Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the 2003 NFL season. Settle in. Kick back. Enjoy. But keep antacids by your easy chair. Ten years after unfettered free agency was instituted and the leveling of the playing field began, the NFL landscape looks like the Great Plains. In Week 1 of Parityfest a New England Patriots team captain was allowed to jump to the archrival Buffalo Bills five days before the teams met in their season opener, a move that may have ultimately determined the outcome of the game. The Bills, who lost to the Patriots by 31 points last November, won by 31 on Sunday. Elsewhere, the second-year Houston Texans, two-touchdown underdogs to the Super Bowl-contender Miami Dolphins, pulled off a stunning upset (page 49). The Detroit Lions scored in the 40s for the first time in six years (page 50). The Cleveland Browns, with three new starters at linebacker, kept the Indianapolis Colts' Peyton Manning and Edgerrin James out of the end zone—but still lost. At Lambeau Field the Minnesota Vikings made Brett Favre look like anything but a three-time MVP (page 53), and...well, you get the picture.
Nothing, however, could match the drama in Buffalo, where the faithful set some sort of an NFL record for generating excitement over a team that was 8-8 the year before. The parking lots at Ralph Wilson Stadium don't officially open until 7 a.m. on Saturday—30 hours before kick-off, mind you—but last week seven Winnebagos dotted the gravel lot nearest the stadium by 3:30 p.m. on Friday.
Walking smack into this already intense scene was the subject of the biggest story of the week: four-time Pro Bowl safety Lawyer Milloy. Though still in his prime at 29, Milloy—who started 106 consecutive games in his seven seasons with the Patriots—had been cut on Tuesday, Sept. 2, for salary-cap reasons (the player and the club could not agree on the terms of a restructured contract), and two days later he signed with Buffalo. Milloy grabbed a Bills playbook last Thursday and stuck his nose in it until 3 a.m. Friday, falling asleep in his hotel room with his clothes on. As he ducked in and out of team meetings on Friday afternoon, he looked spent. "I wouldn't wish this week on my worst enemy," Milloy said, still downcast over leaving the only pro team he'd ever played for.
He didn't feel that way much longer. In a 2:44 span of the second quarter on Sunday, Milloy made two big plays and earned his props from the raucous home crowd of 73,262. First, with Buffalo leading 21-0 and New England showing its first signs of life on offense, he deflected a pass in the end zone, and the tipped ball was intercepted by cornerback Nate Clements. On the next Patriots possession Milloy sped past an ol� block from tight end Christian Fauria and dragged down quarterback Tom Brady with one arm for his first sack since 2001. While Milloy's role in the 31-0 victory—the Bills' first shutout since '99—was significant, the impact of his move was just as strong off the field.
For starters, seeing their defensive captain whacked for cap reasons just days before the start of the season devastated New England players, undermining the morale of even ultimate team guys such as safety Rodney Harrison and linebacker Tedy Bruschi. Hours after Milloy was cut, Harrison called some of his young defensive teammates together and told them to take care of their money; it's a hard business, Harrison said, and the same thing will happen to them someday. Veterans usually make those speeches in the off-season, not when the team is knee-deep in game preparations, but the players were so distressed that Harrison felt obliged to say it.
Probably nobody was more disappointed than Bruschi, one of the most dedicated players in the NFL. "I'm not as fully committed to the Patriots as I was to my team at Arizona or Roseville [ Calif.] High," he said last Thursday. "[The Patriots] took a franchise player and kicked him to the curb five days before the season." He paused, then continued more passionately. "I wish—I wish—it was the old days in this game, and I could put my heart on the line for something. But how do you do that in a place where guys who've established what this team is about just come and go?"
After practice on the day Milloy was released, Brady and Patriots cornerback Ty Law went to Milloy's condominium to commiserate. "It was like a wake," Milloy said later.
New England coach Bill Belichick, an NFL head coach or assistant for 27 years, should have been smart enough to know the consequences of waiving a leader as popular as Milloy at the 11th hour. Belichick, who makes all player personnel decisions, said last Saturday, "If we had known this was going to happen, obviously this isn't the way we would have handled it." Surely the Patriots had to have known that Milloy's hard-line agent, Carl Poston, would balk at drastically cutting the $4.4 million salary of a player who had been to four of the past five Pro Bowls.
On the other hand Milloy told SI that he had a lucrative offer from the Washington Redskins before the Patriots had released him, and the magazine reported that on its website last Saturday. The Redskins denied negotiating with Poston before Milloy was cut, and on Sunday the safety said he had no contact with another team.
The Patriots weren't convinced, however—"He'd be playing for us right now if there wasn't tampering," said a team official—and on Monday the league announced it would investigate the possibility that there had been tampering. Poston said on Monday that there was "no way" a team tampered with Milloy through him, adding that "Lawyer didn't know what was going on" before his release.