On Wednesday, the Falcons cut Roddy White. On Thursday, the Texans released Arian Foster. Today, the Colts told Andre Johnson that he’s gone. These are depressing roster moves, and not so much because of how great these players once were—but because these are indisputably smart and correct decisions. Football aging shows no mercy.
Roddy White can still offer the NFL something; he played 16 games for the Falcons, though he only caught 43 passes for one score. He was released because with two years left on his deal and a $6 million cap hit pending, he’s far too expensive for a third receiver. White spoke up about being phased out of Atlanta’s offense, and this divorce seemed inevitable.
“It is always a challenge to balance how we feel about a particular player with the implications of the salary cap,” owner Arthur Blank said in a statement, “as well as the clear commitment we have to our fans and stakeholders to assemble a championship-caliber roster each and every year.”
He leaves after 11 seasons with the team, easily the greatest WR in Falcons history, leading the franchise in every category conceivable. He became only the fifth NFL player to rack up three consecutive seasons with at least 90 catches and 1,200 yards, and finishes his time in Atlanta with 808 receptions for 10,863 yards and 63 touchdowns.
Arian Foster’s effective career wasn’t nearly as long, but at his peak was as dominant as any running back has ever been. He totaled 6,472 yards and 54 touchdowns (both franchise records) in seven years in Houston, the vast majority of that in the four seasons he was healthy.
Unfortunately, he stopped being healthy a while ago. Season-ending injuries have struck two of his last three campaigns, the most recent a torn Achilles’ tendon. Foster would have been a $9 million cap hit for 2016.
Foster could catch on somewhere, though his lead back days are over. In a goodbye Instagram post yesterday, he closed, “Onward we march, it’s been real. Nothing but love on this end.”
Foster’s longtime Texans teammate, on the other hand, has probably hit the end. Andre Johnson was already on the downslope when they released him a year ago, but the Colts took a fairly expensive flyer on the chance to give Andrew Luck a veteran receiver. Not much went the Colts’ way this year, especially with their passing attack, and while Johnson had his moments, he couldn’t justify the $7.5 million he was set to make in 2016.
Johnson remains the Texans’ franchise leader in every passing category, and after 13 NFL seasons, he stands eighth and ninth on the league’s all-time leaderboard in receptions and yards.
But these are the rhythms of the NFL, where more than in perhaps any other sport (because you can’t compensate for or fake speed or health), the cliff comes fast and steep. As recently as a couple of years ago all three of these guys were at the tops of their games and the top of the league, and now they’re all scrambling just to find a job.
It’s depressing, is what it is, even if it’s inevitable and unsurprising. Part of the beauty of watching great players, even if we rarely think about it at the time, is in the subconscious knowledge that their greatness necessarily carries an expiration date. It happened to them, it’ll happen to the men ripping up the league today, and it’ll happen to the kids who surpass them. We get a mere handful of years with guys who seem like they’re unbeatable, but time beats everyone.
Football time frames are particularly accelerated, and bear little relation to what we normally think of as aging. White and Johnson are 34; Foster is just 29. In no sane world is that “old”—I turn 32 this month so I’m desperate to believe that—but NFL senescence, being purely physical, tends to begin right around the time you can rent a car without paying that extra fee to rent a car. No human is quite built for playing something as demanding as football, but it’s the clearest demonstration that all of us start going objectively downhill much sooner than we like to pretend. For you and me, it’s aches when there didn’t used to be aches, or three-beer hangovers. For the world’s best athletes, it’s gradually being unable to outrun or outjump someone a couple years their junior. And it sucks.
Sorry if this post brings you down. It’s a snowy Friday and I didn’t want to contemplate my mortality alone.