Wednesday, February 16, 2000

Landry legacy is business over sentiment

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Tom Landry kept his distance by design. He didn't want to get close to his Dallas Cowboys for fear sentiment might cloud his common sense.

        “It might keep me,” he explained, “from being objective.”

        Landry was not the most cold-blooded coach who ever lived, but that was the image he wanted to convey. If he appeared to be aloof — and he did — it was not because of his personality so much as his pragmatism.

        Pro football is a game played on emotion, but management is obliged to operate on ruthlessness. For all the heartfelt tributes to Landry in the days following his death, part of his legacy is the seeming heartlessness with which veteran players are cut loose in the NFL.

        Last week, the Buffalo Bills jettisoned the three remaining stars of their four Super Bowl teams — Andre Reed, Bruce Smith and Thurman Thomas. The New England Patriots released Bruce Armstrong, a six-time Pro Bowler.

        Jerry Rice, named pro football's Player of the Decade Monday night by ESPN, may soon be unemployed if he will not accept a significant cut in his $5.49 million salary by the San Francisco 49ers. Dan Marino voided the last two years of his contract with the Miami Dolphins, presumably to forestall getting fired.

        “Making a lot of money and being over 30 in this league is not a good thing,” Armstrong said. “Is it wrong? It's not wrong. But that's the way it is.”

Business is business
        All of the aforementioned players have this much in common: They are significantly past their prime and substantially over budget. In an age of multimillion-dollar contracts and restrictive salary caps, the NFL has about as much tolerance for declining stars as it does for murder suspects.

        “There is room for sentiment,” said Jim Lippincott, the Cincinnati Bengals' personnel guru. “But not to the point where it affects your business decisions. When I told (tackle) Kevin Sargent he was going home, that was hard. But it doesn't affect your judgment.”

        If you want warm and fuzzy, try the Westminster Dog Show. If you want callous and cruel, pro football is the place. NFL jobs are so few that teams can ill-afford lasting loyalty. NFL jobs are so lucrative that players tend to hang on until a happy ending is no longer feasible.

        Anthony Munoz, the Bengals' Hall of Fame tackle, signed on briefly with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers before health issues hastened his retirement. Baltimore icon Johnny Unitas suffered the indignity of ending his career with the San Diego Chargers.

        So long as a player is useful, his place is relatively secure. Once he starts down the slope toward oblivion, however, he becomes as expendable as Steve Forbes. Thus the Bengals dispose of good soldiers such as James Brooks, Steve Tovar and Joe Walter, while clinging to the rancorous Carl Pickens.

        “The Paul Brown theory was that you never cut a player until you could replace him,” Lippincott said. “Carl's a good player, and I don't think anyone is in the habit of cutting good players.”

Trash or treasure?
        The walls of the Bengals' personnel office at Spinney Field are dominated by boards carrying the names of prospective players. One wall is dominated by the college draft. The board closest to the door is dedicated to veteran players in need of work.

        Names of those players who are unrestricted free agents appear in blue. The color code for unconditional release is orange.

        Someone in the NFL must be in the habit of cutting good players, because Thomas and tight end Ben Coates both appear on orange nametags and are identified as the players the Bengals deem most desirable at their positions.

        Some players get cut a season too soon. Some simply price themselves out of their markets. Other players get signed against all laws of logic. So long as a player of Kimo von Oelhoffen's capabilities can command a $10 million contract, pro football will remain an expensive and inexact science.

        “One man's trash,” Lippincott said, “is another man's treasure.”

        Landry's goal was objectivity. Human beings make it hard.

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