AN ALTERNATIVE

The numbers are downright frightening for NFL owners. According to the Players Association, salaries and bonuses paid to first-round draft choices rose 5.3% from 1987 to '88, but they skyrocketed 37.3% from '88 to '89. In '87, the average payout on first-round rookie contracts was $474,000. In '88, it was $499,000. This year it's $685,000.

The owners can moan all they want about the exorbitant demands of rookies, but there's a solution: Just say no. That wouldn't be so difficult if the owners examined what they were getting for their money. Of the 166 first-round choices from 1983 through '88, only 37 (22.3%) have made the Pro Bowl.

Instead of shelling out huge sums for unproved talent, teams would be wiser to use their first-round picks to acquire topflight free agents. After no movement for nine years in the free-agent market for Type A players (the class of player whose original team must be compensated with two first-round draft picks by the team that signs him), three such players have received offer sheets in the last two off-seasons. Linebacker Wilber Marshall, who left the Bears for the Redskins in '88, was the only one who switched teams. Defensive end Ray Childress of Houston and defensive end Bruce Smith of Buffalo signed lucrative new deals this year after their clubs matched offers from other teams. This winter, the bidding for free agents should be much more serious.

As a result, teams are going all out to re-sign their productive players. Dallas wants to nail down Herschel Walker, whose contract expires after next season, and on Sunday Philadelphia announced that it had extended the contract of quarterback Randall Cunningham through 1995. The tab: about $17 million.

In the last two months the Vikings have given lucrative contracts to quarterback Wade Wilson (who signed for $1,075 million a year), tight end Steve Jordan ($700,000) and defensive tackle Keith Millard ($850,000) to keep them from becoming free agents. Minnesota general manager Mike Lynn imposed a Sept. 5 deadline on any further re-signings, but with wide receiver Anthony Carter, safety Joey Browner and defensive end Chris Doleman—all of whom went to the Pro Bowl last season—in the final year of their contracts, Lynn has extended that deadline indefinitely.

Still, some star players may be available in February. The potential free agents most likely to get offers from new teams are Ram quarterback Jim Everett, Redskins tackle Jim Lachey and Bengal tackle Anthony Munoz. "If you give the money to a proven veteran, you're not guessing," says agent Tony Agnone, who represents several NFL players. "You make your coach happy, and you make your fans happy. You look like you're opening the vault."

"First-round draft picks are the most overrated commodities in football," says Cincinnati assistant general manager Mike Brown, who vows never to trade for one again. Look for teams to give up some of those first-round selections in exchange for free agents. Says San Francisco owner Eddie DeBartolo, "I think there'll be some movement. Would the 49ers get into it? It's something I won't tell you I won't do."

TICK...TICK...TICK

Going into this year, Seattle wide receiver Steve Largent had missed four games in 13 NFL seasons because of injuries. Now Largent, who's chasing the last grand receiving record he doesn't own—most touchdown receptions—will miss at least six games with a cracked right elbow. He sustained the injury two weeks ago in Philadelphia. But he says he has not played his last game. "My arm feels great, which makes it more frustrating," says Largent, who is not wearing a cast. "Under the new injured-reserve rules, I can't practice with the team for four weeks."

He'll be eligible to return in Week 8. If he does, he would have nine regular-season games to get the two touchdown receptions he needs to break Don Hutson's record of 99. Largent spent his first week off listening to lots of what-a-tough-break talk from friends and teammates. "Don't feel sorry for me," he says. "That would be like feeling sorry for Donald Trump if he had his wallet lifted, or for Leona Helmsley if she got her purse snatched."

SECOND THOUGHTS
Jimmy Johnson isn't second-guessing his decision to leave college football for the NFL, although his former team, the Miami Hurricanes, has outscored its two opponents 82-6, while his current club, the Cowboys, is 0-2 and has been out-scored 45-54. For all its sweeping changes, Dallas might actually be worse than it was in 1988, when the Cowboys finished 3-13. Dallas lost by three to New Orleans last year and by 28 this year. The Tom Landry-coached Cowboys beat Atlanta by six points last fall; on Sunday, Johnson's Cowboys lost to the Falcons by six. "I've taken on a big, big challenge," says Johnson. "It may be more of a challenge than I thought."

ELIGIBLE RECEIVER

San Francisco wideout Mike Sherrard hasn't played a game since he was a Dallas rookie in 1986. But this Sunday, when the Niners finish their game against the Eagles, he will become a fully vested veteran in the NFL's pension plan. Even if Sherrard never steps on the field again, he'll get a $30,000 severance check upon retirement and $150 a month for life beginning at age 55. Any player under contract for four years is vested after the third game of the fourth year.

Sherrard broke his right leg during the Cowboys' training camp in 1987. He missed the entire regular season and then rebroke the leg while running on the beach in March 1988. That fracture sidelined him for all of last season. Dallas gave up on him, and San Francisco signed Sherrard last March as a free agent. He is on the physically-unable-to-perform list and won't be eligible to suit up until Game 7.

Although he works out lightly with the team, he hasn't sprinted full speed since the first break. The doctors tell Sherrard there is no reason to believe he won't be able to play again. "I can hear it in people's voices that they don't think I've got a chance to come back," he says. "But I know I will."

DISPATCHES
A couple of things about Detroit's Silver Stretch offense. One, it has accounted for two touchdown passes and 20 interceptions in six preseason and regular-season games. Two, although the Lions, who lost 24-14 to the Giants Sunday, confuse every defense they come across, every defense the Lions face confuses them. The reason is that Detroit is not sure how an opponent will attack its run-and-shoot offense, so it can't effectively simulate the opposing team's defense during practice.... Deion Sanders on offense? The Falcons have not indicated that they intend to move him from his college position, cornerback, but he almost certainly could be a wide receiver. "I think he could play any skill position," says Ram defensive coordinator Fritz Shurmur, who faced Sanders in Week 1.... Washington defensive end Dexter Manley had three "sacks" of legendary Browns quarterback Otto Graham in a "dream" game between the '82 Redskins and the '55 Browns on ESPN. Says Manley, "Otto Graham? Who's he?"...Tom Landry opened the season on vacation in Europe. The last time he was in Europe in September, he was flying B-17s over Nazi Germany.

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PHOTOALLEN DEAN STEELE/ALLSPORT USAThe Vikes signed Millard to keep opponents' hands off. PHOTOJOHN IACONODitka and Co.'s 81-game bubble shows no sign of bursting. PHOTORONALD C. MODRAThe O'Brien-led Jets have little trouble scoring against the Dolphins—or vice versa.

THE WEEK THAT WAS

OLD BIRDS NEVER DIE

In the preseason, 32-year-old Roy Green and 33-year-old J.T. Smith, Green's receiving mate with the Cardinals, made a deal. "Let's make sure when we leave this game, it's because we want to, not because somebody tells us we're too old," said Green. Deal. Now it has been, heck, at least two weeks since anyone has told Smith and Green that they're over the hill. That's because of performances like Sunday's. In a 34-24 upset of the Seahawks in Seattle, Smith and Green, the oldest wide-receiver tandem in the NFL, combined for 270 receiving yards and four TDs.

After two games, no starting-receiver duo has as many yards as Smith's and Green's 425 (on 27 catches). "That's pretty good," said Smith on the flight home from Seattle. "Us old guys can't play no more. You know that." The league's second most productive pair, Washington's Gary Clark and Ricky Sanders (average age: 26 years, nine months), have 424 yards on 18 receptions. No. 3 is the Rams' Henry Ellard and Flipper Anderson (26 years, four months), who have 408 yards on 20 catches.

Smith was waived by the Chiefs before the '85 season but landed with the receiver-poor Cards. Now he's irreplaceable. So is Green, who moved from defensive back to wideout on a full-time basis in '82. Green thinks he has three good years of football left in him. "I feel great," he says. And it shows.

PATSIES, AGAIN

Ten minutes into New England's game against Miami, Patriots punter Jeff Feagles had thrown more passes (two) than New England's three backup quarterbacks—Doug Flutie, Marc Wilson and Steve Grogan—have thrown this season. Both of Feagles's passes came on fourth-and-16, both were incomplete, and both led to Dolphin points. Feagles attempted his second pass after a poor snap from center, but the first one was a prearranged fake punt that failed miserably. What's more, coach Raymond Berry called the play with the Pats on their own 20. Eleven minutes into the game Miami led 17-0.

DECADE OF THE BEAR
Chicago's 38-7 win over Minnesota extended one of the most amazing streaks in modern football history. The Bears haven't been out of first place in the NFC Central since the end of the '83 season. That's 81 weeks of regular-season football. Further, Chicago has been alone at the top for 71 of those weeks. "We talked all week that this should be the changing of the guard," said Viking quarterback Wade Wilson. Not yet.

STATS OF THE WEEK

•Washington has 332 rushing yards this season. Skins running back Gerald Riggs has 332 rushing yards this season.

•In 1937 the Lions had only 139 yards in penalties, a record that still stands. In their 41-10 loss to Cincinnati on Sunday, the Steelers had 144.

•In wins over Cincinnati and Minnesota, last year's highest and fourth-highest scoring teams, Chicago has allowed only four gains of 15 yards or more.

•Since 1985, Phil Simms of the Giants has thrown for 13,378 yards. Ken O'Brien of the Jets has passed for 13,372.

THE WEEK AHEAD

Redskins at Cowboys. This used to be the NFL's premier rivalry, with George Allen and Tom Landry maneuvering some of the biggest stars in the league. But no more. Since 1985, the average margin of victory in the series has been 15.3 points. "It's still there between us; it's just not as big," says Cowboy defensive end Ed Jones, a 15-year veteran. Why? "Maybe," says Dallas safety Bill Bates, "it's because the Cowboys haven't really been competitive the last four or five years." Good thinking. Washington has won three of the last four games.

Vikings at Steelers. There seems to be a pattern this year of notable players on new teams returning to face their old clubs. Already Jim McMahon has thrown against the Bears (in the preseason), and Eric Dickerson has run against the Rams. In Week 8, future Hall of Famer Mike Webster, now a Chief, will snap against the Steelers. This week Viking outside linebacker Mike Merriweather returns to Pittsburgh. He sat out '88 in a contract dispute with the Steelers and then was traded to Minnesota. In the 18 games since Merriweather last played for them, the Steelers have started six players at his old position.

Jets at Dolphins. Either team could finish 5-11, but these games are wild. New York quarterback Ken O'Brien has had two of his three best passing days against Miami. The average score in the last six meetings is Dolphins 37, Jets 34. Miami scored 45, 45, 31, 37, 30 and 34 points in those six games—and lost four of them. "It's like a basketball game," says Miami linebacker David Frye.

THE 29 BARRIER

Indianapolis coach Ron Meyer thinks Eric Dickerson can play through 1995. If Dickerson does play that long—and remains as productive as he has been—he'll have Ruthian numbers: 21,483 rushing yards (4,757 more than anyone else ever had) and 163 rushing TDs (53 more). But according to the Elias Sports Bureau, Dickerson will have to be exceptional to keep up his pace. He turned 29 on Sept. 2. Of the NFL's alltime leading rushers, only Walter Payton and Jim Brown averaged more yards per carry after age 29 than before. Here are the top 10, ranked by total yards.

Before Age 29

Age 29 and After

Player

Yards

Avg.

Yards

Avg.

Age at Final Game

Walter Payton

10,204

4.34

6,522

4.39

33

Tony Dorsett

7,015

4.54

5,724

4.12

34

Jim Brown

10,768

5.20

1,544

5.34

29

Franco Harris

7,377

4.23

4,743

3.94

34

John Riggins

4,655

4.02

6,697

3.81

36

O.J. Simpson

8,123

4.76

3,113

4.47

32

Eric Dickerson

9,915

4.64

222

5.55

29*

Earl Campbell

8,296

4.41

1,111

3.65

30

Jim Taylor

5,678

4.81

4,262

4.47

32

Ottis Anderson

7,843

4.34

629

3.31

31*

*Active in 1989.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)