The Cut Man: Life as the Bearer of Bad News in the NFL

Ted Sundquist@@Ted_SundquistSpecial to Bleacher ReportAugust 27, 2015

B/R via USA Today

My direct line rang not long after the list had been released to the press. The voice on the phone was irate, screaming, cursing, accusing and threatening. It was not going to be an ordinary day at the office. Cut-down day never is in the NFL

Communication in the NFL isn't always as tight as most might think. In this case, a player had been told by his position coach that he'd made the team. But a last-minute adjustment to the numbers at one position had forced adjustments and left an odd man out. Imagine the dismay of both the player and the position coach after The List hit the street.

Expressing that dismay was an agent who had done business with the club for years. Fielding it was me, during my 2002-2008 stint as the Denver Broncos' general manager.

"The tribe has spoken."

"You're the weakest link. Goodbye!"

"You're fired!"

A public dismissal in any industry can be brutal. Professional football is more public than most, probably running neck and neck with politics in the grand showcase of ignominy. We treat the two similarly. Football, at times, trumps our focus on politics, and politics often is scored like a game on the gridiron. In the end, we all should realize more people than just a superstar center or your congressional rep are affected: Family, friends, coworkers and competitors all feel the sting of the Turk.

The Turk is the NFL's equivalent of the Grim Reaper, the skeletal figure of mythology who comes draped in a black cloak and carrying a scythe to collect those summoned…to death. Only in football, death's personification comes in the form of a twentysomething dressed in workout shorts and a team t-shirt. "Ted wants to see you, and don't forget to bring your playbook."

Much has been chronicled from the NFL player's viewpoint regarding the process and pain of being cut. Pick up almost any biography spun out of an NFL career and you'll find at least a few pages, if not an entire chapter, dedicated to "the beginning of the end."

Legendary sportswriter Frank Deford once put it this way, speaking on NPR:

Every football player understands—even before he reaches the coach's office, he knows—that his dedicated young life, all that he has loved so much, is over. Football is done, and there is no place to go to. You are…cut.

Every player I ever signed to an 80-man roster was signed with a vision of filling a hole at starting left tackle, backing up at wide receiver, making a contribution on special teams. If you can't find this picture in your mind's eye as a GM, then what's the point? There was no roster-filler. My responsibility was to ensure that the club was identifying, evaluating and procuring the very best available talent to make the final 53. That included spending a lot of time, money and effort finding these players and convincing them Denver was the right place to continue their careers. 

Once you sold the player and his agent on the opportunity, with as many promises and blind projections as you could practically keep, then you had to haggle through the contract particulars to prove how much you really wanted him. Cutting should be the easy part after everything that goes into a signing to the roster—cards shuffled, hoops jumped through, offseason, OTAs and mini-camps—right?

Wrong. Though it's simple math that getting from 80 players down to 53 means saying goodbye to 27, I couldn't help but think our system had gone awry. Where was the weakness that we missed on tape? What did we not do to help develop the talent? Why had he seemingly lost the confidence so boldly displayed in his play over the course of the previous season?

Breaking the News

Do Fortune 500 companies send a clerk to operations, hunting down a senior manager about to be served up to the chopping block?

In Denver, the unenviable task of executing The List was often given to the low man in the personnel department's hierarchy. I carried that load for two seasons during the Wade Phillips era (1993 and '94) and was happy to get the hell out from under it after being promoted to Director of College Scouting in '95. 

During my watch as GM, the list was usually passed on to (you guessed it) an unlucky intern tasked with tapping the player out of the downstairs locker room for an upstairs visit or attempting to get the player to answer his cell on that particular day, delivering news that could mean nothing good. Everything afterward was formality: a replay of the message from the head coach, turning in your playbook, picking up a garbage bag at Equipment, stopping by to see the trainers and turning in your to-do checklist to my assistant.

Unlike the X marks scratched across that pink slip, the only thing etched across the player's face was disappointment. How could he not be disappointed? For many summoned, the journey had been filled with nothing but excitement, hope and optimism a mere three or four months earlier. That same disappointment was too often reflected in my own expression breaking the news that, "We're letting you go."

Assorted combinations of these five factors ultimately add up to whether a player makes the cut or not:

• Could he willingly follow team rules? 

• Was he assimilating into the culture of the club? 

• Did he sustain his durability and focus for longer than a week or two? 

• Had he shown he could contribute in other areas to help our team win? 

• Was he enough of an overall difference-maker on the field?

Often, a player could tell you his own missing link before asking the question, but some with short memories had to be reminded of why they were being terminated.

Despite the disappointment on both sides, the conference table in my office was round, and I knew there was a possibility of things coming full circle. How we went about releasing a player sent a message to those both on and off the team—and perhaps might set that same table for further acquisitions down the road. Players talk, and word gets out about the process you take. Players often expressed their appreciation of the dichotomy of how well we treated them as we showed them the door.

Not All Players Are Treated the Same

Trial and error led me to the understanding that an effective GM has a box full of tools to use on the task of cutting any player. Key is knowing which to use and under what circumstances to use it. You wouldn't use a hacksaw to cut down a sequoia, just as you wouldn't use a chainsaw to cut through a lead pipe. Rookies, young veterans and older veterans all require different tools.

Breaking the news to rookies was always the most difficult, as many had never failed (at least at football) a day in their lives. They'd been the leading rushers, the team captains, the All-Conference players for as long as they could remember. An entirely new emotion had to be faced, one of failure on many levels. Reactions ranged from shock to numbness to tears, and I tried to be as insightful to their pain as possible.

I recall a rookie who asked me why we bothered to sign him in the first place if we were just going to cut him. Taken late in the draft, there really wasn't a need at the position, but not wanting to get into a bidding war with any potential suitors, the staff decided it would be best just to spend the pick and be done with it. The rookie had a point, arguing he could have signed as a free agent elsewhere on a team that had a need, where he could have legitimately competed. But the draft isn't so accommodating to the wants or needs of the player—only to those of the club. And the club no longer wanted or needed him. 

Coach Mike Shanahan and Ted Sundquist confer during the 2006 draft.
Coach Mike Shanahan and Ted Sundquist confer during the 2006 draft.ED ANDRIESKI/Associated Press/Associated Press

Second- and third-year players have been coarsened. Called up for the pink slip in the past, the process has hardened them to the reality of what professional football is. These players, by and large, were the angry ones, not knowing what to do next and cynical to the overall outcome. You could tell that many were beginning to ask themselves if it was all really worth it. Tension was high, fists clenched, muffled expletives as the checklist was wadded up and thrown across the room. "I outplayed my competition! I was injured most of camp! I never got enough reps!"

The Turk was sent a second time to call the player back to the complex to finish out the inevitable.

One year, there was a player who told our intern that he didn't answer his phone because he was busy packing his bags and making sure he had someone on the other end to pick him up at the airport. He wasn't cut yet, but in his mind, he already was. A bit like Pavlov's dog, salivating at the sound of a ringing bell—however, there was no treat on this end to be had. This is the type of conditioning you'll see from this shunned group of players.

Veteran journeymen see it as part of the profession, almost an "on to the next one" mentality. They've come to the understanding of where they fit in the game and are confident that the game once again will find them employment down the road. It always has. Seasoned players are a commodity once the football gods begin to pick apart a roster with injuries. These guys knew they'd be called back in couple weeks out of pure necessity and really took the news of being released in stride.

I once had a player who, upon hearing he was cut, asked if he could be flown to another NFL city that had already told his agent they'd sign him if he were released. He was on the opening day 53-man roster with his new club only a week removed from me cutting him.

Superstars are tougher. Most are a lot like rookies; failure is a new feeling. They're often backed by the fans and the media, so you walk a tightrope of not disrespecting past accomplishment and contributions, but also taking account of what's best for the club moving forward. These cuts were handled more strategically than the tactical slash and burn of the other three groups. The owner might get involved, and options of retirement or what would be known to be "unacceptable contract restructurings" were presented as alternatives. This gave the player a way out, with very little leverage to find a resolution that would keep him on the roster.

Sensitivity to reputation would often circumnavigate the normal process. Instead of calling an agent to pass along the news, you'd call to present the various options agreed upon by the highest levels of management: the executive vice president, head coach, owner, etc. Clearly it was important, if not imperative, to them to send a message of respect, not only to the player, but to his teammates as well as those on the outside closely scrutinizing how the situation was handled. There would be carefully crafted statements by PR, a timely press conference with family and friends, and ultimately the coordinated efforts of a united message from the player, the club, the agent and the press. There was a distinct advantage when the club held an upper hand over the media. A painted perception became the reality, both in Denver and across the NFL.

What Goes Around Comes Around

The last cut I ever dealt with might have been the most difficult of them all. It involved a seasoned veteran who had worked his way up through the ranks, having shown early potential that led him to a marquee position on the team. After three clubs tried their best to sign him away, a long-term deal was negotiated directly with the owner that might very well have allowed him to end his career as a Bronco. 

Despite his age, there were no signs of slowing down. His statistics looked good, the club had made three playoff appearances and a trip to the AFC Championship and his cost was relatively cheap compared to others at his position. It was evident this particular season that the head coach had brought in someone to push him, and communication began to break down as the season progressed. The same production was there, but the team just didn't respond to the various moves he made on and off the field.

Late one afternoon, an intern was sent down with the pink slip to summon him upstairs. It had been a long hard day of film study and preparations, not much different from the thousands of days crammed into the 16 seasons prior.

But this time the table wasn't round, and it wasn't the general manager sitting on the other side. It was the Executive Vice President of Football Operations, and it wasn't a rookie or veteran journeyman on the hot seat.

This time it was my turn. 

"We're letting you go."

A complete feeling of numbness besieged me at the shock of being cut. I had never really failed on a personal level in my some 20-plus years of college and professional football. There was the blown ACL my sophomore year at the Air Force Academy and finishing up just short of a promotion in a couple of outside interviews, but Denver was always there to fall back to. Something told me I wasn't going to get invited back to the personnel department's practice squad.

Anger replaced the disbelief that the team I'd devoted much of my adult life to would summarily dismiss me for reasons I felt were unjustified, if not outright bogus. Football instincts pushed me to jump across the table and lay out my opponent in similar fashion, just as I'd attacked provocations on the field in the past. But this wasn't the same scenario as when I had donned a helmet and shoulder pads in my younger years.

No, this was business. I had been sought after by Chicago, Atlanta and Seattle only a short time prior. Two pursued me as a general manager candidate, one as president of the organization. Like most successful veterans of the NFL, I'd land on my feet. Top teams were always looking for experienced and seasoned evaluators to add to their own efforts. The anger subsided.

I was offered the remaining year on my contract as severance and asked to approve a customary parting statement by the club, quickly explaining to those who were interested why I was leaving the organization. The press release was patronizing, if not outright propaganda. I refused to personally approve it, but agreed to comply and say nothing in exchange for a last year of compensation. Over and done, just like that I was no longer a Denver Bronco.

The raw emotion of a rookie, the anger of a street free agent, the confidence of a veteran journeyman, the guarded tact of a superstar…I now clearly understood.

The Turk cometh for us all.