When Troy Aikman signed an $85.5 million contract two years ago, he figured it meant he would be with the Dallas Cowboys the rest of his career.
Turns out, that same piece of paper is a big reason why the team waived him Wednesday.
Aikman's deal called for a $7 million bonus and an extension through 2007 to kick in if he was on the roster today. Once the Cowboys realized that delaying the dollars would've only made things worse on future salary caps, owner Jerry Jones had little choice but to make a tough decision.
"To do what needed to be done to give us a chance to be successful would've definitely created some problems down the road," Aikman said. "The long-term, crippling effect of the cap would not be worth that."
Next Stop: San Diego?
Aikman said if the Cowboys thought having him around another year or two would bring another Super Bowl title, the risk might've been worth it. Coming off a 5-11 season in which Aikman made it through only eight games, that wasn't likely.
"It wasn't in the best interest of the ballclub to try doing that," Aikman said.
So after 12 seasons, six division titles and three Super Bowl championships, Aikman will no longer be wearing a star on the side of his helmet.
But, if he has his way, the 34-year-old Aikman will still be playing in the NFL — despite the 10 career concussions and ongoing back pain that many thought might drive him into retirement before the Cowboys had to push him out.
"I'm still capable of going out and playing at a high level and being healthy and doing the things necessary to be productive," Aikman said.
The most likely landing spot is San Diego, where close friend Norv Turner is the offensive coordinator.
The Chargers, who released incumbent starter Ryan Leaf last week, also could use Aikman to groom Michael Vick should they make him the first pick in the upcoming draft.
"I would certainly entertain that thought," Aikman said.
Smith, Woodson Are Left From Championship Teams
Jones said Aikman's fragility and contract were part of many factors that forced him to drop the first player he ever drafted.
"If you're in my shoes and have been able to get up for the last 12 years and have a franchise quarterback, that's a luxury in the NFL," Jones said. "I'm going to miss that personally and we're going to miss that as an organization."
Aikman actually will have a big impact on the 2001 season: He takes up $10 million of the team's $67.4 million salary cap.
Because of Aikman's new cap figure, Dallas had to release veteran Erik Williams and Chad Hennings, plus rework several other contracts, to get back under the league-mandated figure.
The departure of Aikman, Williams and Hennings means that only Emmitt Smith and Darren Woodson remain from the teams that won Super Bowls in 1992, '93 and '95.
Cowboys Considering Banks, Dilfer
The salary cap was implemented in 1994 and has drastically changed the way business is done in the NFL. Jones has creatively played the money game, often by deferring dollars to future years in hopes of having more room under the cap.
But this move shows that Jones is taking the clear-out-the-cap-and-start-over approach. While he's not admitting to blowing off the 2001 season, he is eyeing 2002.
"One year from today, we'll see the effects I'm talking about," Jones said. "In today's NFL, having that type of cap room, you can turn a non-playoff team into a contender as we've seen four teams in the last two years end up in the Super Bowl when they weren't in the playoffs the year before."
The Cowboys are 39-41 in the regular season since their last Super Bowl. They're 1-3 in the playoffs and are on their third head coach.
As for their next quarterback, there's no obvious answer. The only ones left on the roster are Anthony Wright, who lost his two starts last year, and Clint Stoerner, who threw just five passes.
Being strapped on the salary cap will make it tough to sign a free agent such as Tony Banks, who visited Tuesday, or Trent Dilfer. The draft may be a better option, although Dallas has no first-round pick.
Whoever takes over will be in a tough spot. Then again, it can't be any tougher than Aikman faced when he was the top overall pick in the 1989 draft and immediately was labeled the franchise's savior.
After losing his first 11 games, Aikman won 90 in the 1990s, the most for any quarterback in any decade.
He won his first seven playoff games and 10 of his first 11. He was the MVP of his first Super Bowl, then joined Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw as the only quarterbacks with at least three Super Bowl victories.
And although fantasy football players weren't enamored with Aikman, he does have impressive career numbers: 2,898 of 4,715 passes (61.5 percent) for 32,942 yards, 165 touchdowns and 141 interceptions. In the playoffs, he was 320-of-502 (63.7 percent) for 3,849 yards, 23 TDs and 17 INTs.