NFL General Managers – The difficulty of cutting veteran players

This past week I was asked on air, “When do you know that an established veteran no longer has it?”  No longer has it?  Hmmm.  That was about as good a question that’s been thrown out at me in years.  From a NFL General Manager’s perspective it’s the “million dollar question”.  Sometimes it can be a multi-million dollar question.

An answer to what can be a tough question

I thought about it for second and recalled being faced with that exact scenario a number of times over the years.  It’s always difficult to tell any player that his time is up with your club.  I’ve mentioned before that every NFL player I ever signed I saw as a valuable addition in some manner to our roster.  I saw them making a contribution as a starter, perhaps in a flexible backup role, or a standout special teams contributor.

Players like Shannon Sharpe, Trevor Pryce, and Bill Romanowski all flashed before my eyes the instant the question was presented.  I thought about the discussions and debates we had as a staff, the emotions that would run rampant through the room.  In the case of these three veteran Broncos, each was a member of the glory years of Back-to-Back Super Bowl Championships that are etched in the memories of Bronco fans around the world.

How could you let our heroes go?  How could you do this to players that helped bring the Lombardi Trophy to Dove Valley?  In the case of Denver, it was usually dealing with the wants and needs of the coaching staff and their own evaluation of how these type players would contribute to winning in the following season.  With a head coach involved in the financial aspect of building the roster, the opinion was peppered with judgments that the player wasn’t performing to the level he was being paid.

Measuring performance

There are a number of different ways to measure on the field performance with current contract commitments, but almost always the player and his agent will argue “status quo” is in line when dealing with compensation.  I’ve always admired the veteran that understands his circumstances and is willing to take a so called “pay cut” to remain with the hometown team.  In the case of Trevor Pryce, Trevor was due $10 million in the coming year and the defensive coaches felt he wouldn’t find the field more than 15 to 20 plays a game.  Trevor had been drafted by Denver in the first round, grown, and developed into a 4 time Pro Bowl defensive lineman for us.

Trevor personally called me and said to stay in Denver he would be willing to cut his salary from $10M down to $4M.  A chance to keep a Pro Bowl Vet for less than 50% of what he was owed and we hadn’t even begun, nor given ourselves a chance to negotiate that number.  In the case of Shannon Sharpe, the staff was pulled into a room and asked to watch all 5 regular season games he played to evaluate his blocking ability.  Sharpe doesn’t wear a Hall of Fame “yellow jacket” because he blew defenders off the ball as a blocker.  Anyone remember the catch against Pittsburgh in the final moment of the 1997 AFC Championship?

But still it took me a moment to collect my thoughts and I turned to what had become my “rule of thumb” in facing such situations over the years.  Let the player go a year before you really think you should.  The reaction from the interviewer was a bit surprised.  He said how difficult it was to see Steve Atwater in a Jets jersey after all those great years in Orange and Blue.  I couldn’t disagree whatsoever.

Win-Win proposition 

But in the end everyone seems to win.  Pryce went on and started 16 games, recording 13 sacks for Baltimore.  Sharpe rebounded to catch 67 balls for 810 yards, 5 TD’s.  He made the Pro Bowl 2 seasons later at 33 years of age and helped the Ravens to their only Super Bowl victory in 2000.  By the way, he caught 3 passes for 73 yards and TD to beat Denver in the Wildcard.  Romo started 16 games, recorded 4 sacks, 1 interception, and finished with 67 tackles for the Raiders – at age 36.

In the end, Denver moved forward with younger alternatives and made a run in the playoffs between 2003-2005.  It was tough to see all 3 in another jersey, like Atwater in the “green & white” of New York.  It’s a combination of production on the field, financial commitment, and developing for the future.  But whatever the reason it doesn’t make it any easier, nor necessarily the right thing to do.

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