A lot of time is spent talking about NFL players behaving badly or embarrassingly -- we almost got through a weekend without Johnny Manzielopining on partying, for instance -- but D'Brickashaw Ferguson retired as the New York Jets' left tackle over the weekend, and it's worth taking a few minutes to read his farewell letter to fans. It is as impressively done as his career was.
There are those who tried to squeeze Ferguson into the group of players who have retired early because of health concerns, but it is clear from Ferguson's own words that his decision to walk away after 10 years was far more nuanced than any straight-line narrative. A first-round draft pick in 2006 -- the first by former general manager Mike Tannenbaum, who selected center Nick Mangold later in that round to form the bedrock of what was once one of the NFL's best lines -- who played every game and all but one snap in his career and never missed a practice, Ferguson knew what those who watched closely had detected, too. His play had begun to slowly erode, and it was harder and harder for him to compete at the highest level.
"I never wanted to define myself by the size of a potential contract, but rather by my ability to compete with the best that the game could offer," Ferguson wrote. "Though I was successful in accomplishing that feat largely throughout my career, the difficulty in playing at such a level began to increase."
At 32, Ferguson had made nearly $70 million, a very nice nest egg for a player with a curious mind who wanted to pursue other goals and who had to decide whether he wanted to swallow a substantial pay cut from the Jets. Would he have continued to play if no pay cut was requested? Maybe so. But the Jets are in a salary-cap bind this offseason, unlike last season, when they were flush with cash, and Ferguson's declining play opened the door to the Jets' financial considerations.
There is something Ferguson does have in common with the wave of young players retiring long before they are retired by teams: He made an informed decision -- in Ferguson's case, about his remaining ability and his only team's willingness to pay for it -- with a substantial monetary cushion beneath him. That is what the league and the NFL Players Association should want for all players.
It's possible that Ferguson got more notice over the weekend for retiring than he ever got nationally during his playing days. And little more than 24 hours after Ferguson retired -- and only a few days after Greg Hardygave an interview to ESPN that should have reminded every talent evaluator to look elsewhere -- the NFL got a reminder of the ugly episodes and fumbling responses that defined the 2014 season. An arbitrator ruled that the powers given to the commissioner in the collective bargaining agreement extend to include putting players on paid leave as part of the exempt list, a key feature of the revamped personal conduct policy the NFL created in the wake of the Ray Rice-Adrian Peterson-Hardy tumult.
The arbitrator even said that the commissioner cannot delegate his authority to impose discipline, something the league had sought to do -- a move that even influential owners supported -- to avoid having the commissioner's office be the judge, jury and appeals court. The only real checks noted in the decision are that the NFL must provide the player and the union with notice of being placed on the list, and the league must give the player a chance for an appeal.
After a series of setbacks from arbitrators and courts in which the NFL was found to have made decisions on punishments for Riceand Peterson that did not follow the appropriate protocol laid out in the CBA, this was an affirmation for the league of the broad powers given the commissioner to decide discipline for personal-conduct violations. An even stronger and broader affirmation could come from the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, which is considering the league's appeal of Tom Brady's victory at the district court in the Deflategate case.
Those are the stories that have dominated the NFL news cycle for the last two seasons, and, in Brady's case, will likely be prime topics again as the 2016 season approaches. Players like Ferguson, though, are only occasional blips on the newswire. Ferguson was what good offensive linemen often are: anonymous. He did not have Mangold's flowing beard, nor the star power of some of his contemporaries like Darrelle Revis and Mark Sanchez. But Ferguson did narrate a series of video interviews from people in the football world and beyond (Mario Batali!) for the Jets' website last offseason, an out-of-the-box venture for a guy who used to ask reporters about writing.
Ferguson was a three-time Pro Bowl selection. Mostly, though, he was part of the cohort that makes up the foundations of teams -- a consistent professional. That he never missed a practice, a start or a snap to injury is astonishing. That he was also a stand-up guy in the locker room and an ever-present influence in the community was a lovely bonus. Jets owner Woody Johnson said in a statement that Ferguson would be remembered as one of the finest players in Jets history. The Jets will hold a news conference on Ferguson's retirement this Thursday.
Was he ever a Hall of Fame-caliber left tackle? No. He was, instead, the kind of player that is often overlooked amidst the attention paid and the opportunities given to the Hardys of the world: a stalwart who didn't get in trouble and did his job well. Upon Ferguson's retirement, it's worth remembering that there are hundreds of guys like him in the NFL, too. And teams would do well to spend a little more time catering to them than bending over backward for the others.