When the National Football League and the young American Football League reached a peace settlement last year, it seemed to the owners that most of their troubles were over. The delightful bargaining position enjoyed by the players for six years had come to an end. No longer, the clubs reasoned, would an old hand like Jimmy Taylor play out his option, with the threat of going to an American Football League team for a million-dollar contract. Obviously, no million-dollar contracts would exist. No longer, either, could a Donny Anderson or a Joe Namath demand—and get—a king's ransom for services unproved and untested. The era of big bonuses was at an end, the era of big profits at hand. The clubs would sit back, wax fat on television contracts and gradually apply a squeeze to salaries and bonuses.
It hasn't turned out quite that way. Fully aware of what the AFL-NFL peace could do to their earnings, more players have elected to play out options this season than in years past. John Unitas, no great bargainer during the years of his ascendance, has been reluctant to reach an agreement with the Baltimore Colts. Five players, represented by an attorney, tried to bargain as a group with Art Modell, the owner of the Cleveland Browns, and were given vocal support by Jim Brown, the movie actor who once played fullback for Modell. Alex Karras, 32 years old, got an amazing seven-year contract with the Detroit Lions as a defensive tackle, and Taylor, having spent a year running out the option clause on his contract at Green Bay, went to the New Orleans Saints on a contract reminiscent of Namath's. All over the league the players were growing more restless, and the owners, rather than enjoying carefree days, found problems proliferating.
Modell broke the solid front of the five players who confronted him in Cleveland by trading away two of them and negotiating with the other three singly, but Leroy Kelly, the second best running back in the league in 1966, is playing out his option. That means he must take a 10% cut on his 1966 salary and hope to make the loss back, with interest, by negotiating a deal with another team after May 1, 1968, when he becomes a free agent. But whatever team signs him must compensate Cleveland for his loss, either with players, cash or draft choices. Even Kelly may find himself priced out of the market.
Tex Schramm, the Dallas general manager and a veteran of the old pro football war between the All-America Conference and the National Football League, has accepted the new challenge with his accustomed cool. Many of the players who held out for more money this year reported to camp without new contracts, thus avoiding the $100-a-day fine levied on any team member reporting late for training and placing themselves in an available spot for bargaining. One holdout, after a long, silent battle of nerves with Schramm, approached him after practice.
"I think it's about time we had a talk," he said.
"About what?" the general manager asked blandly.
The Teamsters' Union, concentrating on Negroes, is making a strong effort to organize the players, possibly on the theory that most of them are as big as trucks anyway. The Teamsters have made small progress, although Brown has been offered a job as their agent. If he can organize all the Negroes—who represent about 25% of the players in both leagues—then the Teamsters need only get another 8½% to force a vote. So far, however, the majority of players have evinced little interest in a union.
"You can't arrive at a wage scale," one veteran said the other day. "A Jimmy Brown gets, say, $60,000 a year, and he's worth it. With a union, I think it would tend to level out salaries. We average maybe $15,000 over the league now. Is the union going to get all of us that much more? I don't think so. And it would probably cut out the shot at the big money."
Union or no union, the players' bargaining position is still strong, despite the elimination by the merger of competitive bidding. There are now 25 major league professional football teams; as recently as 1959 there were only 12. The talent, obviously, has been spread thin, and the really first-rate professional football player is commensurately more valuable. The surprising exhibition-game success of the New Orleans Saints, the newest addition to the NFL, is evidence of this. When the Dallas Cowboys were admitted to the league in 1960, they had to make do with culls and misfits and fielded a truly horrendous team. It was bad primarily because of the sharp contrast with other NFL teams, most of them careful blends of experienced specialists.
The Saints, on the other hand, are not that much worse off than the teams they will be meeting this year. They are probably a better club than was Dallas in 1960 but, more important, they are playing at a time when the best players have been parceled out among 25 teams, not 13. The Saints won five of their exhibition games, two more than the American Football League could win against the NFL in 16 games.
Still, the interleague competition did lend a welcome spice to the exhibition season and provided two huge surprises when the Denver Broncos managed to beat both the Detroit Lions and the Minnesota Vikings. The Kansas City Chiefs won a perfectly legitimate victory over the depleted Chicago Bears 66-24, then discovered that life in the NFL is not all that easy when the Los Angeles Rams whomped them as convincingly as had Green Bay in the Super Bowl in January.
The strength of Green Bay, Los Angeles, Dallas and Kansas City points up another effect of the rapid expansion of pro football. The draft, long an equalizer, will grind fine the good teams much more slowly than it has in the past. The talent-rich clubs will stay on top longer. The weaker teams, needing immediate help, must trade draft choices to the strong clubs. The strong clubs, with a preponderance of draft choices, will be able to build for the future.
A team like the Rams, for instance, could afford to trade a first draft choice and a couple of less valuable picks for Roger Brown to replace injured Roosevelt Grier. The Rams have a huge backlog of good players. The same trade by a talent-poor team such as the New York Giants could mean giving up a player who might be a star for 10 years for a stopgap who has only two or three good years left. The Pittsburgh Steelers, floundering under Buddy Parker, traded draft choices for veterans for several years and wound up a decimated, almost hopeless team.
The remedy is fairly simple. Pete Rozelle, the commissioner of pro football, should forbid any trades of first draft choices. And the waiver rule, which states that the last-place team should get first choice of any players cut before the season begins, should be revised. Now as the better teams near the deadline for the player limit, the most promising of their surplus young players are often traded to weaker teams for medium draft choices. If Rozelle placed a deadline on trading, say two weeks before the last date for cutting down to the league limit, then the weaker teams could acquire some good players at the time of their release without having to trade their future picks away. Over a period of years the weak teams, as in the past, could build back up to strength, and the strong teams, handicapped by a late first draft choice and a drain on their better reserves, would come back.
If the football fan is not yet conscious of these subterranean faults in the development of the game, he is by now very much aware of the new structure of the National Football League, which divides the Eastern and Western Conferences into two divisions each. The divisions have been named Coastal, Central, Century and Capitol. The alliteration may have satisfied some artistic yen in the soul of the owners, but it seems only to have rendered more difficult the differentiation between divisions. The Coastal—a long stretch around the shores of the U.S.—is especially weird, since it is comprised of San Francisco, Los Angeles, Atlanta and Baltimore. The Capitol does include Washington, and the Central is fairly central (if you include Detroit in the Midwest), but the Century's only justification is that two of the cities are on the route of the New York Central's 20th Century Limited.
Since there will be playoffs inside the conferences, the NFL comes up with two additional big national TV games. The club revenues will go up, and so probably will the players' salary demands.
It could be a long, hot winter.