When New York giants quarterback Phil Simms walked into the cafeteria at training camp one day last month, 10 other players were eating lunch. Not one of them was on the team two years ago. So it was fitting that Simms should address the subject of the unusually high turnover of players on NFL rosters these days.
"There's a startling difference in our team," Simms said. "Usually when you walk into camp, you say' Hi' to all the guys. When I walked into camp this year, I looked at [quarterback] Jeff Hostetler and said, 'This is the Giants?' I felt like I was in somebody else's locker room."
During the off-season the Giants lost 10 players, including two starters, to Plan B free agency. Six prospects on the now-defunct developmental squad rejected contract offers from the team and signed with other clubs. And six defensive starters began camp as holdouts. Here it was, a month before the season, and 22 of the 57 Giants who were under contract last December in their drive to the NFC East title weren't around.
"They're tearing my team down," Giants coach Bill Parcells says. "They're tearing it down." He says "they," but Parcells doesn't know whom or what to blame. He just knows the ol' gray game ain't what it used to be. He's right.
The structuring of NFL rosters has changed forever, and it happened so quickly that many teams were slow to pick up on it. Until recently the formula most often followed when a club wanted to lift itself out of mediocrity was simple: Settle on a couple of standout players as hubs, build around them through the draft and with judicious use of waiver pickups, nurture the draft picks into starters over two or three seasons; know when to say when to your veterans; and always look to develop good backup players, because injuries are so prevalent.
That wasn't the only way to turn around a team, but it was a proven means in the '80s. The San Francisco 49ers started with Joe Montana and Ronnie Lott, drafted well and picked up some valuable cast-offs. The Chicago Bears had Walter Pay-ton, Dan Hampton and Mike Singletary, and then drafted superbly. The Giants had Simms and Lawrence Taylor, and then assembled a bruising team around them through the draft. Championships have come to those who waited, and to those who drafted well.
In the last two years, however, player development, team loyalty and long-term planning have gone the way of the pet rock. "Part of building a football team is exactly that—building," Parcells says. "Now that's impossible. You start over every year, with just a base, and then work with all new people. This sport isn't Bingo Long's Traveling All-Stars. But that's the way it's going in this league."
Pro football is as popular as ever and more distant from its roots than ever. The new rules of the game are forcing tougher, high-risk personnel decisions in areas that league fathers either never had to confront or chose not to. Last December, Buffalo Bills general manager Bill Polian was losing a great amount of sleep over such decisions.
"I'd wake up feeling...," says Polian, searching for the right word, "frustrated. I'd wake up thinking about Plan B—who we'd protect, who we'd go after if they were out there, how all of it would affect guys in our locker room—juniors who might be coming out in the draft, the new contract we were doing with Jim Kelly, what we were going to do with our draft picks, how to keep our salaries in line, ad infinitum."
Here are some major developments that have made the job of piecing together a 47-man NFL roster tougher than ever.