Here's the key question to consider after the Minnesota Vikings made it official Monday and released punter Chris Kluwe: Would Kluwe be an ex-Viking today if he had never campaigned for gay rights, Hall of Fame candidacies and other issues?
My informed guess: Probably.
So what impact did Kluwe's public advocacy play in the Vikings' decision? It moved the odds from "probably" to "certainty," erasing any equity his eight-career with the franchise might otherwise have built.
I know that explanation won't satisfy those of you who are convinced the Vikings targeted Kluwe because he took on a politically and socially sensitive issue. It's easy to see this move, contextualize it with the Baltimore Ravens' release of special-teams ace Brendon Ayanbadejo, and suspect an agenda against NFL players who get involved in the gay rights issue.
I just don't think it's that simple. When viewed through the bigger picture of NFL business, and in the context of the Vikings' personnel approach over the past 16 months, you realize that Kluwe's off-field life was at best the final shove at the end of the plank.
Kluwe finished 2012 ranked No. 31 among NFL punters in a statistic the Vikings value highly: punts downed inside the 20. Of Kluwe's 72 punts, 18 settled in what the league considers poor field position. By comparison, the Chicago Bears' Adam Podlesh nearly doubled Kluwe's total among his 81 punts. Podlesh finished with 34, while Green Bay Packers punter Tim Masthay had 30 in 70 punts.
Kluwe set a career high with a 39.9-yard net average, but that mark still ranked in the lower half (No. 18 overall) among punters.
In a relatively flat salary-cap era, the Vikings had an opportunity for significant savings. Because of a rarely needed NFL rule, Kluwe has no acceleration remaining on his six-year deal. Thus, all of his projected $1.45 million cap figure has been erased. His replacement, Jeff Locke, will count about a third of that total. In two years, in fact, the Vikings have shaved 23 years off the combined age of their punter and place-kicker and have lowered their cap commitment for those roles by two-thirds.
So in cold business terms, the Vikings had a 31-year-old punter who turned in a below-average performance last season and was entering the final year of his contract. They had several options, including keeping Kluwe for one more season, before deciding whether to re-sign him.
But if you've watched general manager Rick Spielman operate since January 2012, when he was promoted to his current role, you know he has systematically bid farewell to 30-plus-year-old players. The list ranges from guard Steve Hutchinson to linebacker E.J. Henderson to cornerback Antoine Winfield, and it has left only three players on the roster who are older than 30.
Even the most youth-oriented NFL teams make age exceptions for specialists, as the Vikings apparently have for Loeffler. But that's where Kluwe's advocacy came in. The Vikings didn't resent his personal views, per se, but his pursuit of them at a time when his own performance was slipping served to eliminate any benefit of the doubt he might have held with decision-makers. If they were otherwise inclined to wait another year for this move, or had some hesitation about using a rookie punter, Kluwe's standing wasn't high enough to push them in the other direction. He implied a divided attention, whether or not that was actually the case, and that isn't a recipe for convincing football-focused bosses that his performance was likely to turn around.
Kluwe made a true and real impact on a national issue, one so significant that NBA player Jason Collins thanked him by name last week when announcing he is gay. Those efforts didn't cost Kluwe his job Monday, but they eliminated any chance for saving it.