Does Loyalty Really Exist in the NFL?

Vincent Frank@VincentFrankNFLCorrespondent IApril 1, 2013

Whether it was the Chicago Bears not retaining future Hall of Fame linebacker Brian Urlacher for the 2013 season or the San Francisco 49ers "benching" Alex Smith, even after he was healed from his concussion, for Colin Kaepernick, the age-old debate of whether loyalty really exists in the NFL has been clouded a bit in the last year.

First, it's important to take a look at football through the lens of a business in an open-market system. If a CEO isn't getting the job done, he will usually place blame below himself on the company ladder before being forced out by the board of executives; in the case of the National Football League, the media and fans represent said board.

Once pressure is placed on the ownership group, it then put a larger amount of pressure on the front office and coaching staff. If the team doesn't succeed on the field, the ultimate endgame is a change of personnel on the roster and coaching staff.

Using this logic, the short-form answer is that loyalty does not exist in the NFL. Moreover, it shouldn't.

Let's use San Francisco and its quarterback situation from this past season as an example. Did Alex Smith show loyalty to the team by sticking with it through the tough times? If so, didn't the 49ers owe Smith the same loyalty, especially after he led the team to the NFC Championship Game the year before?

These are complex questions, and it will take some time to draw a concrete conclusion that will be based on conjecture and opinion more than anything else.

Smith played above-average football for a total of about 30 games during his 49ers career. He struggled through injuries and inconsistency while playing for some bad football teams throughout his first five seasons in the NFL.

Multiple times during this span, it appeared that San Francisco would look in another direction. With that in mind, San Francisco had invested the No. 1 overall pick and many millions of dollars on what it perceived to be a "franchise quarterback."

San Francisco's willingness to give Smith chance after chance to earn his keep cannot be seen as loyalty as much as necessity.

Unless it becomes readily apparent that a top-five pick at quarterback has absolutely nothing to contribute to his team (see: JaMarcus Russell), the organization must make every attempt to make it work.

If not, the product on the field is usually set back several years, especially considering that Smith's rookie contract came before the new collective bargaining agreement and rookie wage scale. Nowadays, it is much easier, at least from a financial aspect, to give up on a first-round quarterback.

Once Smith went down with a concussion against the St. Louis Rams in October, Colin Kaepernick showed everyone why general manager Trent Baalke and head coach Jim Harbaugh were so high on him coming out of Nevada.

His performances against the Chicago Bears and New Orleans Saints seemed to set into place a new 49ers offense that possessed one of the best quick-strike abilities in the NFL. It was far more explosive than the Smith-led offense, which was pretty much of the dink-and-dunk variety.

Once the 49ers offense was able to electrify the masses, it became apparent that the team as a whole stood a better chance to get to the Super Bowl with Kaepernick instead of Smith.

While the decision to bench Smith in lieu of a "green" quarterback might have seemed callous at the time, it was more of a brilliant calculation than anything else. Harbaugh knew that Kaepernick gave the 49ers a better chance at success, so the decision wasn't as difficult as the media made it out to be.

Kaepernick went on to have one of the best postseason performances in franchise history against the Green Bay Packers in the divisional round before leading San Francisco past the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship Game. Despite losing to the Baltimore Ravens in the Super Bowl, Kaepernick cemented his status as one of the top young quarterbacks in the NFL.

One month later, Smith was traded.

San Francisco's situation at quarterback this past season was the first example I decided to use, but let's be real for a second: Smith was nowhere near the face of his franchise like some of the veterans we have seen switch clubs since the new league year began in mid-March. 

When Ed Reed hit the open market a few weeks back, many had come to the conclusion that he'd return to Baltimore for a 12th season. While the Ravens didn't necessarily have the cap room to retain the future Hall of Fame safety, we just figured that they would find a way to get something done. 

Once it became apparent that teams were interested in Reed and his diminished skill set, Baltimore's chances of retaining him were greatly diminished. 

Again, this might have less to do with a lack of loyalty and more to do with salary-cap restraints and roster makeup.

Once the market played out like it did, the Ravens were really smart to avoid getting into a bidding war. As it is, Reed signed a ridiculous three-year, $15 million contract with the Houston Texans (via Spotrac). 

A week later, Baltimore replaced Reed with a much younger Michael Huff on a three-year, $6 million deal (via Spotrac). 

All other variables aside, Baltimore got four years younger and improved in pass defense for $3 million less per season. While it will most definitely miss Reed's leadership and quarterbacking mentality from the defensive secondary, this was a move it assuredly had to make

Was it a lack of loyalty on Baltimore's part? Did Reed show a lack of loyalty himself? The answer to both questions could be a resounding "yes," but that really isn't the point

Baltimore needed to make a decision that best fit what it wanted to build moving forward. Meanwhile, Reed had to make a decision that best impacted his financial stability in the twilight of his career.

There is absolutely no reason to blame either side. Instead, look at it through this lens: If you believe that a specific era in your career, no matter what you do, has come to an end, the best thing to do is cut your losses and move on in the most professional manner. Lack of perceived loyalty aside, Reed and the Ravens get solid A's in this regard.

The story of Brian Urlacher is a bit different here. The future Hall of Fame linebacker was in negotiations to return to the Chicago Bears before they broke down immediately after the start of the new league year

Apparently Chicago gave Urlacher, an eight-time Pro Bowl selection, a take-it-or-leave-it one-year, $2 million contract with just $1 million guaranteed (via Yahoo! Sports). This had to be seen as an insult by someone that was the face of the franchise and helped lead it to a Super Bowl a few years ago.

Immediately after that report, Chicago announced that it would not bring Urlacher back for a 14th season. As hard as it might be for fans around the world of football to think of the linebacker playing in a new uniform next season, it is all but a foregone conclusion that's what will happen in 2013.

The Urlacher of three years ago might have been worth more money. But considering injuries and a drop in play this past season, Chicago shouldn't have offered the two-year, $11.5 million deal Urlacher reportedly asked for (via Yahoo! Sports). 

I don't like the way Chicago's organization went about announcing that its star linebacker would not return, though:

That single tweet could indicate there was a major rift between the Bears and Urlacher. Could it be that their relationship did not end on the highest of notes? Why else would Chicago go out there and announce something that many considered inevitable at the time? It seems more like PR spin than anything else.

Here is where a lack of loyalty hurts both the team and the player. Urlacher's market will not be there in free agency. He is nowhere near the player that we have seen in previous seasons. In fact, he finished 12th in the NFL in missed tackles among linebackers despite missing four games with injury (via Pro Football Focus, subscription required).

As it relates to the Bears, they lost Nick Roach to the Oakland Raiders in free agency and are now thin on talent and depth at inside linebacker. If they had been able to come to some sort of common ground with Urlacher, it probably would have been mutually beneficial. Instead, Chicago is without its emotional leader, and Urlacher will have to find money and interest in a seemingly thin market for his services.

Not only did loyalty fail to take hold here, but the lack of it hurt both sides.

The New England Patriots are a prime example of the lack of loyalty. They refuse to overpay their free agents and continue to play hardball with any player not named Tom Brady. When they think a trade could help their franchise, they execute it, as when they sent Richard Seymour packing to the Oakland Raiders.

When the Patriots felt the Seattle Seahawks overvalued Deion Branch, they received a first-round pick in return for him. Seattle ended up paying Branch nearly $20 million in cold hard cash for three-plus years of pedestrian play (via Seattle Times).

This lack of "loyalty" has obviously paid off for a Patriots franchise that has five Super Bowl appearances since 2001.

Loyalty be damned; for franchises, it is all about winning. For the players, it seems to be more about their livelihood and money. When these two mentalities clash in the negotiating room, loyalty is thrown out the window.

Tony Romo, who just inked a six-year, $108 million extension (via Spotrac) that should keep him in a Cowboys uniform until he retires, has to take some of the blame for their lack of success. After all, Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers has won more playoff games in just 10 career starts than Romo has won in nearly 100 starts with Dallas.

However, Dallas just doesn’t have the talent and/or coaching around Romo to be successful. It’s the old saying that when a quarterback tries to do too much, he will fall flat on his face, and the chances of success on the football field will be adversely impacted.

No one else in Dallas steps up, so the embattled quarterback takes it upon himself to do so. This has led to multiple mistakes late in games in an attempt to force the issue.

According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Dallas ranked 25th in the NFL in pass protection. The more telling statistic here is that it ranked 31st in penalties along the offensive line. This indicates that the Cowboys offensive line put Romo and company behind the proverbial eight ball more often than not. Clearly, having to convert from 15 or 20 yards on second down is much more difficult than having to convert from 10 yards away.

Dallas' issues are a lot more complex than just Romo. As we have seen with the Arizona Cardinals over the last couple seasons, it is hard for a quarterback to have consistent success when he plays behind a lackluster offensive line. Give Romo the time to eat apart a defensive secondary, and he should be able to come through late in games, unlike what we have seen in the past. 

This is what Jerry Jones and company will count on.

Dallas could have easily made the decision to blow this whole thing up. After all, it is a combined four games under .500 over the last three seasons. Instead, Jones made the decision to sign Romo to a long-term contract in hopes that he will lead this once storied franchise back to the top. While we may disagree with his assessment, it showed a great deal of trust and loyalty on the part of the longtime owner.

Like any business model, franchises that show undue loyalty to their players are the ones that tend to struggle maintaining a consistent level of success. They need to be able to move on and turn the page. Sometimes the results are what we have seen this offseason with the San Francisco 49ers, Baltimore Ravens and Chicago Bears. 

Heck, the Patriots' lack of "loyalty" to Wes Welker is one of the primary reasons that he will catch passes from Peyton Manning in Denver this upcoming season. While it remains to be seen whether Danny Amendola will be a decent replacement, we shouldn't doubt the Patriots front office at this point. 

If you want your franchise to be loyal, that's fine. Just don't expect success on a consistent basis over an extended period of time. 

Does loyalty really exist in the NFL? Baltimore, San Francisco, Chicago and New England proved over the last three weeks or so that the answer to that question, besides some rare exceptions, is "No."

Vincent Frank is an NFL featured columnist here at Bleacher Report. He was hired prior to the 2011 season and couldn't be happier working with a great group of individuals here. In addition, Vincent is the head sports editor over at eDraft and co-host of eDraft Sports Radio, which airs every Monday and Wednesday from 3 to 6 p.m. ET.

Go ahead and give him a follow on Twitter @VincentFrankNFL.


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