ATLANTA -- Cornelius Bennett, a five-time Pro Bowler who led the Atlanta Falcons in tackles during their Super Bowl season, was released by the team on Wednesday.
The stunning move was announced late in the afternoon in a three-paragraph statement, which included no explanation from Falcons coach Dan Reeves or general manager Harold Richardson.
But the release of Bennett apparently stems from his age -- he will be 34 by the start of next season -- and a salary cap figure that would have been $3.7 million for the final year of the $13.6 million, four-year contract he signed in 1996.
The Falcons cleared a spot in the lineup for Keith Brooking, the team's first-round draft pick a year ago. After a slow start, Brooking was playing regularly in passing situations by the end of the season.
Reached at his home, Richardson declined to comment on the release of Bennett, deferring to Reeves. But the head coach was on vacation and not available for comment, according to Falcons spokesman Charlie Taylor.
Richardson did say the decision had nothing to do with off-the-field problems. Prior to this past season, Bennett spent 35 days in a New York jail for a guilty plea to sexual misconduct charges, but he returned to have his best season with the Falcons.
"There wasn't anything extraordinary," Richardson said. "There's no hidden agenda. There's nothing that someone ought to know, none of that. I'm being honest with you."
Bennett's agent, Eugene Parker of Fort Wayne, Ind., did not immediately return a telephone message left at his office.
Supposedly one of the NFL's most upstanding players, Bennett's reputation took a severe blow after a May 1997 sexual encounter in a Buffalo hotel room. The female victim was treated for trauma and skin cuts, and Bennett, who is married, pleaded guilty to sexual misconduct.
The linebacker entered counseling and became a born-again Christian. According to his teammates and coaches, he returned to the Falcons with a new outlook on life and became one of the leading figures in the improbable run to the Super Bowl.
Bennett led the team with 120 tackles, ending Jessie Tuggle's nine-year streak in that category, and was a major part of the Falcons' pass coverage.
He was Pro Bowler during five of his nine seasons with the Buffalo Bills, establishing himself as one of the game's most dominating defensive players. His best year was 1991, when he played five positions and had 107 tackles and nine sacks.
Bennett played in four straight Super Bowls with the Bills, losing each time. He became a five-time loser 2 1/2 weeks ago when Denver defeated the Falcons 34-19 in the title game.
In other moves Wednesday, free-agent safety Devin Bush signed a four-year contract with the St. Louis Rams and offensive lineman Dave Widell was released along with Bennett.
Bush, 25, was a first-round selection by the Falcons out of Florida State in 1995. He started 36 games for the Falcons but was relegated to a backup role in 1998 after the team signed Eugene Robinson.
Bush appeared in 13 games for the NFC champions. He had 24 tackles, forced two fumbles and recovered one.
Widell, 33, played only one game during his lone season with the Falcons. The 11-year veteran, who also has played with Jacksonville, Denver and Detroit, was inactive for the final 14 games of the regular season and the entire postseason.
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