Kurt Warner remembers the moment when the Greatest Show on Turf lost its luster, doomed to degenerate into just another good show. The tipping point came a little more than a decade ago, when the St. Louis Rams said goodbye to a key supporting cast member that the organization was unwilling to overpay.
Back in March of 2002, the departure of No. 3 wideout Az-Zahir Hakim to the Detroit Lions via free agency didn't seem like a crushing blow to a record-setting offense that had played in two of the previous three Super Bowls. The Rams' two-time MVP quarterback, however, knew better.
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"There's no question it changed our whole dynamic," Warner recalled Thursday. "As good as we were, and as good as the people were around him, Az was an integral part of what we did. When we lost him, the whole dynamic of what we did offensively had to change ‐ and we had to fit guys into places they weren't as suited to."
Remembering the ripple effect caused by Hakim's departure is instructive when assessing the current Super Bowl champions and their looming decision on how to deal with an unhappy but highly productive pass rusher. With Osi Umenyiora in the final year of a below-market contract with which he has long been displeased, the defensive-end-rich New York Giants are surely reticent to offer a new deal to his liking. The team may be tempted to trade him; more likely, the Giants will let him play out the string and depart a year from now.
On paper, I can see the logic of that approach, just as Warner still understands the rationale behind the Rams' decision not to blow up their salary structure for a backup receiver. When you're so strong in one specific area, it's natural to adopt a philosophy favoring a reallocation of resources aimed at bolstering weaker positions.
The Giants, who also have accomplished veteran Justin Tuck and emerging star Jason Pierre-Paul at defensive end, probably believe it's impractical ‐ if not impossible ‐ to keep all three standouts at market value. Yet I believe there's great value in trying to make it work, because sometimes a team's obscenely overloaded potency in one area is the driving force behind its excellence.
Hakim, a shifty slot receiver with breakaway speed, helped Warner exploit matchups for which most defenses had no answer. While star wideouts Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt commanded much of the attention, and versatile Hall of Fame halfback Marshall Faulk was the key to Mike Martz's aggressive attack, role players like Hakim and No. 4 wideout Ricky Proehl took it to an even scarier level.
Similarly, the Seattle Seahawks' bruising, balanced attack ‐ the impetus for the franchise's lone Super Bowl appearance in February of 2006 ‐ was never the same after Pro Bowl left guard Steve Hutchinson was plucked away by the Minnesota Vikings the following month, despite having been tagged as a "transition" player prior to free agency. The Seahawks, who at the time had the NFL's preeminent left tackle in Walter Jones, balked at devoting so much money to one side of the offensive line.
The result, recalls former Seattle quarterback Trent Dilfer, was the destruction of the team's comfort zone.
"With Hutch, Walt and [center] Robbie Tobeck, they always knew what they could do better than everybody else," recalls Dilfer, who played for the Seahawks from 2001-04. "They no longer had their 98-mile-per-hour heater that they could throw on the outside corner. For them, that was 'Iso Left' on short yardage, and the play-action pass where the left side locked it down and they could chip on the other side.
"Losing Hutch was a punch to the gut, and they never recovered, from [All-Pro halfback] Shaun Alexander on down. It was a catalyst for the demise of the whole thing."
As the Giants bask in the glow of their second championship in five seasons, the thought of irreparably damaging that which makes them special likely isn't impairing the psyche of owners John Mara and Steve Tisch, general manager Jerry Reese or coach Tom Coughlin. That said, each of those Super Bowl triumphs was fueled by a ferocious pass rush that dominated during unexpected, late-season runs, and Umenyiora was a central figure on both occasions.
His story ‐ which I related in late January ‐ is familiar to many fans: Long displeased with the contract extension he signed in December of 2005, Umenyiora staged a brief holdout at the start of last year's training camp before reporting. He missed nearly half the regular season with knee and ankle ailments.
The end result, however, was impressive: 12 ½ sacks in 13 games (including postseason), a stark reminder that he is one of the dozen or so men in his profession with a true gift for getting to the quarterback.
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Due to make $3.975 million in 2012, the final year of his contract, Umenyiora remains frustrated with his situation. The Giants' brass has made it clear to Umenyiora's camp that it has no intention of trading him, and though Reese said at last month's NFL scouting combine that the team is open to working out a contract extension, I believe it's unlikely the GM will make an offer the player regards as fair.
Instead, look for Umenyiora to spend a final season in a Giants uniform ‐ with a premium on tending to his long-term health interests ‐ in the hope of hitting the market (assuming the team doesn't hit him with a franchise tag) a year from now.
At that point, Umenyiora will be 31, and Pierre-Paul may well be among the league's elite defenders. Yet even with JPP and Tuck on the edge, I believe Umenyiora is a luxury the Giants should try to afford.
For what it's worth Dilfer, now an ESPN analyst, stridently agrees.
"I think it's wrong to say, 'Let's save money in an area of strength to build up other areas of weakness,' " Dilfer says. "Instead, it should be, 'Let's spend money to make a great area even better.'
"It's really, really hard to be truly great in any element of football, and when you get there, it makes up for a lot of other ills. Look at the Giants. They had a brutal secondary, and a couple of dudes I'd never heard of were playing linebacker, and they won. Not just the division, or a playoff game ‐ they won the Super Bowl."
To illustrate his point, Dilfer references the "80-20 principle," a popular business philosophy which, in part, supports the idea of nurturing one's areas of excellence.
"Many of the best business people, especially in the Silicon Valley, would agree with [paying to retain Umenyiora]," Dilfer says. "The 80-20 model states that you should spend 80 percent of your time and resources on the 20 percent of what you're good at ‐ 'Let's get better at what we're best at.' And I'll tell you this: [Former Seahawks coach] Mike Holmgren would support your argument, because he believed you could never have too many good players at one position. It was [former GM] Tim Ruskell who felt, 'Let's not overpay our second best lineman when we can use that money elsewhere.' "
How'd that work out for Ruskell? Well, he was fired late in the 2009 season, a campaign in which Hutchinson blocked for Brett Favre and Adrian Peterson and came within a few yards of reaching Super Bowl XLIV.
The Seahawks, for what it's worth, have used 12 players at left guard in the six seasons since Hutchinson's departure. In an unexpected twist, Hutchinson, now 34, nearly became No. 13 ‐ released earlier this month by the Vikings, he paid a free-agent visit to the Seahawks before agreeing to a deal with the Tennessee Titans.
Hakim never rejoined the Rams, either, though he did reunite with Martz in 2006, the final year of career, when the former St. Louis coach was working as the Detroit Lions' offensive coordinator. Hakim, who'd signed a five-year, $16-million deal with Detroit in '02, struggled as a Lions starter and was released following the '04 campaign. He spent a season with the New Orleans Saints before returning to Detroit.
By that point, the Greatest Show on Turf had long since pulled up its stakes.
"It's hard to overpay to keep that strength when you're a championship team, and it's hard to keep a team together, because somebody's going to overpay that guy in free agency," Warner says. "And it's hard for those players to understand that they might be thriving because of the situation they're in and aren't necessarily suited for a starring role.
"The result is that it ends up hurting both sides. Az thrived because of the situation he was in and what we asked him to do ‐ we played to his strengths, and we were fortunate to have him as our No. 3. Guys like that don't come around very often, and when we lost him, we weren't the same."
I'm not saying the post-Umenyiora Giants will lose their first five games, as the 2002 Rams did, or embark upon a decade which features only two postseason appearances and a sole playoff victory (in the Rams' case, a 27-20 triumph over the Seahawks in a 2004 first-round clash). But I do believe that the people responsible for letting Hakim and Hutchinson bolt would view things differently in hindsight; and I wonder if Mara, Tisch and Reese might be motivated to avoid a similar fate.
My advice on Umenyiora: Pay the man, conventional wisdom be damned.
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