You'd think Eddie George had pancreatic cancer. For several weeks now, people have spoken of EG in the past tense. Eddie himself is among them. As of this writing, George is still a full-paid wearer of the columbia blue and blue. But the commonly accepted view is that his career with the Titans' organization soon will officially, and rather ignominiously, end. He may be gone by the time you read this.
All spring, the question looming largest over the bubbledome in MetroCenter is whether the Titans and Eddie would do what both said they wanted: keep George in Nashville. Yet for two sides that ostensibly share a common goal, they have had a remarkable amount of dialogue through the mediaand remarkably little, evidently, through the usual channels.
George's agent said he had left unreturned phone messages to Titans' general manager Floyd Reese. Reese responded that the calls had been placed, as George's agent well knew, while the Titans were consumed with preparations for the draft. George complained that the team gave him little more than a take-it-or-leave-it offer and had not entered into serious negotiations. Owner Bud Adams jumped in with the sober assessment that Eddie probably wouldn't be a Titan this fall. George lamented the air of finality in Adams' statement and said he would come to Nashville to talk to management and clean out his locker.
Don't soil yourself if all of this melodrama turns out to be another example of hardball negotiating via the media, with posturing toward public opinion as leverage. It won't be the first time, though this case might be notable for its brinksmanship.
Still, there are good reasons to take the publicly exchanged verbiage at face value. Both sides have valid arguments, and both are sticking adamantly to them.
Eddie's contract calls for him to receive $4 million and lots of change this year. (By a formula that no non-accountant not in desperate need of a life could explain, George will count for about half again that amount against the Titans' cap number.) The Titans, to create financial space to sign their newly drafted rookies, want George to accept a pay cut in the neighborhood of 50 percent.
Imagine asking Metro firefighters or teachers to take a 50 percent cut, and you can appreciate Eddie's recalcitrance. Amid the rarified lifestyle of an NFL superstar, dropping down below $2.5 million creates pain (albeit of a variety most of us would be delighted to experience). Besides, Eddie and his agent remember the example of Randall Godfrey, the All-Pro linebacker who obligingly accepted a cut for the good of the team, only to find himself unceremoniously cut from the team soon afterward.
At issue is not George's ability or durability but a question of about 20,000 Benjamins. In today's NFL, the Benjamins are almost always the issue, just not for the usual old reasons of ego and dreams of avarice. In today's NFL, you have to coach and manage the Benjamins as surely as if they were tight ends or defensive backs.
If the Titans cut Eddie loose, it may represent the starkest example yet of the importance of Benjamin-coachingotherwise known as salary-cap managementin the NFL to date. Perhaps the only other recent case that comes close is the decision of the St. Louis Rams to dump Super Bowl hero Kurt Warner like some old shares of WorldCom stock. But Warner's performance and injuries had reduced him to a backup role. Eddie is still a potent weapon for Tennessee.
He has rushed for more than 10,000 yards in his career without ever missing a single start. Only one other runner in league history, Jim Brown, can make that claim. Even the indomitable Steve McNair occasionally sits one out.
After two straight seasons of 2.1 yards and a cloud of dust, the old Eddie returned with a flourish in 2003. He exploded through holes again, meted out more punishment than he received again, and showed he was still capable of ripping off seven or eight yards on first down.
Back in the day, cutting a productive team leader like Eddie Georgea guy who has loyally played his entire career with one teamwould have been virtually unthinkable. The hue and cry from fans would have been loud. It would have been bad form not to let a longtime hero finish out his career in his old uniform, even if his role was diminished and his team had to pay more than his fair market value.
That there seems to be more sadness than outrage among Titan fans at the moment should tell you something about how well the marketplace has come to understand that the old considerations no longer apply. Paying a premium to keep a player on the downside of his career is a luxury that cap-strapped teams can no longer afford.
In this businessand maintain no illusion about what the NFL really issuccessful general managers must make bottom-line decisions with the cold, callous calculation of the Soprano gang whacking the fiancée of one of their own. Players and agents play the game with equal aplomb.
Unfortunately for those who now can't imagine life without Eddie, history is on the side of Reese and Adams. They watched what happened to the '49ers and Cowboys, who kept their core of high-priced stars too long, and began cutting and rebuilding too late, to extend their dynasties.
They also know that, in an era when dexterous cap management is as much a necessity as skillful drafting, teams can be perennial contenders only by turning over a substantial portion of their roster every couple of years, replacing older, costlier players with fresher, cheaper guys. The Titans' best-in-the-league record over the past five yearsachieved even as management quietly, steadily replaced all but five or six starters from the Super Bowl squadtestifies to Reese's almost unfailingly shrewd judgment.
In this spring's draft, the Titans' calculations succeeded wildly. They correctly reasoned that they could deal their top draft pick and obtain a player of equal caliber, less expensively in the second round. They could no longer afford Jevon Kearse, but they obtained several promising replacements in a way that enabled them to keep most of the team together.
Now, they've calculated that George is worth somewhere south of $2.5 million to them. Pay much more, and he becomes the unaffordable luxury, the Picasso in the mansion with a leaky roof.
With this calculation, of course, comes calculated risk. If they let George depart, the Titans' front office gambles that injury-prone Chris Brown can stay healthy for 300 carries this year.
George is gambling, too. Even among teams that need a marquee back (Dallas? Houston? Minnesota? Phoenix?), not many have the cash available to meet Eddie's asking price. In the end, he might have to accept less money to play for a team with slim prospects of giving him another chance at a Super Bowl ring.
If Eddie goes, fans will always replay a few scenes in their minds' eye. The long TD run up the middle against Indianapolis. The punishing playoff revenge against Baltimore and Ray Lewis last year.
Along with those, the scene I'll think of is from The Godfatherthe one when Abe Vigoda's enormous, sad-dog eyes show he realizes that the Corleones have discovered his machinations. As Al Pacino earlier notes, making an alliance elsewhere was the smart move. But it was nothing personal, Vigoda wants his old friends to know. It was just business.