Earlier this week I talked about what a strange decision, particularly given the Parcells mantra of "character guys", it seemed to be when the Dolphins released Marty Booker. That, however, was nowhere near as hypocritical a move as today's release of Zach Thomas. On the Miami Dolphins, nobody besides Jason Taylor, a player with infinitely more natural talent, has been as important to the team as Thomas, who has spent his entire twelve year career in Miami. Over that time, he has amassed the second most tackles of any linebacker in the history of the league (that should be a BIG hint to teams that need someone to teach how to tackle...cough, BENGALS AND BROWNS, cough). More importantly, he and Taylor have acted as the faces of a franchise that has lacked any real consistency, giving them an identity as a "hardnosed defensive" squad instead of a "bad" one. His release would appear to remove one of the major stabilizing presences in the Dolphins locker room, especially considering how moody Jason Taylor can be when things start to go badly.
Furthermore, it points to a bigger, more disturbing trend, one that, in recent years, has been perfected by Parcells disciple Bill Belichick and spread throughout the league: The devaluation of loyalty. Somewhere along the line, the League bought into the idea that it was not only ok to bend to the "what have you done for me lately" mentality of the mainstream media, but also an admirable trait. The quicker an organization is to cut its aging veterans, the more football savvy that organization is said to be. Perhaps it's because football is (mistakenly) viewed as a game that has no room for individual identities, or because the game requires more of its parts to function in unison than any other, but teams have come to view themselves as machines, where the one that can get the best parts functioning at their highest level always wins.
In reality, this accomplishes neither the entertainment or win/loss oriented goals teams crave. Obviously, when teams hastily disassociate from the aging faces that helped create their identity, as with Thomas on the Fins, Trent Green on the Chiefs, and involuntarily Vick on the Falcons, those teams lose something that helped them connect with the fans, and they stop resonating as effectively with their supporters. When Handsome Chad stopped starting at quarterback for the Jets, a part of me didn't care as much, even though I did and still do believe it was the sensible decision. The same can certainly be said for different fan bases of different teams throughout the League.
Furthermore, I don't think it necessarily guarantees victory when a team "upgrades to a younger model." Look at the Patriots, held up (in many ways rightfully) as the pinnacle of intelligent personnel management; they haven't won a Super Bowl since releasing Troy Brown, and most would argue they certainly could have made it to and won Super Bowl XLI had he been around. On the other hand, Tom Coughlin chose to stick with Eli Manning, a much maligned quarterback to whom the franchise was committed, and his loyalty was rewarded with a championship even though the "smart numbers" indicated that Eli was a hinderance. Obviously, these are only two examples, but they do at least start to poke holes in the idea that teams are best run as faceless, numbers oriented mechanisms.
That is because they are, at the end of the day, a collection of people and personalities. Look at the teams that succeeded this year and you will find that all of them had some rallying point, some individual or group of individuals that gave them meaning. By contrast, those teams that seemed to fail the most were also the most boring, lacking that same point resonance. All of this makes me wonder what will become of the Miami Dolphins next season. As much as teams are not faceless collections of parts to a whole, they are not merely a group of highly talented individual personalities either (this year's Pats squad proved that concept was just as unlikable as its alternative). There must be a balance where individual stars contribute to a team's collective face. Zach Thomas was a star of that mold, and the Dolphins are worse for losing him.