Buffalo linebacker Ray Bentley turns 30 this year, and life is good for him. With a wife, four kids ranging in age from seven years to six months, a starting job and a 1990 salary of $240,000, Bentley is prospering in his fifth NFL season, even though it will be the fourth with no collective bargaining agreement between the league's players and owners. But amid all the rhetoric concerning free agency, better benefits and wage scales since the last collective bargaining agreement expired on Aug. 31, 1987, no one has calculated the cost of playing without a labor agreement to the Ray Bentleys of the world.
The direct cost to Bentley is $72,000: $22,000 in salary (four missed paychecks during the players' strike in '87) and $50,000 in lost severance pay (management is not crediting players for service accrued after the '88 season), which he would have received upon retirement. What's more, the cost to Bentley will grow this week, when all players are expected to get a letter from management telling them that their family deductible for health-insurance coverage is rising from $400 to $2,800.
The NFL pays $5.3 million a year for a group health-insurance plan for its players. In the off-season the Management Council learned that the cost of the plan would be $2 million higher for the same coverage in 1990. In the absence of an agreement, the league isn't raising its contribution. So the players will have to.
This news is brought to you not to generate sympathy for Bentley, but rather to illustrate the state of labor relations in the world's most prosperous sports league. "For the amount of money that this game generates, [the hike in the deductible] is an embarrassment," Bentley says. "My brother, Rahn, who works for an asphalt company in Grand Rapids, Michigan, has a better insurance program. Our insurance is a joke."
Bentley has suffered hidden losses, too. Who knows how much a new agreement would have augmented preseason pay, postseason pay, meal money, pension and insurance plans in 1987, '88 and '89? Who knows how much higher those numbers would have gone this fall, when a three-year contract signed in 1987 would have expired? For an average player like Bentley, it would be conservative to say that the additional losses from 1987 through '90 are $40,000. Hence, without a collective bargaining agreement, he has lost approximately $112,000 in cash and benefits for the four seasons.
"I'm bitter about the way it's come down to me," says Bentley. "I blame management for imposing a system that screws the players. And I blame the union for not representing the players the way they should be. I don't feel my voice is represented; I don't feel a lot of voices are represented. I don't believe we have capable leadership. It's obvious [NFL Players Association executive director Gene Upshaw] is unwilling to negotiate. I don't see [Management Council executive director Jack] Donlan being a guy who really wants to have an agreement, either. The union's putting all its eggs in a legal basket [total free agency] and praying for a Hail Mary."
The NFLPA says it has ceased to be the players' bargaining agent. But NFLPA assistant executive director Doug Allen says the association's pursuit of free agency pushed the league toward instituting Plan B free agency and thus increased the average salary over the last two years. "There has been a positive effect on salaries because of our fight for the players' right to free agency," says Allen. "We'd be having a flat period in salaries now were it not for that fight."
A season-opening survey of eight general managers on who will be the top five picks in next April's draft, not including juniors who might come out early:
1. Todd Lyght, CB, Notre Dame.
2. Russell Maryland, DL, Miami.
3. Huey Richardson, LB, Florida.
4. Craig Erickson, QB, Miami.
5. (tie) Nick Bell, RB, Iowa, and Alfred Williams, LB, Colorado.
Lyght and Maryland were named on all eight ballots. The meteor of the group: Bell, who might be another Christian Okoye. He stands 6'3", weighs 255 pounds, runs a 4.55 40 and has played fullback and tailback at Iowa.
Quarterback Bobby Hebert, unhappy and unsigned, has told friends that if New Orleans doesn't trade him by midseason, he may go deep-sea diving in Australia. Hebert says he wants to go down in one of those undersea cages and commune with sharks. Until then, he will stay home in Mandeville, La., and stew.
Hebert, who was paid $850,000 in the final year of his contract in '89, was benched late last season, and he has refused to return to the team. The word is, two weeks ago the Raiders offered the Saints a first-round draft pick for Hebert, but New Orleans general manager Jim Finks is holding out for more.
Recently, Hebert's agent, Greg Campbell, and his client, a rags-to-riches Louisiana kid who survived a tough adolescence to quarterback his home-state team, discussed the possibility of Hebert's sitting out the season and forfeiting as much as $1.5 million in potential salary. "I was on food stamps eight years ago," Hebert told Campbell. "I'll survive."
LOOK WHO'S BACK
Green Bay right tackle Tony Mandarich, the much-ballyhooed second pick in the '89 draft who had a terrible rookie year, opened 1990 as a starter and did a good job blocking Rams sack specialist Kevin Greene. His run-blocking was so-so. The Packers ran over the right side 15 times for 42 yards in their 36-24 victory Sunday.
The Raiders think they have their best rookie class in a while, even though first-round pick Anthony Smith, a defensive lineman, is lost for the year with a knee injury. Agile linebacker Aaron Wallace and speedy corners Torin Dorn and Garry Lewis will contribute right away. L.A. hasn't had a winning season since '85, but San Diego general manager Bobby Beathard thinks the Raiders are the best team in the AFC West....
By the way, the Chargers' offensive line is all messed up, and it could cost them a chance to have a winning record. San Diego is starting three players—left tackle Eric Floyd, left guard Courtney Hall and center Frank Cornish—at positions they have not previously played in the NFL. Floyd, whom the Chargers signed as a free agent, was not even drafted. Half the guys in the locker room call him Pink, the others call him Sleepy....
Four Dolphin linebackers entered the NFL as first-round draft choices. Only one, Hugh Green, starts. Another, Barry Krauss, is on injured reserve, and two—E.J. Junior and Eric Kumerow—are subs. A fifth first-rounder, Clifford Charlton, was cut in the preseason.
THE END ZONE
One of the off-season moves the league made to shorten games was to cut half-time from 15 minutes to 13. So how will teams cope with a shorter intermission? Here's one way. The Bengals will decide this week whether to install fax machines in their locker room and in the coaches' booth high above the field. "We really have only about six or seven minutes of strategy time now, and we can't afford to wait for the coaches to come down," says coach Sam Wyche. A walk through half-time traffic from the coaches' booth at Riverfront Stadium to the Bengal locker room took two minutes and 15 seconds during the Bengals-Jets game on Sunday. So the coaches in the booth may fax diagrams of play adjustments to the coaches in the locker room, who would explain the adjustments to the players.
THE WEEK THAT WAS
ONE FROM THE HEART
When it was over, when the Jets had come within an intercepted Hail Mary pass of shocking the Bengals at Riverfront Stadium on Sunday, an emotion rarely seen in the NFL was shared by Bruce Coslet and members of his former team. For nine years, as an assistant coach and then as offensive coordinator, he had helped build a state-of-the-art offense in Cincinnati. Now, in his first game as an NFL head coach, with the Jets, Coslet had watched the Bengals score the last 15 points of the game to salvage a 25-20 victory. Coslet calmly removed his headset and made his way to midfield, where Cincinnati quarterback Boomer Esiason ran to meet him. They embraced in a bear hug. "You've got a lot to be proud of," Esiason said into Coslet's ear. "I love you, Bruce."
Coslet could only nod. His upper lip quivered. A wave of Bengal players and coaches peppered him with the same sentiment, and after a minute or so he had to turn to leave. It wouldn't be right to break down in front of old friends, he thought. "God, we should have won," he said to the sky as he wiped away the tear.
Coslet will have other chances—plenty of them. The Jets finished 1989 with a massive rebuilding job ahead of them, and Coslet and defensive coordinator Pete Carroll already have the team en route to performing the way playoff contenders play. "Football's fun again for us," said quarterback Ken O'Brien after Sunday's game. "I love it around here now. We're a new team, with a new attitude."
On Saturday night, Coslet sat in his Cincinnati hotel room, thinking of the significance of the game. "My players know this is important to me," he said. "I want to look good in front of [Bengal founder] Paul Brown, in front of Boomer, in front of everybody." In another part of the city that night, Esiason showed how much respect the Bengals had for Coslet. He pulled out his playbook and said, "This is the thickest playbook we've ever had for a game since I've been here. Probably 50 percent of these plays Bruce has never seen."
The Bengals needed them all.
THE HERSCHEL WATCH
The Vikings ran 66 offensive plays in their 24-20 loss at Kansas City, and Herschel Walker, in his new all-purpose role, was on the field for 62 of them. The positions Walker played:
•Running back in pro set or split backfield: 24 plays.
•Running back in I formation: 9.
•Running back in single-back formation: 7.
•Running back in shotgun formation: 6.
•Wide receiver: 6.
•Back in motion to wide receiver: 5.
For the record, Walker rushed 14 times for 68 yards and caught five passes for 70 yards.
YOU TELL 'EM, MOM
Judy George, the mother of Colt rookie quarterback Jeff George, got so tired of Buffalo fans taunting her son from the upper deck of Rich Stadium that she screamed at them to lay off. Her kid did all right, completing 13 of 24 passes for 160 yards and one TD with no interceptions, despite missing the final 12 minutes with a concussion after taking a vicious—but clean—hit from linebacker Cornelius Bennett.
STEVE, WE HARDLY KNOW YE
You don't think of Chiefs quarterback Steve DeBerg as a regular, do you? Well, DeBerg, who is playing for his fourth team in his 13-year NFL career, completed 16 of 28 passes for 196 yards against the Vikings to move ahead of Hall of Famers Joe Namath and Len Dawson into 19th place on the alltime list for pass attempts, with 3,763. He also passed Joe Theismann and Hall of Famer Bob Griese to move into 26th place on the alltime yardage list with 25,242.
STATS OF THE WEEK
•The Seahawks' modifications on offense, including the addition of some run-and-shoot plays, didn't help them in a 17-0 loss to Chicago. Seattle made six first downs, and its deepest drive was to the Bears 45.
•The Browns installed running back Eric Metcalf as a full-time member of their offense. He rushed eight times for six yards and dropped the two passes thrown to him.
•Buffalo's first-round draft pick, cornerback J.D. Williams, blocked nine punts in his Fresno State career. On the Bills' first punt rush of 1990, Williams blocked the kick of the Colts' Rohn Stark.
TOM LANDRY MEMORIAL NOTE
George Bush was in office 597 days before the Cowboys won at home.
THE WEEK AHEAD
Redskins at 49ers. It seems like 10 years ago that Bill Walsh was "resting" a "fatigued" Joe Montana and giving Steve Young playing time at quarterback for the 49ers, and that Doug Williams and Dexter Manley were trying to take the Redskins to a second straight Super Bowl. Actually, it all happened in '88, when the 6-5 Redskins played the 6-5 Niners at Candlestick Park. San Francisco rolled to a 37-21 victory. Since then, Washington has gone 12-10, while San Francisco was 24-3 going into Monday night's game at New Orleans and had become two Super Bowl rings richer.
Oilers at Steelers. Houston doesn't play a home game against an AFC Central foe until Dec. 9. They open on the road against old friends Jerry Glanville (Falcons) and Chuck Noll (Steelers), then play the 49ers and Bengals in Weeks 5 and 6, respectively. "We prefer to have the schedule the way it is," says guard Mike Munchak. "If the AFC Central comes down to the last few weeks, we have all three division games at home in December."
Chiefs at Broncos. Last season the Chiefs got rid of the Kingdome jinx-Kansas City hadn't won there in eight years—when they rode Christian Okoye's strong legs (156 yards on 30 carries) to a 20-16 win in Seattle. Now, as the Chiefs bid for the AFC West title, Denver's Mile High Stadium looms. Kansas City hasn't won there in eight years.
THE INFANTE TOUCH
Is it a coincidence that quarterbacks come into their own when Lindy Infante is running the offense? You make the call. Cincinnati's Ken Anderson had an MVP season in 1981, when Infante was in his second year coaching the Bengals' quarterbacks and receivers. Bernie Kosar led Cleveland to the AFC Championship Game in '87, Infante's second season as the Browns' offensive coordinator. Don Majkowski brought the Pack most of the way back in '89, Infante's second year as Green Bay's head coach.
In Infante's system, the receiver must learn to read the defense and choose a pass route from as many as six options he has on a given play. The quarterback also must read the defense, and then pick up the route chosen by the receiver. "It gives players creativity and freedom," says Infante, who was a USFL head coach in 1984 and '85. "You've got to carry concepts and ideas to the field."
Infante admits that, in his offense, "it takes time for it to become second nature." That explains why all three quarterbacks needed to spend a second season in Infante's system before having their career years. Here's how the three signal callers' best years, all under Infante, compare with their season averages.