Veteran center Brian Williams, who returned to football after missing the last two years with an eye injury, was also released along with halfback Gary Brown, linebacker Marcus Buckley and guard Lance Scott.
The moves are expected to cut $5.3 million from the Giants' salary cap with the free agency period set to start Friday, a period that New York sees as vital after missing the playoffs the last two years.
"It's never easy," Fassel said late Thursday afternoon after the moves were announced. "Hard cold decisions have to be made."
Fassel admitted he would like to have Graham return next season if things don't work out in free agency, but that might be hard for Graham to accept.
The coldness of the decisions involving him and Williams were apparent.
Graham, who lost his starting job to Kerry Collins with six games left in the regular season, was told either his salary was going to be cut from $1.3 million to $440,000 or he was going to be released.
Williams was advised his salary was going from $1.5 million to $500,000 or else he would be going.
In both cases, the players refused the cuts and opted for free agency.
"In the last couple of days they called and said take the minimum and there were no negotiations other than that," said Graham, who won the starting job at the end of the 1998 season, leading New York to five wins in six games. "It really left me no choice but ..."
The eight-year veteran said he met with Fassel and offensive coordinator Sean Payton last week and was ready to return as Collins' backup for the 2000 season.
However, the money issue prevented that, a fact Graham found surprising since last year the Giants indicated that the starting quarterback was the most important position on the team and his backup was the second most important.
However, that was when general manager Ernie Accorsi shelled out nearly $17 million to sign the troubled but talented Collins.
"Now things have changed to where they are going to pay the backup only the minimum," said Graham, who insisted he was not bitter after Thursday's events. "The philosophy has changed and I am obviously not part of their plans."
Fassel said that wasn't entirely true. The coach, who is facing a make-or-break season as far as his own future, said he would love to take Graham back if free agency doesn't work out for him.
Fassel even indicated the Giants might have more money for Graham later on, although Graham wasn't so sure Accorsi wanted him on the team, noting the general manager staked his reputation signing Collins.
The decision to cut Williams, the Giants' first-round draft pick in 1989, came as the center was considering whether he wanted to retire.
However, the Giants did not want to wait for an answer right away.
"I never sensed I would be a casualty of the salary cap," Williams said. "It's difficult when you one day have the coach saying he wants you back and the next day they want you to take a pay cut. What are you supposed to think. I can't say I'm bitter. Being an older player, I understand the numbers game."
Williams, who never regained the form he showed prior to his eye injury, said he likes the idea of being a free agent and he felt physically he was getting back into football shape. But he also wasn't sure he wanted to go through the toil of getting ready for another season, a fact that might lead to retirement.
"This is the reality of life under the salary cap," Accorsi said. "It's also the reality of being 8-8 and 7-9. That is not acceptable. Change is necessary."
Williams and Graham have been around long enough to know these things happen.
"I'm not happy, but I'm OK with it," Williams said.
"I can accept this as a business decision," said Graham, who was 5-4 as a starter last season. "I think they are wrong."
Brown, who missed most of last season with injuries, was scheduled to make $1 million in 2000. Buckley, who lost his starting job to Ryan Phillips, would make $900,000.
Scott, who missed last season because of a knee injury, was due a $350,000 roster bonus next month. He would have made $600,000 this season.
The Giants also signed fourth-year safety Sam Garnes to a four-year, $8 million contract on the eve of free agency.
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