Head Coach Raheem Morris (left) and General Manager Mark Dominik explained the thought process that led to Wednesday's tough decisions
Is Derrick Brooks the greatest player in Tampa Bay Buccaneers history?
If you made that choice, you would probably say "with apologies to" only one man, the legendary Lee Roy Selmon. That's a measure of how singular Brooks' body of work has been over his 14 seasons as a Buccaneer.
Selmon, of course, has the advantage of already being in the Hall of Fame, while Brooks, until Wednesday, was still in position to add to his Buccaneer exploits. The clock won't start ticking on Brooks' Hall of Fame candidacy until he chooses to retire, but the 11-time Pro Bowler has completed his run in Tampa Bay.
On Wednesday, General Manager Mark Dominik and Head Coach Raheem Morris gathered a press conference to announce that the team has released Brooks, along with running back Warrick Dunn, wide receivers Joey Galloway and Ike Hilliard and linebacker Cato June. Dominik made it clear that the moves were not salary cap-related and that those five accomplished players would not be returning, as the franchise forges on in a new direction.
Selmon was forced into retirement following the 1984 season thanks to a back injury. Brooks saw his time end in Tampa when he sat down in Morris' office on Wednesday morning.
Neither ending was easy for anyone involved, but just as Selmon walked off with his head held high and his trademark smile in place, Dominik stressed that Brooks brought the same unwavering professionalism into Wednesday's meeting as he has applied to every aspect of his career. Brooks even accepted an invitation to speak with team Co-Chairman Bryan Glazer so that Glazer could share his family's appreciation for all that the linebacker has done over the last 14 years, on and off the field.
"Derrick is obviously one of the greatest Buccaneers of all time, and again these decisions are tough for us to make, but it's a decision and it's a direction we feel like we want to head as a franchise and as an organization," said Dominik. "I would say that, for us, today's a very difficult day."
Dunn, Galloway, Hilliard and June also produced some of the better seasons in franchise history, and all were integral parts of playoff seasons. It was important to team management to pay respect to all five players as the Bucs made the moves they felt were necessary to point the team in the right direction.
"Today is to let you know that we let some great individuals go," continued Dominik. "Warrick Dunn, for what he's done on and off the football field...a lot of people give him credit for his off-the-field [activities] but what he's done on the field is simply, truly amazing for his career. Ike Hilliard has spent a long time in the National Football League catching a lot of passes, a lot of first downs for us in Tampa. These guys won us a lot of football games, so it's a difficult day. Cato June came over and made a direct impact, an instant impact with the franchise, so this was not an easy day. And Joey [Galloway] sparked us with three 1,000-yard seasons."
Still, the decision that drew the most attention at Wednesday's press briefing was the release of Brooks. Dominik said the Buccaneers were motivated by a need to test the talents of some of the other untapped players on the roster.
"It wasn't so much what Derrick Brooks or Cato June couldn't do, it's the direction we want to do with the guys that are currently on the roster and the men that are going to join us as we create the roster over the next few months to get to training camp," said Dominik.
"The idea is to improve the talent of the football team in everything we do. Time will tell but I think that's our decision and that's the direction we're heading. As Coach Morris said, there's not going to be another Derrick Brooks but we're going to have a young man step up and fill those shoes.
"We believe there are players on this roster, at linebacker as well, that have the opportunity to step up and play and compete for a starting job at Will 'backer, Sam 'backer, at wide receiver, running back. We believe there are some young men already on the roster as we sit here today, yes, absolutely."
That some of the players who will get an opportunity to prove themselves in larger roles are younger players – such as Barrett Ruud as a leader or Quincy Black as a potential starter – does not mean the Bucs were specifically starting a youth movement with Wednesday's roster maneuvers.
"We're not looking younger," said Morris. "We want to look like our plan, what we've got laid in front of us. Ronde Barber's not younger, Chris Hovan's not younger – these guys are all part of the plans still. The guys that were released today are not, but we respect them."
In fact, the Buccaneers would like to see their potential new contributors emulate the men who were released on Wednesday. The younger Bucs may not be put in the exact same roles as their predecessors, but they would do well to approach their jobs in a similar fashion.
"They've got to possess some of the qualities of the men we just let go today," said Morris. "No knock on these men; we're looking for men like them that are going to carry us into the new decade."