The Bills took the unsentimental route, waiving a trio of aging stars
Salary-Cap-Strapped teams could learn a valuable lesson from the way the Bills conducted business last week: Never let sentimentalism get in the way of a contract decision. Declining to offer even the NFL minimum salary, Buffalo released used-up 33-year-old running back Thurman Thomas and bitter 36-year-old wideout Andre Reed. The Bills told one of the game's best defensive ends ever, 36-year-old Bruce Smith, that he too would be waived if he didn't take a $2.4 million pay cut next season. No dice, Smith said, and he got whacked too. So as teams tightened their belts for the start of the free-agent signing period last Friday, three players who were instrumental in taking Buffalo to four straight Super Bowls in the 1990s were on the street.
"It's sad, but they're not the guys carrying this team anymore," Bills coach Wade Phillips said. "In today's football you had better realize things can't go on forever, and you'd better be ready to change when you have to."
So while teams such as the 49ers and the Vikings try to hold together rosters with fading veterans, the Bills have cleared the way for rising young talent Peerless Price, a second-round draft pick in 1999 who finished with 31 catches, will step in for Reed. Phillips hopes unproved multipurpose back Shawn Bryson, a third-round choice in '99, can replace Thomas. Marcellus Wiley, a second-round selection in '97 who had five sacks in limited duty last year, will take over for Smith (who was quickly signed to a five-year, $23 million contract by the Redskins). As Buffalo linebacker John Holecek said last week, "Just as I had to replace a legend, Chris Spielman, other people can step in and replace these legends."
Buffalo has retooled well since the end of the Jim Kelly era in 1996. The Bills, along with the Titans, rank third in the league in victories over the past two seasons, with 21, trailing only the Jaguars and the Vikings (25 each). Depth may become a problem—Buffalo lost valued free-agent cornerback Thomas Smith to the Bears on Sunday and may still lose Pro Bowl guard Ruben Brown—but the Bills have drafted well and have a solid quarterback tandem with Doug Flutie and Rob Johnson. "Now? says A.J. Smith, the team's director of pro personnel, "a few more of the guys America hasn't heard of will have to step up and become stars."
Early Winners and Losers
Saints Strike Gold with Blake
With the Kickoff of the free-agent signing period, several teams wasted no time opening their checkbooks. Here are the highlights of the first weekend.
Best deal: The Saints signed the league's most underrated quarterback, 29-year-old Jeff Blake, to a cap-friendly, four-year contract that averages $4.3 million a season. Blake says there were times in his six trying seasons with the Bengals that "almost made me want to stop living," notably when Boomer Esiason, Neil O'Donnell and Akili Smith were brought in to play ahead of him the past three years. "With adversity came maturity," Blake says. "No situation scares me now." That's good, because New Orleans scored the third-fewest points in the NFL last season. Blake has become adept at knowing when to throw and when to scramble, mixing the two better than any other young quarterback in the game.
Worst deal: The Cowboys traded their first-round picks in 2000 and 2001 to the Seahawks for a speed receiver who is reluctant to go over the middle, Joey Galloway, then gave him a seven-year, $42 million contract, which included a $12 million signing bonus. Dallas already has a deep threat, Rocket Ismail, and with Michael Irvin's playing days apparently over because of a spinal condition, quarterback Troy Aikman needs a versatile tough guy to run intermediate patterns and routes over the middle. Instead, the Cowboys dealt for a 5'11", 188-pound player too slight to take NFC East beatings.
Best decision: The Colts signed tight end Ken Dilger to a five-year, $15 million contract, keeping him from exploring a possible move to the AFC East rival Jets. Indianapolis also saved its franchise tag, meaning the designation will be available when wideout Marvin Harrison's contract runs out after next season.