An Offseason Of Early NFL Retirements

NFL free agency has been absolutely crazy. Blockbuster trades, huge signings and a sense that the whole process is much more volatile than it has been in the past.

Overshadowed a bit in all of the moves, though, is the fact that a handful of big-name players simply decided they’re done playing for good. For most people, retiring at 55 would be an early retirement, but some of these guys were half that age.

Three of the biggest retirements came from Patrick Willis, Jason Worilds and Jake Locker.

It started with Willis, who is definitely the best of the bunch. For a while, he was the best linebacker in the NFL. He’s stepping away at 30 years old, and he never actually touched the field at age 30. That’s very young for a guy who, though he was past his prime, was still better than most of the league’s current linebackers.

He only played eight seasons in the NFL, but he made the Pro Bowl in seven of them.

Willis said it was about health. He struggled with injuries last season and eventually had to end his season because of a toe injury. He said it was about doing things on his terms, not being forced out by age and health. He certainly could have come back and been great next season, but he wanted to choose when to call it a career.

You have to respect him for that.

Willis has played his last NFL game at the age of 30.

Willis has played his last NFL game at the age of 30.

Locker’s retirement was surprising, if only for the potential he once had. He was thought of as perhaps the best pro quarterback prospect in college football before returning to college for another season—a season that went poorly, causing him to slip a bit in the draft.

He never really developed into the star the Tennessee Titans hoped he could be, but he was still a solid backup. If he had wanted, he could have stayed around to be a second- or third-string quarterback — getting paid millions to hold a clipboard.

Locker has already made over $12 million, though, and he said he wants to relax. He noted how football players need to have a fire driving them to play well, and he said he’s simply lost his passion for the game. He has enough money that, if he’s been smart with it, he can have financial security no matter what he does. Without the passion to play, he saw no point.

The most surprising retirement was that of Worilds. He wasn’t going to be the best player on the free agent market, but he was going to be a hot commodity — a big name. He could have signed a very nice contract in almost any city of his choosing. He’s only 27, and linebackers/defensive ends like him are always in demand.

Worilds, though, cited religion as his reason for stepping away. He is part of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and he said he wanted to devote more of his time to his faith. He wasn’t hurt, he was a guaranteed starter, but he just felt there were bigger things he needed to do than play football.

Three retirements, all of them well ahead of the age when these things are expected — all adding to an already crazy offseason.

There has been some speculation that this is not good for the NFL — as if players are running away while they can, afraid of injuries. Though these retirements all came at the same time, it’s not as much of a negative reflection on the NFL as it could be. Willis is the only one who is really citing injuries, and he’s also the oldest of the group.

Additionally, this isn’t entirely without precedent. Players have stepped away early before. For example, Jake Plummer, who wanted to stay healthy, and Barry Sanders, who just lost his desire to play.

It’s less of a critique of the NFL or a sign players don’t want to be part of the league and more a fluke that they all happened within days of each other.

Still, it does show that players are very much aware of what life holds for them after football, and it does factor into their decisions.

It also highlights the sport’s duality. It’s a game played for passion, love and excitement as well as a business entered into to earn a living. It’s part of the complexity of the game, the nature of the beast, and it changes and shapes the league every year.

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