When New York giants quarterback Phil Simms walked into the cafeteria at training camp one day last month, 10 other players were eating lunch. Not one of them was on the team two years ago. So it was fitting that Simms should address the subject of the unusually high turnover of players on NFL rosters these days.
"There's a startling difference in our team," Simms said. "Usually when you walk into camp, you say' Hi' to all the guys. When I walked into camp this year, I looked at [quarterback] Jeff Hostetler and said, 'This is the Giants?' I felt like I was in somebody else's locker room."
During the off-season the Giants lost 10 players, including two starters, to Plan B free agency. Six prospects on the now-defunct developmental squad rejected contract offers from the team and signed with other clubs. And six defensive starters began camp as holdouts. Here it was, a month before the season, and 22 of the 57 Giants who were under contract last December in their drive to the NFC East title weren't around.
"They're tearing my team down," Giants coach Bill Parcells says. "They're tearing it down." He says "they," but Parcells doesn't know whom or what to blame. He just knows the ol' gray game ain't what it used to be. He's right.
The structuring of NFL rosters has changed forever, and it happened so quickly that many teams were slow to pick up on it. Until recently the formula most often followed when a club wanted to lift itself out of mediocrity was simple: Settle on a couple of standout players as hubs, build around them through the draft and with judicious use of waiver pickups, nurture the draft picks into starters over two or three seasons; know when to say when to your veterans; and always look to develop good backup players, because injuries are so prevalent.
That wasn't the only way to turn around a team, but it was a proven means in the '80s. The San Francisco 49ers started with Joe Montana and Ronnie Lott, drafted well and picked up some valuable cast-offs. The Chicago Bears had Walter Pay-ton, Dan Hampton and Mike Singletary, and then drafted superbly. The Giants had Simms and Lawrence Taylor, and then assembled a bruising team around them through the draft. Championships have come to those who waited, and to those who drafted well.
In the last two years, however, player development, team loyalty and long-term planning have gone the way of the pet rock. "Part of building a football team is exactly that—building," Parcells says. "Now that's impossible. You start over every year, with just a base, and then work with all new people. This sport isn't Bingo Long's Traveling All-Stars. But that's the way it's going in this league."
Pro football is as popular as ever and more distant from its roots than ever. The new rules of the game are forcing tougher, high-risk personnel decisions in areas that league fathers either never had to confront or chose not to. Last December, Buffalo Bills general manager Bill Polian was losing a great amount of sleep over such decisions.
"I'd wake up feeling...," says Polian, searching for the right word, "frustrated. I'd wake up thinking about Plan B—who we'd protect, who we'd go after if they were out there, how all of it would affect guys in our locker room—juniors who might be coming out in the draft, the new contract we were doing with Jim Kelly, what we were going to do with our draft picks, how to keep our salaries in line, ad infinitum."
Here are some major developments that have made the job of piecing together a 47-man NFL roster tougher than ever.
February 1989: Plan B free agency liberates mediocre players.
This was the NFL's way of proving to a federal court judge that free agency exists in the league. Each franchise can protect 37 players and leave the rest (approximately 18 per club) free to sign with any other team. Plan B strains coaching staffs and philosophies. It makes fringe players rich and team continuity poor.
The Bills are a perfect example of what can happen under this system. They had been one of a few teams that did not pay signing bonuses to veterans, but to compete for Plan B players, they had to pay signing bonuses to second-and third-stringers who might not make their team. They shelled out a $120,000 signing bonus to Chicago tackle Caesar Rentie, who had played in only five NFL games. Rentie had a horrible '89 camp, and he was cut. Buffalo's veterans didn't forget Rentie's bonus. Several offensive linemen hated Polian for his choice of who got a bonus. "It festered. It hurt us," Polian says. "For some guys, the wound never healed."
The Bills weren't the only team wounded by heavy Plan B defections or by the fallout from the signing of Plan B free agents. "Some players we protected came up to me and said they wished we'd put them on Plan B," says Indianapolis Colt coach Ron Meyer. "They know it could make them a lot of money."
Plan B is a divisive factor in other ways. Deciding whom to place on the list of 37 protected players can drive a wedge between strong-willed coaches and general managers. It also forces clubs to expose slightly declining veterans in order to protect young prospects.
Further, teams sometimes call on loyalty to try to discreetly buy an extra veteran or two without counting them among the 37. This strategy worked for San Francisco. Tight end Brent Jones wanted to stay in the Bay Area, so he verbally agreed to a two-year, $770,000 contract before the Plan B period and re-signed with the 49ers after the free-agency window had closed. It didn't work for the Cincinnati Bengals. Guard Max Montoya was given a $25,000 bonus after he vowed not to accept an offer from another team. But when the L.A. Raiders came up with a two-year deal averaging $700,000 a season—the Bengals were to have paid him $475,000 this year—Montoya reneged on his promise and took off for L.A.
On the other hand, Plan B is a recruiter's boon. Last winter the Kansas City Chiefs signed 12 Plan B free agents, including highly sought-after safety Jeff Donaldson of the Houston Oilers. Here's how Donaldson was wooed by the Chiefs: Defensive coordinator Bill Cowher spent a day with him, explaining the Chiefs' system and taking him to dinner; general manager Carl Peterson gave him a spiel on the opportunities in the secondary, and coach Marty Schottenheimer telephoned him five times, telling him how badly the team wanted him.
"It kind of blew me away when I saw how much time they spent on me," Donaldson says. Peterson beat the Atlanta Falcons, the Green Bay Packers, the Detroit Lions and the Washington Redskins to Donaldson and signed him to a two-year, $875,000 contract.
"Plan B," says Dallas Cowboy running back Keith Jones, "is the greatest thing that ever happened to me." No wonder. Jones has a total of 160 yards in two NFL seasons, but last winter Dallas made him the eighth-highest-paid player on the team at the time, with a $407,000 annual wage for three seasons. Now, after a July knee injury, Jones will miss the season.
In a small way, Plan B helps narrow the competitive gap between good teams and bad ones. In a big way, it kills salary structures. The average NFL wage in 1989 was $299,600. In the off-season, 184 players not considered good enough to be among the top 37 players on their teams signed with other teams under Plan B. Their average annual salary and bonus: $312,000. What's more, the marginal players usually remain marginal players. Of the 229 players signed in the first year of Plan B, only 59 were on clubs' protected lists last winter.
September 1989: In-season negotiating comes into vogue when one of the biggest contracts in NFL history is signed.
At 10:15 a.m. on Sunday, Sept. 17, Philadelphia quarterback Randall Cunningham was staring at the clock in a room at the Crystal City Marriott in Arlington, Va. Finally, he said to Eagles president Harry Gamble, "I've got a game today, you know."
Priorities, priorities. All weekend, Gamble and Cunningham's agent, Jim Steiner, had been faxing contract documents between Steiner's vacation place in Bermuda and Arlington, and now the deal was done. Cunningham signed the seven-year, $17.9 million deal and ran for the team bus. He made it, and the Eagles beat the Washington Redskins.
Back in Buffalo, Polian was keenly interested in Cunningham's negotiations. The previous February, the Bills had allowed unsigned Bruce Smith to test his worth on the open market, figuring nobody would break the bank for a great defensive end with one strike against him in the NFL's drug program. Wrong. In March, the Denver Broncos offered Smith $7.5 million over five years, and the Bills had to match the offer to keep him. Couple the near signing of Smith with Washington's signing of free-agent linebacker Wilber Marshall in '88, and teams are now so afraid of losing or embittering their brightest stars that they at least lay some contract groundwork during the season in hopes of avoiding the need to match richer offer sheets later.
So with Buffalo facing Kelly's free agency in '91 and worried about other quarterbacks possibly getting even more than Cunningham did, Polian took the offensive a year early. "We let Smith go to the end," he says. "It was a tactical error on my part. I gambled. I lost. Kelly was too important to risk losing." From mid-September to mid-December, Polian estimates, he spent four hours a week in hushed-up negotiations with Kelly's agents. Around Thanksgiving, a seven-year, $20.05 million deal was in place.
March 1990: Additional TV money cures and curses franchises.
A year ago, the NFL was expecting a 30% to 40% jump in television revenues, above the $17.1 million each team received annually in 1987, '88 and '89. When commissioner Paul Tagliabue completed negotiations on new four-year deals with the networks last March, the hike was a staggering 91%. Each club will earn $26.1 million in 1990, $30 million in '91, $35.2 million in '92 and $39.1 million in '93.
Veterans went running to their agents, who held clients out of camp until they could get upgraded contracts. No figures are kept on such things, but it is believed that there have never been as many unsigned, holdout veterans—approximately 140—as there were on Aug. 1.
It's amazing how worthless an NFL contract seems to be today. Detroit nose-tackle Jerry Ball, one of the game's best, asked for and received a contract extension in '89 that is scheduled to pay him $375,000 this fall. Since then, the 49ers have signed two nosetackles, Michael Carter and Fred Smerlas, for 1990 salaries of $800,000 and $750,000, respectively. So Ball is demanding another renegotiation or a trade. "The single toughest challenge in my job," says Detroit general manager Chuck Schmidt, "is to keep all the contracts on my team in line. A contract is never done in a vacuum."
April 1990: College juniors are allowed to enter the draft.
No one in the league likes the influx of juniors, but Tagliabue would have lost the first lawsuit filed by a junior who had been denied entry. As it happened, only 18 of the 38 juniors admitted to the '89 draft pool were chosen, but five were among the first seven players selected.
"With juniors, the big thing was the maturity factor," Polian says. "When it came our turn to pick last year, 85 percent of the time we liked somebody better [than a junior] at that point in the draft, and 15 percent of the time we felt the junior was not fully developed."
With the start of the '90 college football season, NFL clubs will recognize the full impact of the juniors' option to turn pro. "Our scouts have to be aware of juniors, and they'll have to file reports on any potential early-out player," Peterson says.
For now, the issue is much ado about very little, when you consider the number of underclassmen ultimately judged ready to play in the NFL. But the fact remains it is much ado, which adds hours to the already weary business of building a roster.
July 1990: Developmental squads are eliminated.
Last season teams could keep six nonroster players essentially to serve as practice players. However, when a group of these players sued the NFL for fixing salaries—every team paid each nonroster player $1,000 a week—the owners eliminated the squads. Another reason that the NFL parted so quickly with developmental squads was that even when these most marginal of players showed signs of being worthy of a roster spot, the team doing the developing often did not realize its investment. The players became free agents after the season and scattered.
With no developmental players and only six injured-reserve men allowed to practice at any given time, look for less contact work in mid-and late-season practices. "You see so many cases of bad tackling and missed tackles because we don't practice physically anymore," says one AFC scout. "This is only going to make it worse."
Make no mistake, these changes in personnel policy will affect the competitiveness of a handful of teams each season. Kansas City and Denver improved markedly in '89, thanks in part to Plan B acquisitions, with the Chiefs picking up three players who became starters and the Broncos two. Other teams should profit similarly this season.
More than one NFL locker room will be divided by Plan B salary inequities, as Buffalo's was last year. The Bears, who in two years have signed one Plan B player and lost 16, will bemoan their lack of depth. A quarterback will get sacked and hurt because a not-ready-for-prime-time guard will miss a blocking assignment that a veteran would have executed.
The Giants, with tight end Mark Bavaro still getting over knee surgery, will lose a game because Simms, who loves to throw to the tight end, won't have Zeke Mowatt, either. A Plan B free agent, Mowatt eats his lunch in the New England Patriots' cafeteria these days.