Occasionally, players actually retire from the NFL of their own volition. More often than not, though, they are pointed toward the recliner by the job market, or the lack of one, nudged into civilian life on someone else's terms rather than their own.
You think Hines Ward and LaDainian Tomlinson, arguably the two highest profile league veterans to announce their departures from the NFL in recent months, would have chosen wing tips over football cleats if some franchise had offered either of them a legitimate opportunity to play in 2012, along with a contract worth more than the veteran minimum base salary?
OK, maybe Ward and Tomlinson said all of the right things at their exit news conferences. It's hard to believe, though, the competitive fires just went out of either man, like some flickering pilot light.
Instead, it was extinguished by the indifference demonstrated both of them. Ward and Tomlinson might walk into the Hall of Fame someday, but no NFL franchise was willing to grant them a chance to run out onto the field anymore.
Guys like Matt Light – who'd essentially had enough after 11 seasons of pounding heads, much of the time spent quietly battling Crohn's Disease – are few and far between. Likewise, offensive lineman Jacob Bell, who walked away at just 31 because of his fear of concussions, is a rare example.
Injuries play some role in many retirement decisions, but inertia in the market is a much bigger reason.
With roughly four weeks to go until training camps open, Tomlinson and Ward figure to be joined by several others in retirement. Some of them, for sure, are in their football dotage. Others are simply in decline. But the more appropriate "D"-word is disinterest.
For the players with contracts, the anticipation has begun toward the start of the serious work for the 2012 season. For the guys without deals, the "60 Second"-style ticking in the background is likely the countdown to the end of their careers.
And it is, some unemployed players and desperate agents have suggested in recent weeks, a faint but frightful noise.
"A guy plays eight, nine, 10 years, whatever, it's hard to walk away," acknowledged one high-profile agent who just recently located a one-year, minimum salary deal for a player, but who still has a few veterans hoping to catch on somewhere. "And it's almost as hard to tell them there's nothing out there. The toughest noise right now is the noise of the phone not ringing."
Most league coaches and front office executives are on vacation, satisfied with their camp rosters, and unlikely to make changes. Unless they can be reached at the beach or on the golf course, they aren't thinking much about football. And thinking even less about the remnant subset of free agents.
By unofficial count, there are still 136 of the original unrestricted free agents from the 2012 class still without contracts, and that's not counting the "vested" veterans who were released since the start of free agency. Given the volume of free agent deals in the spring, it's hard to believe there are that many idle players, but there are. Counting both groups, 26 former first-round draft picks are looking for work.
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Once coveted players such as Plaxico Burress, Cadillac Williams, Roy Williams and Jeremy Shockey don't have jobs. More than two dozen players who each started 10 or more games in 2011 remain unsigned. There are a few players whose agents suggest, as Pat Dye did last week when referencing linebacker Keith Brooking, are seeking the "right situation." That's typically code for a lack of action.
But there are even more guys looking for any situation that might provide them one more year of a salary that, even at minimum standards, still outdistances what they are likely to earn in the real world. And which delays their retirements.
"This is the time of year where, if you've still got a few players looking, you work as hard as at any time of the year," said agent Albert Elias, who is still attempting to find landing spots for a few clients. "You turn over every stone."
Unfortunately, the NFL turns over bodies, too. So when the calendar flipped over to July on Sunday, it augured the start of the final weeks of vacation for a lot of players. And it likely signaled the beginning of the end for many others.
Len Pasquarelli is a Senior NFL Writer for the Sports Xchange.
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