RETURN OF THE RETREADS
This is an article from the Sept. 18, 1989 issue
Like it or not, the NFL's new Plan B free-agency system is headed for a return engagement next February—barring a last-ditch settlement of the NFL Players Association's antitrust lawsuit against the owners. Says Jack Donlan, executive director of the NFL Management Council, "It was not voted in as a one-shot thing."
Indeed, Plan B, which allows each team to protect only 37 players on its off-season roster—which usually has about 60 players—and frees the others to sign with anyone else for 60 days before April 1, was designed to help the NFL's case in court. The league's attorneys figured Plan B would demonstrate that the NFL was willing to permit freedom of movement once a year for marginal players, while allowing teams to retain the guts of their offenses and defenses. The Players Association lawsuit is bogged down in pretrial maneuvering, and Donlan thinks the chances are slim that a verdict will be reached by Feb. 1, 1990, the date teams must name the 37 players they want to protect.
The prospect of a second year of Plan B angers Houston coach Jerry Glanville. "I can't think of anything worse, other than somebody saying, 'You're fired,' " says Glanville. "What this system forgets is that it takes time to develop a player. We worked two years in converting Robert Banks into a defensive end, and spent a lot of money on him. Now he's starting for Cleveland, in our division."
In fact, the Browns" top three defensive ends—Banks, Al Baker (from Minnesota) and Tom Gibson (from New England)—are all in Cleveland thanks to Plan B. "It has helped us overcome a glaring weakness," says Browns executive vice-president Ernie Accorsi.
Of the 229 players who switched clubs under the system, 105 (46%) made opening-day rosters. Of those, 33 (14% of the total) started in Week 1, including five players each with Cleveland, San Diego and the Raiders. Nonetheless, the NFLPA continues to oppose Plan B because it permits only selective free agency. "It wasn't lawful and wasn't adequate for all players in 1989, and it won't be lawful or adequate in 1990," says Doug Allen, the union's assistant executive director. "At some point in every baseball player's career, every basketball player's career, he has the chance to negotiate with any team. Why isn't it fair for NFL players to have that right?"
Until a judge tells the league otherwise, Plan B lives.
NOISE OF SUMMER
The NFL's controversial new antinoise ordinance was railroaded through the league's annual meeting in March, when Minnesota Viking general manager Mike Lynn, a strong opponent of the measure, had to leave the room. The rule requires the referee to take away the defensive team's timeouts one by one and then, when the timeouts are gone, penalize that team for delay of game if the official agrees with the opposing quarterback that the crowd noise is keeping his teammates from hearing him call signals.
Passage of the regulation required the assent of 21 of the 28 teams, and it received exactly that number after Lynn was called out of the conference room to attend a 75-minute NFL Properties meeting. "If I'd had any idea there was going to be a noise vote, I'd have stayed," says Lynn, who believes the rule reduces a team's home-field advantage. Minnesota coach Jerry Burns was unaware of Lynn's objections and cast the critical yea vote in his place.
League executives overlooked something important when they approved the regulation. Quarterbacks now have an incentive to claim that the crowd noise is disruptive. "I never pulled away from center in my entire career because of noise," says Giants quarterback Phil Simms. "But will I now? Absolutely. I'm going to take advantage of the rule." Says Seattle coach Chuck Knox, "I guess every coach is going to have to teach his quarterback how to milk the crowd."
In partial response to that flaw, the NFL revised the rule two days before the season opened. Commissioner Pete Rozelle announced that officials could penalize the offense if the quarterback stepped back from center claiming he couldn't be heard when the officials thought he could be heard.
Despite its shortcomings, the antinoise rule still has its defenders. "I love it," says Pittsburgh coach Chuck Noll. "There was a time in this country when sportsmanship was important. The fans have forgotten that. Forget what they pay for a ticket; they have no right to interfere with the game the way they do. With this rule we're trying to create a level playing field, and it's not a level playing field when one team can hear its signals and the other can't."
JUST DO IT
Score. That's the point of an NFL offense. Teams that move the ball and bog down—or turn the ball over—end up where plain bad teams end up: watching the playoffs. The Elias Sports Bureau has computed for SI a statistic, points per possession (PPP), that measures the efficiency of an offense more accurately than the league's ranking by total offense, which is a simple sum of a team's passing and rushing yardage. In fact two of 1988's top PPP teams. Houston and Indianapolis, ranked only 14th and 21st, respectively, according to total offense.
Cincinnati had the NFL's best PPP in 1988. Says Bengal offensive coordinator Bruce Coslet, "In 1987 we'd get into the red zone [inside the opponent's 20-yard line], and we couldn't score. So, going into 1988 we stressed scoring every time we got into the red zone. That was the whole difference in our team. Every possession was important." Below are the too five PPP teams of 1988.
It won't be long now. Al Davis has dropped the Raiders' Spanish-language radio broadcasts, which had been heard in Los Angeles since the club moved there in 1982. Davis may announce a move to Oakland or Sacramento before the end of the month....
By cutting six players who were members of its 1987 Super Bowl team, Denver saved $2,375 million. "It wasn't the money," says pro personnel director Lide Huggins. The Broncos have 17 new players this season, the same as the overhauled Cowboys. "Youth brings aggressiveness. It's like in the armed forces," says Huggins. "They don't draft old people."...
In 1985, New England traded its first-round draft pick (No. 16) to San Francisco for the 49ers' first- and second-round picks (No. 28 and No. 56, respectively) that year. The Patriots wound up with center Trevor Matich and defensive lineman Ben Thomas, both of whom have been released. In return, the Niners got Jerry Rice....
Vito Stellino of the Baltimore Sun is running a weekly count entitled "Commissioner Held Hostage." On Sunday it will be 180 days since Rozelle announced his intention to resign.
THE WEEK THAT WAS
Deion (Prime Time) Sanders was scheduled to start his first full day of work with the Falcons at 8 a.m. last Thursday. But when Atlanta assistant head coach Fred Bruney, who was already inside the Falcons' complex in Suwanee, Ga., walked out of his office at about 7:40, he saw Sanders standing alone outside the locked front door of the building. Pleasantly surprised, Bruney laughed and said, "Prime Time is now on Falcon Time."
Bruney tutored Sanders over the next three days, and Sanders took the field in Sunday's 31-21 loss to the Rams for four plays as the deep cover guy in Atlanta's nickel defense. He also returned punts. He dropped the first one, but the down was replayed because of a penalty. He fumbled the second punt, too, but he recovered the ball, eluded five Rams tacklers and scored on a 68-yard return. "When I touch the ball, people expect a miracle," said Sanders.
The other tardy Sanders, running back Barry in Detroit, also had an auspicious debut. Like Deion, Barry signed Thursday and practiced lightly on Friday and Saturday. He entered the Lions' lineup in the third quarter of a 16-13 loss to the Cardinals. On successive downs Barry rushed for 18, three, five and then three yards for a touchdown.
Which brings us to the snide question: Is training camp important? "I don't want to minimize what those two guys did," says Giants general manager George Young. "But it's what you do over a period of time that counts."
The scene is suddenly grim in Pittsburgh, where the Steelers suffered the worst defeat in their 57-year history. During the 51-0 loss to Cleveland, rookie running back Tim Worley fumbled three times in 21 minutes, and the offense made only five first downs, an alltime low for the team. One memorable lowlight was quarterback Bubby Brister completing a pass to himself—for a 10-yard loss. "I've never had one quite this bad," said coach Chuck Noll. And things could get worse. In the next six weeks, Pittsburgh plays only one team, Detroit, that didn't win at least 10 games in 1988.
Green Bay wore white jerseys at home for the first time since at least 1952—no one remembers further back than that—in part, many believe, to try to confuse Tampa Bay quarterback Vinny Testaverde, who is color-blind. This forced Tampa Bay to wear orange, which some color-blind people see as gray or near white—hence the potential for confusion. Normally, the Bucs wear white on the road, and this year they plan to wear white at home as well, forcing visitors to wear dark jerseys, which are often easier for Testaverde to discern. Despite Sunday's tricky colors, however, Testaverde had his most efficient game ever. He completed 22 of 27 passes for 205 yards and a touchdown in the Bucs 23-21 victory.
•Weird Stat of the Week: Phoenix kicker Al Del Greco has converted three game-winning field goals in the final minute in odd-numbered years at the Pontiac Silverdome. He did it in 1985, '87 and in the Cardinals' three-point win over Detroit on Sunday. That one was a 33-yarder with 13 seconds to go. "I love kicking indoors," Del Greco says.
•The Vikings' leading rusher in their 38-7 defeat of the Oilers on Sunday, D.J. Dozier, gained 41 yards. Minnesota has now gone 26 games without having a runner gain 80 yards.
•After its 30-24 win in Indianapolis, San Francisco is a .703 road team (48-20-1) in the 1980s.
THE WEEK AHEAD
Eagles at Redskins: Philadelphia begins a four-week stretch against the last five Super Bowl winners—Washington, San Francisco (which won twice), Chicago and the Giants. In fact, after the Raiders-Eagles game in Week 7, the Eagles will have faced every Super Bowl champion of this decade. "I think our schedule's unfair," says Philly running back Keith Byars. "We shouldn't be penalized for winning our division last year, but that's what our schedule does."
Colts at Rams: This is the Rams' home opener. They're for real. They had an impressive 4-1 preseason before beating the Falcons by 10 on Sunday. And now, former Ram Eric Dickerson (right) is returning to L.A. for the first time since The Trade sent him to Indianapolis two seasons ago. Despite all that, the game hasn't generated much of a stir in L.A. As of Sunday, more than 7,000 tickets remained unsold. Not even Dickerson seems very excited. He has asked for only 15 tickets to the game.
Broncos at Bills: "No hard feelings," says Buffalo general manager Bill Polian. But into the visiting-owner's box at Rich Stadium on Monday night will step the man who helped ruin Polian's salary structure. In March, Denver owner Pat Bowlen bid $7.5 million over five years for Bills defensive end Bruce Smith, and Buffalo had to match the offer to retain Smith's services. Had Bowlen been successful, the matchup of these teams might be quite different. Denver would be starting Smith, who has 44.5 sacks in four years, instead of Andre Townsend, who has 19 in five seasons.