Every time I hear about a team’s established franchise veteran leaving, I always picture the final scene from the late 70’s early 80’s Incredible Hulk T.V. show. That sad piano playing and the player in question walking down the mountain highway trying to find someone to hitch a ride with onto their next team, never looking back. I sense this is how a lot of people see this in their head, though probably not literally what they see. The people who read this may be more willing to remember this scene through Family Guy…
What’s the point?! OK…ok, back to work. As many of the twenty-ish viewers per day I get probably know, I live in the Chicago area and am a Bears fan. I have been absolutely inundated with opinions from fans, writers and ex-players alike saying how terrible it is to see Urlacher go. How he was disrespected and the Bears management made the wrong decision and did it in the wrong way. I just wish we would all remember…no I’m not going to say the NFL is a business, even though it is…this happens everywhere, every year and eventually to every player that qualifies as this.
Brian Urlacher, Ed Reed, Albert Pujols, Wes Welker, Dwight Freeney, Peyton Manning, James Harrison, Kurt Warner (Rams), Donald Driver, Brett Favre, blah blah blah blah, so on and so forth. What do ALL of these players have in common? They were all faces of their franchise and were subject to one of three outcomes; not being offered a new contract, being released or being unceremoniously traded.
I won’t put up the ACTUAL twitter posts, to protect identities, but here are a few choice reactions to Urlacher. “The bears are so stupid.. They stopped talks with Urlacher..” (an ellipsis has 3 periods), “Bears stupid they could have traded urlacher last year and got hella compensation but that’s y’all team though #bearshater” (no one wants to sign him, they would not have traded for him), “Urlacher was was offered a 1 year 2 million dollar contract. LMFAO omg the bears are stupid.” (I hate consecutive text speak)
Ok, I’m done with the scary twitter world, but I think that covers most of the arguments. You won’t find many people who appreciate Urlacher for his contributions to the Bears defense more than me. He was the lynchpin in that defense for years earlier in his career and was a valuable contributor for the last few. He is not irreplaceable at this point, he is not worth investing a multi-year deal in and his athleticism is sapped making him no more than a 2-down linebacker. I will be posting about the down free agent market eventually, but players, ESPECIALLY veterans, are not getting paid very well in this year’s free agent market. That is what dictates the price of players and smart teams don’t value players based on nostalgia, they find their value based on the market.
To those that would like to think that you have to pay a player to stay and retire as a part of your franchise because of all they’ve done for the team in the past, let’s not forget he was handsomely rewarded for those years. I’m not at all saying that players should take less money to stay, but teams also don’t have to pay more to keep them in town. If Urlacher can find a better deal on the market, then I applaud him and wish him luck, but the Bears don’t have the cap space to use on a 2-down linebacker that struggles to cover the pass at this point in his career. Bill Barnwell, writer for Grantland, covered this well. In his article he explains how the Bears switched to a Cover 1 based scheme to allow Urlacher to stick in the middle of the field rather than his patented Cover 2 where he would fly down the middle of the field with tight ends to cover the seam. Remember that when considering what his future holds. He was already paid extremely well for his contributions in his prime and now management must pay him for what his future contributions will be worth.
I was listening to a Baseball Prospectus podcast this morning and they had ex-Dodgers General Manager Dan Evans on talking about all kinds of things involving the front office side of baseball. He quoted an old boss of his that he chose to keep nameless, “don’t make a decision before you have to.” At first I thought, well that sounds lazy and goes against everything I have thought about my favorite GMs like Sam Presti of the OKC Thunder and Bill Belichick, who make decisions that trend toward the side of letting go early rather than late. Then I thought about this quote more. Anyone can follow this advice, but if it were that easy there wouldn’t be so much GM turnover in professional sports. The key, that most GMs can’t quite figure out, is when the “have to” is. It isn’t at the last-minute and it isn’t when your gut feeling overwhelms you. It is somewhere in between, in a sweet spot.
Wes Welker was allowed to walk by Bill Belichick, Ozzie Newsome let Ed Reed find work elsewhere and Brian Urlacher was given a number that Phil Emery would not budge on. Tough moves, tough decisions, but very well-informed ones. They didn’t tell their players that they wouldn’t be brought back before free agency just for the courtesy of letting them hit the market early. They didn’t wait till after the draft to let them walk and leave them in limbo. They talked to their coaches, looked at the tape, saw the numbers, got a feel for the market, attempted to forecast the future, looked ahead to the draft and each of those decision makers saw one thing. We have choices. That was the “have to” time.
A team doesn’t owe a player a contract equal to someone in their prime when that player is on the downside of their career. Just like a player doesn’t owe their long-time franchise a discount just because that is the only professional team they’ve ever known. As the crazy pitcher in Rookie of the Year, Chet Steadman, played by the equally as crazy Gary Busey, tells Henry Rowengartner, “You gotta deal from your have to.”