The business side of football

Richard Sherman photo courtesy of the Seattle Seahawks

“Thirtysomething” was a popular television show in the 1980s, winning 13 Emmy Awards and three Golden Globes.

But “thirtysomething” is not as popular in NFL buildings.

Running backs DeMarco Murray and Jonathan Stewart, tight end Martellus Bennett and cornerback Richard Sherman have three commonalities. All have had Pro Bowl careers. All hit 30 years of age in 2017 or 2018. And all have been released by their NFL teams this offseason.

When the salary cap arrived in 1994, it made the NFL a young man’s game. Football is a sport. But it’s also a business with a financial bottom line. The older a player gets, the more expensive he becomes. So the month of March represents the business end of football.

In 2013, NFL teams cut 20 players in their 30s who were 16-game starters the previous season, including 101-tackle linebacker Karlos Dansby. Did those players lose their skills and ability to play football overnight? Hardly. They were thirtysomethings who became too old and too expensive in a salary-cap world.

In 2014, NFL teams cut another 10 players in their 30s who were 16-game starters the previous season, including eight-time Pro Bowl pass rusher Julius Peppers and two-time Pro Bowl guard Davin Joseph.

In 2015, NFL teams cut another seven players in their 30s who were 16-game starters the previous season, including center Lyle Sendlein, the offensive hub of Arizona’s a 11-5 wild-card playoff team. In 2016, the Baltimore Ravens cut leading tackler Daryl Smith, another player in his 30s. In 2017, the Eagles cut pass rusher Connor Barwin, a 16-game starter as a 30-year-old the previous season.

Darnell Dockett, A.J. Hawk, Santonio Holmes, Steven Jackson, Andre Johnson, Chris Long, Steve Smith, Michael Turner, DeMarcus Ware, Roddy White, Mario Williams – Pro Bowlers, high draft picks, Super Bowl champions, some even Hall-of-Fame candidates – yet all were ushered to the door in their 30s this decade.

The salary cap has risen dramatically since 1994 – from $34 million that first year to $177 million in 2018. Salaries, especially at the impact positions, have saddled themselves to that rocket ship. Quarterbacks are now receiving $100-million contracts. So are pass rushers. The more money a team spends on its impact players, the less money is available for the supporting cast. So the older, more expensive players depart rosters.

Jordy Nelson caught 98 passes for 1,519 yards and 13 touchdowns for the Green Bay Packers at the age of 30 in 2015. He caught 97 passes for 1,257 yards and 14 touchdowns at 31 in 2016. Last season, when his quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, missed nine games with injuries, Nelson’s production fell off to 53 catches for 482 yards and six touchdowns. At 32 years of age, the Packers cut him this week. Nelson won’t have a problem finding work in 2018.

Stewart, Carolina’s all-time leading rusher, was out of work less than two weeks before the New York Giants signed him, and Sherman was out of work for a single day before the San Francisco 49ers signed him. The money these salary-cap casualties receive from their new teams is generally considered more “salary-cap friendly” — but it keeps them employed and playing the game they love into their 30s.

As much as the players coveted and fought for free agency back in the 1980s and 1990s, even to a point of striking, they are now discovering the down side of that freedom – the salary cap. That became the trade-off to the owners for free agency – and the salary cap shrinks a player’s shelf life. Teams will love you and pay you in your 20s. But when you hit the age of 30 the clock starts ticking on your career, as more and more players are finding out each March.

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