison, and he looks pretty good by what we've seen in his first two seasons. The third year is traditionally the breakout season for wide receivers, and Gonzalez seems poised to be a star in this league.
Pace wasn't worth the money he deserved, and his release helped to store up some money under the salary cap for the Rams. So on and so forth with the rest of the players, who were released because of injury, salary cap issues, a decline in performance, or to give a younger player a chance to start.
Even so, it's tough to watch a hometown hero leave for another team. I have yet to see a Dawkins jersey for the Broncos, and I know it will hurt more than I can imagine when I see my first one.
It's rough for us as fans and it's not always a pleasant experience, but there's nothing we can do about it. The NFL will always be a win-first, loyalty-second league.