In the strongest comments yet from any Tennessee Titans executive about the future of Eddie George, owner Bud Adams acknowledged that the veteran tailback almost certainly will not be back this season.
Speaking to The Tennessean on Tuesday at a two-day league meeting in Amelia Island, Fla., Adams addressed offseason rumors that George will be a post-June 1 salary cap casualty unless he restructures his contract to provide the cap-strapped Titans much needed wiggle room.
"I'm very pessimistic," Adams said. "And I don't see him [coming] back. The closer we get to June 1st, you know, I don't think he'll be with us. I'll be watching someone else [play tailback] for the Titans. That's not what we intended, but it looks like that's the way it's going to be."
George apparently took Adams comments to heart, and acknowledged to a New York Times reporter Thursday that he wouldn't be retiring as a Titan, as was his hope.
''I guess these are my last days in Nashville, and there is not much left to do but go back and pack my things,'' George said. ''I wanted to retire a Titan. I had faith that this was going to get done and it would be a win-win situation for both of us.
''I'm going to make an effort to go and personally talk to them when I get back. But it's kind of difficult when the man paying the bills makes statements like that.''
Viewed around the league as still productive but clearly in decline over the past two seasons, George is scheduled for a $4.25 million base salary in 2004. His salary cap charge of $7.321 million might be more palatable if he was still playing up to past standards, but it's now considered exorbitant.
''This is just not a money issue,'' George said. ''I wanted to give them instant cap relief, work out some kind of extension, guarantee me $4 million or so in some fashion, and I would take the cuts for this year. But it never got to that point; we never got to talk about that. They had already told me that my role might be reduced, and I was wondering with any contract with incentives how would I reach them in a reduced role. I have a shot at the Hall of Fame. I don't want to limp in,'' George said.
General manager Floyd Reese, who seems to annually deal with a salary cap squeeze, spoke to agent Lamont Smith earlier in the offseason about adjusting George's contract. It is believed the Titans suggested George's base salary be halved. But there have been no substantive discussions in recent months and George has hinted in his public statements that he is reluctant to accept a pay cut.
Even Smith appears to have conceded that George will change teams.
''The owner has spoken, he signs the checks," Smith was quoted as saying in The Tennessean on Wednesday. "Anything I say after him speaking would ring hollow right now. I can't make Eddie George come back there. I have no control over whether they keep him."
One reason is how the Titans dealt with former middle linebacker Randall Godfrey, a very popular player, last spring. Tennessee first convinced Godfrey to restructure his contract, implying it would help to secure him a roster spot, but subsequently released him anyway.
George was among the most outspoken critics of the maneuver with Godfrey, likening it to stabbing his former teammate in the back.
Of his own situation, George said, ''I wanted to work my way in and do it with the Titans. It sounds like they wanted to put me in a situation where I'm taking a cut and not playing as much. Where is the win-win in that?''
If the Titans release George after June 1, when teams can ameliorate the impact on their 2004 salary cap, they would still be charged $3.071 million for him while also recouping $4.25 million. Under such a scenario, the Titans would be able to defer a cap hit of about $4.15 million to 2005.
Currently just $1.097 million under the cap, according to documents obtained by ESPN.com, the Titans must create room to sign 13 players selected in the draft. Tennessee has a rookie allocation pool of $4.702 million, fifth-largest in the league.
George, 30, is rehabilitating from offseason knee and ankle surgery, and while he has attended the team's conditioning program he has not been cleared to participate full-speed in workouts. The recent surgeries are further indication of the wear and tear the eight-year veteran has displayed the last couple of seasons, a physical erosion not uncommon to running backs as they near 30.
Although he has never missed a regular-season game, starting 128 straight, George underwent toe surgery in the 2001 offseason that seemed to signal a downturn in production. He rushed for over 1,000 yards each of the last two seasons, but averaged an anemic 3.4 yards per carry.
In fact, not since 1999 has the workhorse averaged more than four yards per attempt and he hasn't been over a 3.5-yard average since 2000. His career total stands at 10,009 yards and he gained 1,000 yards in all but one season.
With his stellar character and warrior mentality, there probably will be a market for George if the Titans release him, but he certainly would have to lower his financial expectations. His current contract runs through 2006. The Titans did pay George a $1 million roster bonus in March, perhaps a sign that they felt, at that point, there was a chance of retaining him.
"I'm sitting here now, [and] it looks to me like his agent doesn't want him to play for us," Adams said. "We offered him a pretty good deal, but he wouldn't take it. So we won't have much choice. [George] is a leader, we've won a lot of games with him, and he's a good guy to have on the team. You hate to lose a guy like that, but we have to look at the overall situation."
The heir apparent to George is Chris Brown, a third-round pick from Colorado in the 2003 draft, but a youngster who suffered through a nagging hamstring injury as a rookie. His upright running style is frequently compared to that of George.
Appearing in 11 games, Brown carried 56 times for 221 yards and no touchdowns. He also caught eight passes for 61 yards and no scores.
"If [Brown] is over his injury, and I think he is, he could move into that [starting] spot," Adams allowed. "That wasn't our intention. Our intention was to get Eddie back. But we made our offer, they said no, so I don't see that happening."
The earliest the Titans could release George and still gain some cap relief for 2004 is after 4 p.m. on June 1.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.