Just a month ago, Anquan Boldin caught a touchdown and converted a huge third down in the Super Bowl for the Baltimore Ravens. What did that — plus three touchdowns earlier in the playoffs — earn him? A trade to the 49ers, just after he said he’d prefer to retire as a Raven than play somewhere else. Boldin later qualified that the trade is a “good thing,” but it’s pretty obvious that the deal, which took place while he was in Africa getting his charity on, was completely the work of the Baltimore Ravens’ front office. And, even in the notoriously ruthless NFL, Boldin’s situation is unusual: Rarely do Super Bowl–winning teams dispense with one of their main contributors.
The release of veterans, even talented ones, is not rare in a league without guaranteed contracts. This year alone, the Steelers have released James Harrison, a Pro Bowler as recently as 2011, and the Eagles have released Nnamdi Asomugha, who was slated to make $15 million in 2013. But it’s still been very rare to see a player of Boldin’s caliber either released or traded by a team that has just appeared in the Super Bowl. The reason for this seems pretty obvious: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Before Boldin, the highest-profile player to be released or traded away by a team that appeared in the Super Bowl was Larry Foote of the Pittsburgh Steelers after the 2008 season, and he was competing for playing time with Lawrence Timmons. (That Super Bowl gleam only lasts one year, though: The Steelers held on to Santonio Holmes for one more season before trading him following his Super Bowl MVP award, and the Patriots did the same with Deion Branch after his MVP performance.) Even David Tyree, perhaps the most famous example of the NFL’s what-have-you-done-for-me-lately nature — he never caught another pass after the famous helmet grab that helped the Giants beat the Patriots in 2007 — remained on the Giants’ roster on injured reserve during 2008 before being released.
Free agency is a different situation, and Super Bowl teams often let players walk for more money elsewhere after the reputation boost of a Super Bowl win (like Mario Manningham did in moving from the Giants to the Niners last off-season), but actually releasing or trading a player requires a concerted effort by the team to part ways. In the case of Boldin, who was owed $6 million this season, the Ravens decided that, with Torrey Smith evolving into a top receiver and Joe Flacco’s continued improvement, he just wasn’t worth the price tag. And in case you had any doubt that money was the motivation, look at what they got in return: a single sixth-round pick. The Ravens were going to get rid of Boldin no matter what, and the sixth rounder was better than nothing.
In an off-season that has already been and will continue to be filled with fan favorites receiving their walking players, it’s unlikely that there will be any personnel move as cold-blooded as trading Boldin away. In sports, the unsentimental move is usually smart — ask the San Francisco Giants about paying erstwhile World Series hero Aubrey Huff $20 million in the past two years to hit a total of 13 home runs — but the Ravens are out on a limb on this one. Six million dollars isn’t a crazy number for a guy like Boldin, who’s produced consistently his whole career. If the team, which overachieved in 2012, performs under expectations on offense in 2013, they’ll look both heartless and stupid.
UPDATE: Today, the Ravens went another step farther, releasing safety Bernard Pollard, who led the team in tackles last season and forced a major fumble in the AFC Championship Game, when he concussed Stevan Ridley. Pollard started for the Ravens last season and, at 28 years old, is still in the prime of his career; his release saves the Ravens $1 million against the cap.