The questions started as soon as it was announced in March that Doug Williams's contract was not being renewed by the Washington Redskins.
People wanted to know why Williams was sent away without any fanfare, how a Super Bowl star quarterback could get away without a party and a retirement watch. He simply slid out a back door of Redskin Park and was gone. There was a news conference, but he wasn't at it. How could this be?
Simple. Doug Williams did not -- would not -- retire. He wants to play football this fall. The Redskins say, as other teams certainly would, that they are not about to toast someone who soon could be playing for the enemy.
So how does a team say goodbye to its superstars? It's a quandary that has hit the Redskins especially hard the past few years. Even more pointedly, how do you wish a player well when he is about to slam the door behind him on his way out?
In the last five years, the Redskins have let go of some of the most beloved and charismatic stars in the history of the franchise: John Riggins, Mark Moseley, Dave Butz, Joe Theismann, George Starke, Mark Murphy, Neal Olkewicz and Williams, among others. No other NFL team with such a hold over its town and its fans has had so much change in this period.
Some of those players and some of their fans believe they were not treated properly. There has not been a halftime celebration or a "day" for any of them, even after it was clear they were not going to be playing anywhere in the NFL. (Coach Joe Gibbs said recently, however, that the team is thinking of having a celebration for the long-gone veterans.)
On the other hand, perhaps the ex-players gave the team no chance to hold a party. Olkewicz was the only one of the bunch who left on his own. Everyone else resisted. "Fired," was the term Riggins used. Retire? No way, they said.
Yet only one, Moseley, went on to play more football. As it turned out, everyone else -- except perhaps Williams -- was finished with football when he left the Redskins, although he didn't know it then.
Gibbs said he spends more time thinking and worrying about how and when to let trusted veterans go than anything else in the offseason.
"I agonize over these decisions," Gibbs said in an interview. "I have four or five of these decisions every year. Is this the year? Or can this guy still play?" The Standard Procedure
When he has let a trusted veteran go, Gibbs has done it almost exclusively in the offseason. He always calls the player into his office and tells him in a private, secret meeting it's time for him to leave.
"I wished in those situations that all these guys could have retired," Gibbs said. "We were certainly ready to have them do that. We wanted to have a day for them. We'd like to have a press conference and have them stand up there and have it be a happy day. When I have my private meetings with them, I'd like to have them say, 'Hey, Joe, I think you're right. I've had a great career. Let's call a press conference. Let's have a great day and go out with a smile.' Yet that's not reality. That's not the way it happens."
"Most of us don't believe our time is up," said Moseley, the kicker who was released in midseason 1986 in the midst of a slump, then finished the season with Cleveland, going to the conference finals. "We've all been taught to fight and not give up, even when things look their worst. So that carries over to our careers. It's not easy to listen to a coach tell you it's over. You naturally want to fight back."
"When you take a guy and sit down with him," Gibbs continued, "they're not ready to retire. They have champions' hearts. They don't want it to be over. So when I start talking, most of the time, the discussion never even gets to the point where I say, 'We want to have a day for you.' The first thing they say is, 'I can still play.' "
"One of the reasons is that the money is so great," said Murphy, the free safety who became assistant executive director of the NFL Players Association after he was let go by the Redskins before the 1985 season. "Players say to themselves, 'What if I can get one more year at $500,000?' " Their option is an outside job at about $40,000. Most guys have done nothing but play football since high school. The majority don't have their degrees. They are not prepared to do anything but play football."
"You play 20 years, you want to play 21," said Starke, the offensive lineman who also was released before the 1985 season.
"I thanked Gibbs when he cut me because I knew it was time," said popular linebacker and special teams player Pete Cronan, dropped during the 1985 season. "I had my day."
Gibbs again: "So then there is a period of time when they feel hurt. As a coach, to be truthful, I don't try to go back around the guy for a while. There's a hurt there that won't go away until somewhere down the road. Our relationship might never be the same. I know that and I hate that. But it's part of what I do. I purposely don't call them or hunt them down or try to be their friend. I don't think they want to talk to me. I don't think they want to stand up in front of a press conference with me. There can't be a party. This guy doesn't want to retire. His feelings are hurt. The fans don't understand that. Lots of times, there are tears shed. All they want to do is get away from here, get away from me."
"The fans say that the team does everybody wrong, that they did Butz wrong, that they did me wrong, and I don't agree with it," said Riggins, the now legendary running back who was released after the 1985 season. "Everybody's got to understand it's a business . . . a brutal business, so of course you'll be upset and hurt. That's the nature of the beast. No one's at fault. Likewise, I'm not asking for any kind of celebration after the fact. If they did something for me at halftime, I might be uncomfortable with that."
Gibbs said when he speaks to the media and talks about releasing a player, he often doesn't say as much as he wants to say.
"I'm not going to say what goes on behind closed doors," Gibbs said. "Lots of times I'll only say things in public that are pertinent. . . . Sometimes fans have to be smart enough to understand there are other reasons for a player leaving that I'm not bringing out. A player will say to me, 'I don't want to retire. Put me on the waiver wire.' I'm not going to say anything about him that will jeopardize his chances of making it with another team."
"I was still trying to come back in 1986," said Theismann, the talkative quarterback who never did return from his broken leg incurred in November 1985. "But then it's a shame because you sort of get swept under the carpet. The NBA has the goodbye tours, but football has nothing like that. There's such a finality to football. Golf has the seniors, tennis has the seniors, baseball and basketball have senior all-star games. There's nothing for us." Another Day in Sun
Players such as Theismann and Butz like the idea of a halftime celebration for the retired veterans.
"They've said they would do something for us," said Butz, who was released in 1989 after playing defensive tackle here for 14 years. "I think the guys would like that."
"Why not have a retired football players' day," Theismann asked. "Maybe the Redskins can have a day to honor the guys who have retired the last three or four years. They haven't done that, have they? It would be nice to ride around in a convertible and wave to the fans. I was never given the chance to say, 'Thanks a lot.'
"What bothers me so much about this is that our blood is supposed to be burgundy and gold and we're supposed to give everything for the team," Theismann continued. "Then, when it's over, you get, 'Excuse me, what was your name?' It really makes you wonder how sincere they were. Did they really care?
"It scares me the way the Redskins treat the people who leave. . . . They just want us out of the way. The Redskins are sold out, have been, will be. They don't really need to do it. Obviously, the Redskins certainly don't have to say goodbye nicely. But for people like Dave Butz, George Starke, Mark Moseley, those guys deserve a ride around the field on opening day of the 1990 season."
Gibbs isn't convinced ex-players want that.
"I'd want what they want," he said. "But I'd be willing to bet that if you ask four or five guys to come back, there might be two of them that want to come. The real old guys, the ones who have been out of football 25-30 years, they like it. But I guarantee you most of the younger guys standing on the sidelines would still picture themselves as playing."
Gibbs said he tries to be aware of impending retirements and hopes to give players their moment, but it doesn't always happen. Although Riggins never retired, it was believed the 1985 season would be his last, especially when George Rogers replaced him late in the year.
"I talked to John at bed check one day and told him I was thinking of starting George," Gibbs said. "John told me, 'I don't want to play just to have a charity shot.' "
The final home game of the 1985 season, Riggins was introduced to the crowd and had an opportunity to bow as the fans stood and applauded, but he didn't play in the game. It has happened before: safety Ken Houston, a future Hall-of-Famer, didn't get to play in his final home game in 1980.
Three months later, Gibbs called Riggins in and told him he "had lost a step," and it was time for him to go. That's when Riggins told the world he had been fired.
"My natural reaction was to play devil's advocate," Riggins said. "If Joe had said to me that he was counting on me to come back another year, I probably would have said, 'Not so fast, Joe.' "
Gibbs did give Rogers playing time he probably would not have gotten in the Super Bowl against Denver because Gibbs thought that would be Rogers's last game -- and it was.
"I felt that was probably it for George," Gibbs said. "We put him in for a shot and to tell you the truth, I felt bad, kind of, doing that."The Class of '89
Olkewicz's situation was entirely different. The middle linebacker announced he was retiring and took a huge weight off Gibbs's shoulders.
"When a guy goes out the way Olky did, then that puts everything into play," Gibbs said. "We put together a highlight film of his career and played it in front of the team. The guys carried him off the field in Seattle. What's the best way to do it? That's the best way."
Less than three months later, Gibbs was dealing with Williams -- and it wasn't easy.
"I probably know Doug better than most guys," said Gibbs, who, as a Tampa Bay assistant, helped make the decision to draft him out of Grambling in 1978. "There's going to be a hurt there for a while, but I do know when I see Doug down the road, I'll have no problems talking to him."
It takes several years, most players admit, but a sense of perspective and calm settles in and nothing seems as bad as it did at the time.
"Being here locally, I still get the rewards of my years with the Redskins with my various businesses," Moseley said. "What more could I ask for? If I complain, I'd say shame on me. What do I have to complain about?"
"The bottom line," said Riggins, "is that having difficulty leaving football is the nature of the beast. We have to remember that no one is at fault."