Bruce Smith and Thurman Thomas followed Andre Reed into free agency Thursday, breaking the Buffalo Bills' last ties to the Super Bowl teams of the 1990s.
"It's a sad day, a very sad day," an emotional Smith, 36, told The Associated Press after his release.
"I thought I would have finished my career in Buffalo and had an opportunity to go back and win a championship in Buffalo," the 15-year veteran said.
Instead, Smith, Thomas and Reed none of whom are ready to retire will test the free agency market.
"The Bills felt squeezed by 'cap-onomics,"' said agent Leigh Steinberg, who represents Smith and Thomas, referring to the NFL's $62.2 million salary cap. "Neither of these players wanted to leave. It was their intention, since they both had long and illustrious careers, to stay."
Pressured to trim more than $10 million from their payroll by Friday's salary cap deadline, the Bills were unable to make 12-year veteran Thomas an offer and offered Smith about half of the $4.6 million he was slated to make, Steinberg said.
Reed, meanwhile, had wanted to go. While becoming the No. 2 receiver in NFL history last season, he had grown increasingly disgruntled with his diminished role in the Bills' offense. He was told by coach Wade Philips on Wednesday that his 15-year career with the Bills was over.
"Today was the big day I've been waiting for," Reed said afterward on his Internet site. "The Bills released me. Isn't it something? Most people don't want to be released, but I wanted this so bad. My wife even said, 'We're free agents now! I'm so happy for you.' It's a big sigh of relief that it's over with."
Reed, Smith and Thomas, who have come to be known as the Big Three, have spent their entire careers in Buffalo.
Running back Thomas, 33, rushed for more than 1,000 yards eight straight seasons beginning in his second year in 1989. He had his best seasons in the Super Bowl years of 1990-93 and holds NFL playoff records for games (20), touchdowns (21) and yards gained (2,114).
He accepted a reduced role in the offense last season when he stepped aside for Antowain Smith.
Reed, 35, passed Art Monk with 945 catches to trail only Jerry Rice in career NFL receptions. Reed also passed Steve Largent and took over fourth place on the NFL's yards receiving list with 13,095.
In his final season in Buffalo, Smith led the Bills defense to a No. 1 ranking for the first time in franchise history.
"I wanted to be (in Buffalo) more than anything," said Smith, wh named the city's fans and coaches among the things he'll miss.
"These are strong ties built over the course of 15 years and now it's gone," he said. "My father always told me in the midst of adversity, in the midst of a struggle, 'It builds character. Stay strong, be positive, look ahead, don't look back.'
"I can do that," he said, "but I'll never forget the fans of Buffalo and the people I've grown to love."
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