The Dark Side of NFL Free Agency

Matt Bowen @MattBowen41NFL National Lead WriterMarch 6, 2014

Mark Konezny/Getty Images

Dick Jauron called right in the middle of dinner at my grandma’s house.

Food on the table down in Tampa, my aunt and uncle in town, my wife holding our newborn baby boy Matthew on her knee.

Joe Gibbs called right after I touched down in Las Vegas for a weekend with my brother and cousin. I didn’t even make it to baggage claim before the phone rang.

Dang. They got me.

Two March. That’s trouble when you are an NFL veteran still under contract.

I let both calls go to voicemail.

The majority of veterans know when their time is up. And they “expect” that call to come. Play in this league long enough and you will begin to understand the business side of this game, the cutthroat side that recycles and replaces players every offseason.

Washington Redskins  safety Matt Bowen signals a play  against the Dallas Cowboys during a Monday Night Football game September 19, 2005 in Irving, Texas.  The Skins defeated the Cowboys 14 - 13.  (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)
Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

But it’s still a kick in the gut when you listen to the voicemail and hear the head coach—in a sullen, overcast tone—ask you to give him a call back.

Coaches and players aren’t buddies. They don’t hang out. And they don’t call each other up in the offseason to see what’s going on.

Nope. Not in the NFL.

Instead, the head coach calls for only one reason in March—to fire you.

I deserved to be cut both times. And there is no reason to lie about that. Two seasons spent in and out of the training room to go along with a production level on the field that didn’t represent or mesh with pro standards.

We use the word “accountability” all of the time when discussing players in this league, and I couldn’t answer the bell for the Bills or Redskins in those seasons.

I called Coach Gibbs back after I checked into the MGM in Vegas—and there wasn’t much to say. He was professional and, well, blunt. Exactly what you would expect from a coach who has cut hundreds of players over his time in the NFL. 

I listened, said thank you and told the head coach how much I appreciated playing for a man already in the Hall of Fame.

Tom Gannam/Associated Press

Then I opened a beer and waited for my cousin to get back from the casino floor.

A knock at the door about 10 minutes later revealed my cousin standing there with a 24-ounce Budweiser in his hand and a defeated look on his face.

“I just lost a grand,” he said.

“Well, I just got cut.”

Down in Tampa, I waited till after dinner, walked outside in the crabgrass and sat on the air conditioning unit behind my grandma’s house to call Coach Jauron back.

I loved playing for Coach Jauron. A special man, a special coach. He was unique, really. And I wish I could have played better football for him.

But I didn’t hold up my end of the bargain after signing a two-year deal the previous spring.

Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

I had a good conversation with Coach Jauron that day. More than the carbon-copy message that many vets have already heard this week while they are let go as teams begin to set their draft board and target free agents.

However, I was still beat up over it. 

Two months prior to that call, my son Matthew Jr. was born with Down syndrome. As I have written before, it took me some time to accept that. I was scared, emotional and even a little lost as a new father. 

And getting cut from the Bills that day hurt. It hurt bad.

I broke down and waited outside until my wife came out. It wasn’t easy to tell her (again) that I needed to call my agent and hope for another offer, another chance to keep playing football.

Would I drag my boy around the country—away from his doctors, his family—to possibly cover kicks for another year and compete for a backup roster spot?

I was over 30 with a reconstructed knee and now years removed from the four-year deal I had signed with the Redskins to play for Steve Spurrier in 2003.  

Heck, that's not going to look very attractive on the market. 

Back inside the house, I didn’t have the heart to tell my grandma that I just lost my job. 

I mean, who would?

So I tried to act normal, finish dinner and have a couple of drinks before saying my goodbyes for the evening.

ORCHARD PARK, NY - 2006:  Matt Bowen of the Buffalo Bills poses for his 2006 NFL headshot at photo day in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by Getty Images)
Getty Images/Getty Images

And I pretty much made up my mind to retire before we strapped Matthew in for the ride back to my in-laws' house in Port Charlotte.

Sure, I had “offers” later in the spring, but these aren’t the type of deals that you read about. Nah. These things might appear in the “transaction” section in the back of the paper, buried beneath some high school box scores.

No bonus money. No guarantees. 

Would an eighth year make a difference?

I didn’t see it.

Free agency can be a beautiful thing. It really can. And I love seeing guys get paid.

I hope Jairus Byrd, Eric Decker, Jared Veldheer, T.J. Ward, Michael Johnson, Aqib Talib, Geoff Schwartz and the rest of the 2014 free-agent class cash out next week and drive up the market value for their respective positions.

Hometown discounts? Forget about it. That’s fantasy land.

This game is too violent and physical, and the careers are just too short, to leave cash on the table. These players should get as much money as they can before that call from the head coach comes.

And it will at some point down the road. 

That’s life in the NFL, whether you are expecting to hear from the head coach or you get interrupted during dinner at your grandma’s house.

Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. 


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