The ink was barely dry on the new agreement between National Football League owners and players when word came out of Ravens headquarters that the team was releasing four popular players, including their two top receivers. Already the day the deed was done is being called Black Monday.
If the four month lockout did not drive home the message that professional football is all about money, then showing the door to Derrick Mason, Todd Heap, Kelly Gregg and Willis McGahee, some of the most beloved Ravens, certainly did.
These veteran players had to go, Ravens general manger Ozzie Newsome said, to give the team the financial flexibility to sign younger, more sought-after players, especially offensive linemen. Teams have a $120 million cap on how much they can pay their rosters. Not renewing the contracts of these four players gave the Ravens an estimated $18.6 million of recaptured wealth.
It appears that Mr. McGahee, a slashing running back with a $6 million annual salary, will take his talents elsewhere. It has been clear that his role on the team was in jeopardy since Ray Rice burst onto the scene at running back three years ago. As for the others, it is possible that during the coming hurly-burly period of signings and player movements, the Ravens will try to resign Messrs. Heap, Mason and Gregg to less expensive contracts. We hope that is the case. For in addition to their considerable accomplishments on the field — Mr. Mason leads the Ravens in catches, Mr. Heap is the team's all time team leader in touchdowns, and Mr. Gregg, when healthy, plays a mean defensive tackle — these players have developed a strong rapport with the community.
It would be hard for the legions of fans who wear Mr. Heap's jersey to imagine a fall Sunday afternoon without the call of "Heap!" resounding through M&T Bank Stadium every time he catches the ball.
Mr. Gregg, the son of an Oklahoma police officer, has been described by sports writers as a tireless worker, devoid of ego and one of the most popular and funniest players in the Ravens' locker room. He's the kind of guy Baltimore can identify with.
Mr. Mason was downright sentimental after learning of his fate yesterday. "I appreciate every moment and every cheer," he said on his WBAL radio program. "Every autograph I gave, I gave because I wanted to give it. I love that city. I love the people inside of it. I don't think there is a better city you can play for than Baltimore. They embraced me through the ups and downs, and, I truly, from the bottom of my heart will always appreciate and love those fans in Baltimore."
With all the pageantry and tradition surrounding the game there is still a disconnect between the sentiment that football fans feel for professional football and the cold, hard financial realities that keep it operating. So pro football is back for another season, but some Ravens fan favorites might not be on the field. The release of these four stalwarts serves as a bitter reminder that football is business, and that the loyalty fans feel toward a team is mostly a one-way street.
But for what it's worth, Mr. Mason, the feeling is mutual.