Snap Decision

Should Troy Aikman retire? Should he remain the starting quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys? The answer to both questions is no.

January 2001By Comments

Dear Troy,

Has this season been a nightmare or what? You may have been too loopy to notice, distracted by the ring of canaries circling your head, distracted by the ring of canaries circling your head, distracted by . . . but the Cowboys are in a vicious freefall. Hopes were high in training camp because of new head coach Dave Campo and the addition of wide receiver Joey Galloway, but it was impossible not to see the first game of the season as a harbinger of the Cowboys’ demise. The Philadelphia Eagles blew you out at home 41-14, and that wasn’t the worst of it. The Cowboys’ run defense crumbled, Galloway suffered a season-ending injury, and you were handed the ninth concussion of your career, which knocked you out for the next two weeks. The rest of the year has consisted of a smattering of hollow victories over mediocre teams and a long list of bruising losses to better ones. On top of all this has been the recurring debate: Should you continue to play?

Every football pundit and fan, not to mention anyone with a medical degree, is telling you to retire. They believe this because they care: At the age of 34, you simply can’t take too many more shots to the head. But are you able to walk away? Your fighting spirit will be reluctant to bow out on a losing team. Not to mention that you can still play (24 completions for 308 yards and one touchdown against the Cincinnati Bengals, though kicker Tim Seder had to score seventeen points to save the day). Great quarterbacks are great decision makers, and this is the biggest call of your life. The answer is, Don’t retire, Troy. But don’t be the starting quarterback either. Be the highest-paid backup in the league. It’s the only way you can continue to help the team and avoid brain damage.

Priority one is your health. Your medical history is as fat as a Stephen King novel and gets similarly gruesome toward the end: a broken clavicle and three of your nine concussions in the past two years. (A list of your career injuries, mapped out conveniently on your anatomy, can be found at if you’ve lost track.) This year you also missed a game because of a herniated disc. That’s not going to get better without some rest and relaxation. Seek the healing waters at Lourdes. Study yoga in India. But don’t, for goodness sake, play until that’s healed.

The concussions, though, are my main concern. They made Roger Staubach hang it up, a fact you must be all too aware of. How many more times can you be ground into the turf before you turn into Frankenstein’s monster with farm-boy good looks? Another year of punishment and you are doomed. Philadelphia’s Veterans Stadium is Dallas’ Waterloo—a battlefield haunted by the ghosts of fallen Cowboys. Raghib Ismail and George Teague’s seasons ended there in November; Michael Irvin’s career came to an ignominious conclusion there in 1999, replete with the cheering of Philly’s tasteless fans. The turf is so bad that the players association has considered filing a lawsuit to make the team put in something safer. Don’t you see? If you play at Philly next year, you might not make it out alive.

The other reason you might consider retirement is that you have nothing left to play for. You’ve got your three Super Bowl rings, and you are a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame. There won’t be many dry eyes in the house at your induction ceremony, but you don’t want the reason to be that you can’t deliver the acceptance speech. More important, there will be no Super Bowl next year, nor will there be a playoff run. You have your good friend Jerry Jones to thank for the lack of quality players around you. Yes, he’s been a good owner, loyal (to everyone except his head coaches) and free-spending. But as a general manager, he’s been eerily bad. Can you believe that he gave two first-round draft picks to Seattle and then a $42 million contract to Joey Galloway? He was never worth that to begin with, and who knows what he’ll be worth when he recovers from his knee injury. Fourth and seventh rounders for tight end O. J. Santiago? He was released after week twelve. Now no young bucks are waiting to take over for the aging veterans. The offensive line is paper-thin: There’s no star receiver, no young-gun backup to Emmitt Smith, and the defensive line is as porous as cheesecloth. And finally: no first-round draft pick in this year’s draft.

A pretty compelling case for retirement, eh? Here’s why you shouldn’t do it. First of all, think of the team, not in terms of the field but rather the bankbook. The Cowboys are going to be strapped for cash next year. The top ten salaries on the roster for 2001 are scheduled to count $35. 8 million against a salary cap that is expected to be about $67 million. That leaves less than $24 million to sign the remaining 43 players next season, which is doable only if all those players will work for the league minimum—about as likely as Jimmy Johnson’s coming back to coach. Thanks to the contract extension you signed in 1998, if you retire after the season, the blow to the salary cap could be as much as $17 million over the next two years—about 13 percent of the team’s payroll. Dallas is already paying $11. 2 million to players who are no longer with the team—Deion Sanders, Michael Irvin, Kevin Smith, and Everett McIver. All this is the encrusted residue of Jones’s win-now-pay-later philosophy—the nineties were one great banquet, but the dishes were left uncleaned in the sink.

I have trouble believing that your sense of honor would let you retire with your salary left as a ball and chain for the team. This is a team that’s going to need all its resources to win even a handful of games, and you can still be a resource to the Cowboys and put that money to use. Still not convinced? Well, consider that football has provided several models for how you could finish out your career. Let’s review them. There’s the Joe Montana model. The longtime quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, not ready to give up playing even though he was close to being over the hill, went to the Kansas City Chiefs so that Steve Young could take over. Though Montana gave us some memorable moments in his two seasons there, it was odd that he didn’t retire a 49er: not for you. Then there’s the 44-year-old Warren Moon model. After leaving the Tennessee Titans, Moon went to Minnesota, Seattle, and finally K. C., an old elephant wandering the jungle, looking for a place to die: no dignity in that. Next there’s the Steve Young model, where the noble meets the macabre. Young’s retirement last year was utterly graceless. At first, his concussion-induced stumbling out of several games seemed admirable; he was a warrior who would not let his team down. After about the hundredth time he got knocked out of a game, though, he seemed stupid and arrogant. Then this season began with the shrill accusations from his understudy, Jeff Garcia, that Young had provided no help when he was stuck on the sidelines, obviously headed toward retirement. The whole episode put the dark smudge of egotism on Young’s reputation.

Then there’s the Troy Aikman model for ending a career. Rather than being traded to watch the sun set in a city where you don’t belong, becoming a disenfranchised beggar knocking on doors all over the league, or being that disillusioned egomaniac who doesn’t know when enough is enough, you could go out as the wise mentor, the gentle father, the mature man who knows how to make himself useful. At your best you were one of the sharpest ever to play pro football. Besides your flawless technique and pinpoint accuracy, you have a great knowledge of the game and of the game within the game. Why not take that knowledge to the sidelines, not as coach per se, but as a backup?

Jerry Jones could draft a quarterback fairly high and hope he could be turned into something. The Cowboys have picks in rounds two, three, five, six, and seven. Quarterbacks that could be available in the second and third rounds might include Florida State’s Chris Weinke, Oklahoma’s Josh Heupel, and Georgia’s Quincy Carter. Farther down, Jones could take a chance on Southern Cal’s Carson Palmer or Washington’s Marques Tuiasosopo, both of whom might be available as late as the fifth. Any one of them would benefit greatly from the knowledge and support of someone with your experience.

Think about it, Troy. You gain even more respect and leave the game able to enjoy your life after football. And consider this: What if it’s late in the season, and the Cowboys find themselves in contention for a playoff spot? What if the new starting quarterback goes down and you get the call? In you come to throw the game-winning touchdown that catapults the team back to prominence. You’d be a hero, just like old times! But you’ll only be there, healthy and in a position to win, if you start the season on the sidelines.

Your fan, Jordan

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