The Buffalo Bills were present, but not Joe Cribbs. Across the field at Buffalo's Rich Stadium were the Detroit Lions, but not Billy Sims. Last Saturday night the Bills defeated the Lions 13-10 in a preseason game most notable for the absence of stars the teams could ill afford not to have in uniform. For the time being the fans had to be content with news of the third-year running backs' contract gridlock rather than their exploits on the gridiron.
Cribbs, lest you forget, was the AFC Rookie of the Year in 1980 and became only the second Buffalo back (after O.J. Simpson) to gain 1,000 yards rushing in consecutive seasons. Sims was the NFL Rookie of the Year in '80, and in '81 he rushed for a team-record 1,457 yards and 13 TDs.
Both Cribbs and Sims are represented by Jerry Argovitz, the dentist-turned-player-agent whom Lion owner Bill Ford has called a "lunatic" and a "leech." In a Detroit Free Press reader opinion survey that asked, "Do you think the Lions should renegotiate Sims's contract?" 64% said no. Said one reader, "He ought to get himself an attorney and get rid of that dentist."
However, in Buffalo, many fans agree with Quarterback Joe Ferguson, who believes owner Ralph Wilson's penurious-ness is beginning to affect the team. Wilson lost Receiver Ahmad Rashad to free agency in 1975 and allowed Linebacker Tom Cousineau to go to Canada and now to the Cleveland Browns. Wilson's reputation for sparing the checkbook goes back to the 1960s, before the AFL-NFL merger, when he teased Buffalo fans by drafting luminaries like Paul Warfield and Carl Eller but never seriously tried to sign them. "How can the Bills help but get a Joe Cribbs back?" Ferguson asked last week. "If a player signs a contract," Wilson had said, "he should live up to his word."
"Without Joe Cribbs," argues Argovitz, "the Buffalo Bills are like an airplane without wheels—they can't take off and they can't land. And without Billy Sims, Detroit can't even line up."
Last year Buffalo ran the ball 524 times, and Cribbs carried it 257 times. Cribbs was also Buffalo's No. 3 pass-catcher, with 40 receptions. Sims, too, is a workhorse. Of the Lions' 1,168 rushes in 1980 and '81, Sims made 609 of them. He had 26 of Detroit's 47 rushing touchdowns during that period, putting him just two shy of the Lion career record set by Nick Pietrosante in 1959-65.
In the season before Sims arrived, Detroit was 2-14. With him it has gone 9-7 and 8-8. Since Cribbs signed on, the Bills have gone 11-5 and 10-6, making the playoffs both seasons. In 1979, Buffalo was 7-9.
Cribbs is in the third year of a four-year contract worth a reported $845,000, counting bonuses, a maximum of $240,000 this year. After his second Pro Bowl selection, he inquired of Stew Barber, a Bills' vice-president, "Do you think I'm getting paid my real value?"
"Yes, Joe," Barber said, "because you're getting what it says you get right here in your contract."
The Bills were similarly cavalier with Cribbs in 1980. He was to get a $10,000 bonus if he rushed for 1,200 yards. He missed by 15 yards and got hot when the Bills refused to award him the bonus anyway. Last year Cribbs was replaced on the Pro Bowl team because of an injury suffered in Buffalo's playoff loss to Cincinnati. He asked Barber to send him and his wife to the Pro Bowl in Honolulu just the same, to "represent the Bills." Barber responded that to do so was against team policy. "It's the little things that show the Bills are a no-class operation," Cribbs said last week. "I always have to give in."
What Cribbs is asking for now is a new five-year deal for $3.47 million. In May the Bills offered him four years at a reported $1.2 million, counting incentives and bonuses. The two sides haven't had a meaningful talk since.
Sims is also in the third year of a four-year contract. He isn't trying to renegotiate his pay for this year; his beef with Detroit is over what he's to make next year. Sims insists that when he signed his original contract, money terms for the 1983 season were left blank, to be filled in after 1981—giving him two years to prove his worth. Sims swears he and Lion General Manager Russ Thomas shook hands on the arrangement. Nonsense, Thomas says. Sims marched into Lion Coach Monte Clark's office last April 1 and snapped, "The man lied. I want out."
About two weeks later Thomas sent Sims a new three-year contract filling in numbers for 1983-85 at a base of $1.13 million with an option year negotiable. Sims, who didn't want his contract extended beyond '83, was angered.
Last Wednesday Sims and Argovitz held a press conference in the Somerset Inn in Troy, Mich. to argue their case. In a move that he claimed would "blow the roof off the Silverdome," Argovitz pulled out a copy of a phone bill, which showed that Argovitz had placed a call from Houston to the number at Thomas' home in Detroit at 1:46 a.m. on June 6, 1980, the day on which Sims would sign the contract that is now in dispute. Argovitz says he had phoned to inform Thomas that Sims would accept a three-year deal, no more. According to Argovitz, Thomas insisted they meet that day and, when they did, Argovitz and Sims swear that Thomas agreed to "fill in" the fourth-year figures after the 1981 season. Afterward, Sims insists, he and Thomas shook hands on the deal. However, at the press conference, with the Silverdome roof still firmly in place, Argovitz admitted that at the time he was unaware that the Standard NFL Players Contract forbids verbal agreements. "It's not fair for Billy's dentist to fight Mr. Thomas' lawyers," says Argovitz, who has hired his own attorney, Gerald Tockman of St. Louis.
The press conference began with a surprise visit by Clark and the Detroit offensive line. "We miss you a lot, Billy," Tackle Keith Dorney said. "We think a lot of you as a human being, and we'd like to have you back."
Sims then spoke. "The issue isn't money," he said. "It's based on a man's handshake and his word. Hopefully now I can talk with Mr. Ford one-on-one. [As it developed, Sims was scheduled to confer with Ford this week.] Jerry Argovitz works for me; I can fire him when I get ready." The room erupted in cheers. "If Mr. Ford fires Mr. Thomas," Sims added, "I will fire Jerry Argovitz."
Cribbs seemed even further away from coming to terms with the Bills. Last week he was in Sulligent, Ala., visiting his mother. "There's no way I can play at my present salary," he said. "I'm fully aware of my value to the club as an all-purpose back. I run and catch passes. Not just dump passes; I go 40 yards downfield. I may not get 1,800 yards [rushing] like a George Rogers, but I'll get 1,000 or 1,200, which to the Bill attack is just as good as Rogers rushing for a ton of yards. Maybe things can be worked out if I can meet with the boss."
Seeing Wilson won't be easy. "I can't do anything about his holdout," says Bills Coach Chuck Knox, "but if he gets back here I'll sleep a lot better."
Needless to say, Clark wants Sims back, too; "I know what great production a back like Billy can give," he says. "With great backs you can see vibrations going, and you can feel you're gonna do it right then and there."
The question is, when will Sims and Cribbs be then and there?