What lesser mortals call the angel of death, pro football players dub “the turk.” The turk is a locker-room messenger who leaves word that the coach would like to see you in his office. The message means you’re about to be cut from the team.
Sooner or later, the turk comes for almost everybody in the NFL. Like Don Corleone used to say, it’s not personal, just business. And so it was last week, mostly for business, that the turk visited nine Tennessee Titans. Not just any nine: These were solid, veteran players, and all but one had helped the team reach the Super Bowl barely a year ago.
Some cutssuch as kicker Al Del Greco and wide receiver Yancey Thigpenmight have happened even had the Titans not found themselves more than $10 million over the NFL’s salary cap. During the season, Del Greco had morphed from Automatic to All-Too-Erratic Al. And since his arrival from Pittsburgh, Thigpen had become an expensive luxury sports car: He ran beautifully on those infrequent occasions when he wasn’t in the shop.
Most of those released on Black Thursday, however, were part of an increasingly common phenomenon: cap casualties whom the Titans would have liked to keep, but under the rules could no longer afford. Most notably, there was Carl Pickens, signed just last summer to give the receiving corps a deep threat. There was safety Marcus Robertson, who had spent his whole career with the team. There was Rodney Thomas, one of the best reserve running backs in the NFL. And perhaps most surprisingly, there was fullback Lorenzo Neal, enlisted as a free agent specifically to punish defenses and open running lanes for Eddie George.
This was not simply a fat-trimming exercise. Many Titans fans wondered how their team would be able to load up for another Super Bowl run with so many of its carefully assembled pieces now discarded.
Though being released is never easy, the playersjust like the Godfather’s whack-eesunderstand the system. It’s harder for Titans fans, who thus far have related to their team mostly as a pleasure and not as a business.
Nashvillians’ experience with the Titans has been front-loaded. In only the team’s second season here, fans savored a new stadium and a trip to the Super Bowlrewards that their counterparts in other cities wait years to enjoy.
This year, the bills that inevitably follow a pro team are coming due. First was the deflating playoff loss to Baltimore, made even more bitter by the knowledge that the Titans had been anointed as favorites to win it all. Now the salary cap has created a mini-Diaspora. Both disappointments are part of the NFL Experience, and the first of other heartbreaks that are sure to follow in the future.
Some may even be in the near future. Though the Titans scraped up the money to re-sign Derrick Mason, perhaps their most valuable player last season, they stand to lose two defensive starters, Kenny Holmes and Denard Walker, who are unrestricted free agents. (As of late last week, the team hadn’t even tried to negotiate with Walker, and Holmes’ house was for sale.)
Unless the team finds a good used kicker or risks a high draft pick on a new one, fans who’ve been spoiled by the Titans’ ability to trot out Del Greco to boot a game-winning field goal may suffer, like so many other NFL teams, through a succession of hooking and slicing short-termers. They may also appreciate how fortunate they were to have a team with cap room that could simply whip out the checkbook every time it needed to upgrade a position.
New York Yankees and Atlanta Braves fans, to put all this in perspective, haven’t yet had to learn that hard lesson, since baseball has no salary cap. (Their time is coming.) Of course, the salary cap is a key reason why the NFL is healthy and Major League Baseball is not.
Without a cap, even the obscenely luxurious salary bestowed on Alex Rodriguez by the Texas Rangershis contract is worth more than the owner paid for the franchisewill someday seem like a bargain. And now, for the first time, baseball’s guardians talk seriously of eliminating some franchisesnot because expansion has spread the talent too thin, but because skyrocketing salaries have left small-market teams unable to compete.
Meanwhile, even if the salary cap is the best among a basket of bad options, there are consolations for the Titans. Under the NFL’s system, cap managementand, therefore, shrewd front-office managementmay be even more important than the draft for veteran teams like Tennessee and Jacksonville. The consequences of poor cap management are painfully obvious to fans in San Francisco and Dallas; and if you think the Redskins were discombobulated last season, just wait till the cap-related effects of owner Dan Snyder’s spending spree hit home in a couple of years.
In Floyd Reese and Jeff Fisher, the Titans are blessed with two of the league’s savviest operators. They’ve done an outstanding job (unlike the Cowboys and Redskins) of integrating a veteran lineup with a steady flow of young players they’ve developed themselves.
Even with the loss of Robertson, Neal, Pickens, and Thigpen, the Titans will be just fine. And for fans who are coming to expect a Super Bowl every other year, that’s going to have to be good enough.
How it looks from the La-Z-Boy
For fix-seeking basketball junkies, the holiday season is upon us once again, and not a moment too soon. We’re already savoring in advance the exhilaration that’s sure to come with the NCAA Tournament next Thursday and Friday, when all meaningful work around the office will cease, Butler and Gonzaga will again temporarily become household names, and we’ll achieve such a euphoric state that not even Bill Clinton or George W. or any of the rest of their backcourt of blowhards could shake us out of it.
To help you get in the proper spirit, our committee of way-insiders from the Scene Sports Desk at McCabe Pub are proud again this year to be the first in Nashville to handicap the field of 64 (as it would be, barring any of the usual conference tourney upsets, were the action to begin this weekend).
Top Seeds: Duke, Stanford, Michigan State, Illinois
No. 2s: Florida, Iowa State, UCLA, North Carolina
3s: Arizona, Ole Miss, Kansas, Boston College
4s: Kentucky, Virginia, Oklahoma, Maryland
5s: Ohio State, Notre Dame, Wisconsin, Texas
6s & 7s: Indiana, Wake Forest, Syracuse, Fresno State, Georgetown, Cincinnati, Arkansas, Tennessee
8s, 9s & a 10: Providence, Creighton, Georgia State, Xavier, Southern Cal, St. Joseph’s, California, Butler
Just Made Its: Georgia (#9 seed), Georgia Tech (10), Penn State
(10), Oklahoma State (10), Missouri (12), Alabama (11), Villanova (11)
Other 11s and 12s: UC Irvine, Richmond, Hofstra, Utah, UNC-Greensboro
Long Shots (13s and 14s): Princeton, Gonzaga, Indiana State, Western Kentucky, Valparaiso, Holy Cross, Central Michigan, Cal State Northridge
Bracket Fodder (15s & 16s): Iona, George Mason, McNeese State, Eastern Illinois, Alabama State, Winthrop, Monmouth, Hampton
Just Missed: Connecticut, St. John’s, BYU