Eight weeks ago, the Vikings were undefeated and ranked No. 1 in DVOA. Now they're 6-6 and probably done. What went wrong?
15 Mar 2004
by Russell Levine
Being a fan is all about sentiment. Memories of special teams, special plays and special players are some of most cherished possessions of the truly obsessed fan. Drop into any sports bar and you can easily engage someone in a lengthy debate over the relative merits of this year's team vs. past editions.
How ironic, then, that thinking with the heart instead of the mind -- in other words, sentiment -- is the one luxury that even the most successful NFL teams can't afford. In fact, it's sometimes the teams that do the best job of avoiding sentiment altogether that are the most successful.
One needs to look no further than the 2003 Patriots for a prime example. When the team cut starting safety Lawyer Milloy just days before its season opener, then went out and got trounced by the Bills (who incidentally had a new starter named "Milloy" in their secondary), many said the move had been a giant mistake.
But the Patriots had their reasons for cutting Milloy -- he had refused a pay cut and no longer fit into their plans at the salary he was making. And a funny thing happened on their way to their second Super Bowl title in three seasons -- the team started winning and never stopped, and the fans stopped complaining about the forgotten safety named Milloy.
There are many reasons why the NFL is the best-run and most successful professional sports league in the U.S., and right near the top is the salary cap that puts all 32 teams on somewhat equal footing.
The benefits of the cap are many -- the efforts of the Redskins aside, it prevents teams from buying championships and it requires that even the worst teams spend a minimum on talent. Coupled with the NFL's even distribution plan for its enormous television revenues, the cap has made it a common occurrence for down-on-their-luck teams to make a sudden run at a title.
It's the existence of the cap that ensures that all teams can afford to bid on free-agent talent from other clubs, and it's also the cap that puts sentiment beyond the financial wherewithal of the best-run clubs.
There are different ways to arrive in "salary cap hell." A team can get there by overpaying for free agents in an effort to win this instant (there are those pesky Redskins again), leading to a cap mess a few years down the road. If the effort results in a championship, as it did for the cap-heavy Baltimore Ravens in 2000, then the effort was most assuredly worth the cost. If the team falls woefully short, as the (who else) Redskins did in the first year under new owner Daniel Snyder, than it can be said the team was mismanaged.
The beauty of the salary cap, however, is that it's an equal-opportunity device. Even the best run, best managed teams will run up against it eventually if they attempt to keep the nucleus of their rosters together. And when that scenario occurs, the only way out is a painful one -- letting go of the players that made up that nucleus.
Such was the situation faced by the Buccaneers this week, when they informed 11-year veteran safety John Lynch that he no longer fit into the team's plans. It was a development that was front-page and nightly news-lead worthy in Tampa, where Lynch is both a symbol of the Bucs' 1990s renaissance from one of the worst franchises in the history of professional sports to Super Bowl champs and a pillar of the community.
The reaction among Bucs fans to this news has been predictably an angry one. Jon Gruden, seen just 14 months ago as a conquering hero who took the team to a place it could never hope to reach under his placid predecessor, Tony Dungy, is now accused of attempting to create the "Raiders East" along with the team's new GM, Bruce Allen (another refugee from Oakland).
Lynch, obviously surprised and hurt by the news, still took the high road, insisting that it was his desire to remain in Tampa Bay but that he was looking forward to moving on. Lynch contends that he was willing to do whatever it took to remain in Tampa, which, to his supporters, became tantamount to "the Bucs didn't want him at any price." That, of course, strikes most fans as an outrage.
The truth is, as it usually is, probably somewhat more complicated. Lynch is 33 and coming off a significant shoulder/nerve injury. He had reached the "funny money" years of his contract -- those final years added to the back-end of a deal at enormous salary in order to stretch out the cap hit of the initial signing bonus. Players and teams alike know when these deals are signed that the player will never see this money (in Lynch's case, roughly $6 million for the 2004 season, an outrageous sum for a safety).
When the player reaches this point in the contract, he knows he will either have to renegotiate his contract to a more reasonable salary-cap figure or be released. If the player is still important to the team's plans, they will convert the salary that is owed to a signing bonus, give him a veteran's minimum salary, and add several years to the deal to once again reduce the impact of the bonus on the cap (for cap purposes, signing bonuses can be prorated over the life of the contract, but with one catch: the entire remaining amount becomes due if the player retires, is cut or traded).
If the player doesn't fit in the team's plans, he's likely to be released. In Lynch's case, it seems as if the issue was less about money than playing time. Lynch still believes he can be a starter in the NFL, and he most likely will be, just not in Tampa. The Bucs feel that his days as a starter are past and did not want him in camp, competing for a job they had already given away to his backup, Jermaine Phillips.
And with that disagreement, Lynch, perhaps the most popular player in the franchise's history, was cast off. Gone is the player famous for launching himself at the line of scrimmage in run support. Gone is the man who always seemed to come up with the game-sealing interception. Gone is the well-spoken Stanford grad whose charitable work in the Tampa community earned him a nomination for the NFL's prestigious Man of the Year award in 2002.
Such personnel moves present fans with the ultimate dilemma. What do we want more, a winning team or a likable one? If casting off John Lynch makes the Bucs a better team, in the end, the fans will accept it. If his replacement struggles, they'll hold it against Gruden and Allen for years to come.
That rational observer in me understands that this was probably a move the Bucs had to make. The passionate Bucs fan in me is saddened, and realizes that Gruden and Allen are unlikely to ever assemble a team I can feel as good about as the late-90's, Dungy-led Bucs that always seemed to come up short in the playoffs.
The simple truth is, there is simply no easy way for a team to say goodbye to a longtime veteran. The job of the coach and GM is to win; if they don't, they'll be next on the scrap heap. They can't afford to let sentiment play any role in personnel decisions. That's how it comes to pass that a third-year coach and a brand-new GM can show a franchise icon the door without much of a hint of regret.
As for Lynch, I'm sure he's hurting now, but when he's in the starting lineup for a new team on opening day, I'm sure he'll realize that moving on from the Bucs was for the best.
For fans like myself, the same sentiment that causes us pain when stars are cast aside will keep their memory alive in countless sports-bar arguments. Because the achievements of our favorite players and teams are frozen in time in our minds, we have the luxury of sentimental memories that the front office does not.
In time, the anger will subside, to be replaced by cherished recollections. Mixed among the dozens of "Raiders East" and "Gruden/Allen must go!" threads on the Bucs' official message board this week were a few "favorite Lynch memory?" threads.
I didn't participate in the former. As for the latter, I'll take Lynch's third-quarter interception of a wobbly Brad Johnson pass in a 1999 Divisional Playoff against the Redskins. The home standing Bucs were trailing 13-0 at the time, and when Lynch came down with the ball on the Tampa sideline, he spiked it in front of his teammates and it was like a light when off. They fed off his energy for two touchdowns and a 14-13 win.
Nothing John Lynch does in a Charger, Jet, Colt or Patriot uniform can tarnish that memory. Moving on, for players, teams, and fans alike, is just part of the cost of doing business in the NFL today.
* * *
Drew Henson finally has a new home, and I guess we shouldn't be surprised. This is a guy who went from being perhaps the most highly touted recruit in the history of the University of Michigan to the Yankees' future at third base, earning millions along the way. So rather than land in Jacksonville or San Diego or some other city that flies below the NFL radar, I guess it's only fitting that he'll be a part of "America's Team," the Dallas Cowboys.
The Cowboys' trade of a third-round choice in 2005 to cross-state rival Houston for Henson has already led to plenty of head-scratching. Don't the Cowboys already have two failed baseball products at QB in Chad Hutchinson and Quincy Carter? Didn't one of those guys (Hutchinson) take a lengthy layoff from football only to return to the gridiron and look like a bust? So why go after Henson?
The difference is that Henson is as blue as blue-chips get, and that's not just the Michigan fan in me talking. He was the national high school player of the year before signing with the Wolverines, and while there, he managed to get on the field plenty as a freshman and sophomore despite the existence of a starting QB by the name of Tom Brady.
In fact, if not for Henson stealing some of his playing time and causing him to fall in the NFL Draft, Brady might not be quite the rags-to-riches story he is today. People wouldn't be quite so amazed by his success if he had been, say a third-round pick instead of a sixth.
I'm one of the few Michigan fans who during those years wished that Henson would have remained on the bench, because Brady was as good as any quarterback ever to wear the winged helmet. Instead, coach Lloyd Carr would insert Henson for the second quarter of every game during his sophomore year, sending Brady to the bench. The hot hand would play in the second half (the choice was Brady for all but one game during that season, 1999). I know what Carr was trying to do. He had this monster prospect at QB who had already banked millions of George Steinbrenner's money. The Yankees were pestering him, trying to get him to quit football and leave school. Carr figured that if Henson were left to sit for three years, the Yankees might make that decision a little easier for him.
So Henson played, and showed plenty of flashes of ability, before taking over as the starter in 2000. Except that he broke is foot in preseason drills and missed 3 1/2 games.
When he finally did get on the field, it was in the second half of a road game at Illinois in which Michigan faced a healthy deficit. He promptly hit David Terrell on a perfect bomb for one TD and scrambled for another, bad foot and all. Up until that point, I had believed in Henson's talent (you'd have to be blind to miss it), but wasn't sure if he was a player.
Well, the doubts disappeared after that game. Henson went on to lead the most explosive offense in Michigan history that season, and only a suspect defense, some questionable play-calling and some downright bad luck prevented the Wolverines from making more noise on the national scene. After the Illinois comeback, Henson started the final eight games and went 6-2, including a one-point loss to Purdue in which Michigan went conservative after building an 18-point halftime lead (thanks to four 80-yard-plus touchdown drives on four first-half possessions), and an epic, gut-wrenching 54-51 loss to Northwestern in which neither offense could be stopped.
Michigan seemed poised for even bigger things in 2001, but then Mr. Steinbrenner and his money came calling again, and this time Henson couldn't say no.
And just like that, Henson's flash-in-the-pan football career was over, or so it seemed.
So now Henson is returning to football and is drawing comparisons to Hutchinson and other busts. What's the difference between Henson and the other shaky QBs already on the Dallas roster?
The difference is that Henson has more talent than Hutchinson and Carter put together. I'm not sure Dallas is the best fit for Henson. He might have been better off with a team where he could sit for a year or two behind an established starter before taking over. In Dallas, I expect him to play this year, maybe not at the start, but certainly before the season is out.
In his three seasons, Carter has proven to be maddeningly inconsistent. The current Cowboys are built on defense -- as all successful Bill Parcells teams are -- and they need a QB that won't kill them with a bad interception. Carter hasn't yet proven to be that guy, and Hutchinson hasn't proven much at all.
I expect Henson to play this year, and I expect him to play well. Brady might be my all-time favorite Michigan QB, but even I had to admit Henson had an obvious talent edge over Brady. He'll be able to shake off the rust and use his legs to keep him out of trouble while he dusts off his decision-making skills.
If it works out, the Cowboys will be lauded for getting a first-round talent with a third-round pick and only paying him third-round money. Henson walked away from a guaranteed $12 million-plus from the Yankees for a guaranteed $3.5 million with the Cowboys, so he's obviously not doing this for the money.
Remember, this is a guy who quite likely would have been the first-overall pick in 2002, ahead of David Carr, had he stayed in school for his senior season. In fact, had he come out after his abbreviated junior year, he might have still gone in the first few selections. Having been a failure at something (baseball) for the first time in his life has no doubt refueled his competitive desire.
Will he succeed? I say yes. Once a player, always a player.