Brooking's price exceeded production

ATLANTA -- Sentiment is a wonderful thing, but it doesn't do much to affect the bottom line, or just as important, a team's win-loss record.

Which explains, at least in part, why weakside linebacker Keith Brooking is a free agent studying airline schedules these days, instead of poring over an Atlanta Falcons playbook for his 12th season with the only NFL franchise for which he has ever suited up.

Give general manager Thomas Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith high grades for not succumbing to hometown nostalgia and for being very pragmatic -- qualities the franchise has lacked for much of its history.

Just as when the Tampa Bay Bucs released linebacker Derrick Brooks on Wednesday, and the Indianapolis Colts parted ways the day before with wide receiver Marvin Harrison, the Brooking decision undoubtedly came after some hard swallows by the Atlanta brass.

But all three players demonstrated a drop-off in productivity in recent seasons and were carrying -- or seeking -- big contracts. Their names were larger than their games at this point in their careers. Such departures occur every spring in the NFL and should no longer come as a surprise. That doesn't make the moves, however, any less difficult for the franchise involved.

No doubt, Brooking is not as effective as he was just a few seasons ago. And he is 32 years old, which in the NFL is regarded as a player's dotage.

Make no mistake, however, the Falcons will sorely miss Brooking on and off the field in 2009.

It is not hyperbole to suggest his exit is not unlike the springtime departure of longtime Braves pitcher John Smoltz to the Boston Red Sox. In a city that doesn't exactly have its sports heroes stick around for very long, both men were local icons. Their departures won't be felt as much on field as in the locker room.

One has to understand that Brooking was an Atlanta lifer. As is the case in Los Angeles, there are precious few around here.

Born in nearby Senoia, Ga., Brooking prepped at East Coweta High School. He starred at Georgia Tech. He was a legitimate hometown product. And as a team often criticized for ignoring local college talent, the Falcons chose him as the 12th overall player in the 1998 draft. Over the years, he became a big proponent of giving back to the community. His entire football career, and his good deeds, have come within a 50-mile radius of Atlanta.

It won't be the same without Brooking in the Falcons' dressing quarters, just as something obviously will be missing in the Braves' clubhouse this year. Given its heritage, this city has few sports icons -- Henry Aaron, Dale Murphy, Dominique Wilkins, Steve Bartkowski, Deion Sanders -- and in the span of a month, two crowd favorites have departed, when everyone assumed they would finish their careers with the teams that raised them.

Brooking was part of this city's sports heritage -- a hero to whom fans could relate, risen from the state's red clay, the local boy made good.

For most of his career, Brooking was a standout player. He recorded 1,127 tackles and 17 sacks in his tenure with the Falcons, but Brooking was more than about numbers.

Brooking was the truly the conscience of the team. He was the guy who made the sacrifice of moving from the weak side to middle linebacker when Jessie Tuggle retired in 2001. For the local media, Brooking was a go-to guy, a player who could always be counted on to speak -- and he usually spoke his mind -- when other Falcons players were rendered mute.

To their credit, team officials attempted to keep Brooking off the free-agent market, but at a price they considered reasonable. Dimitroff and Smith viewed him as a two-down player, one whose deficiencies in pass coverage had become obvious, magnified by the playoff loss at Arizona. The departure of Brooking could leave Atlanta with second-year middle linebacker Curtis Lofton flanked by a pair of newcomers.

But the Falcons are intent on being younger and more athletic on defense in 2009.

The process of rebuilding an NFL franchise frequently dictates such Brooking-type sacrifices. That doesn't make the resolution any easier for the decision-makers. At the same time, the fact that owner Arthur Blank endorsed the release of Brooking suggests the Falcons are now in the hands of two very good football people.

Falcons fans knew there was a chance Brooking would become an unrestricted free agent. Still, when the inevitable occurred, it was nonetheless stunning for those who have followed Brookings' Atlanta-based career.

And the resultant leadership void, and the perspective of tenure and history that Brooking takes with him, certainly leaves a hole in the heart of the city's sports fabric.

Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.