First Come, First Served
Perhaps never before has a pro sports league paid so much money and gotten so little in return. That's the story of the first round of the NFL's 1991 draft. Through Sunday, the 10th week of the season, only 11 of the 27 first-round picks had been in starting lineups, and just two—tackle Pat Harlow of the Patriots and safety Stanley Richard of the Chargers—had started all of their teams' games.
Those top 27 rookies were handed a total of $40,887,500 in signing bonuses, with the first three choices—defensive tackle Russell Maryland of the Cowboys, safety Eric Turner of the Browns and cornerback Bruce Pickens of the Falcons—accounting for $9.4 million of that. And none of the three has started a game.
Even Dallas owner Jerry Jones, who jumped to sign Maryland and fellow first-rounder Alvin Harper on draft night, concedes that the system has gone beyond ludicrous. "In our entire society—in any business—the paying of that huge money to unproven players is the most imprudent use of financial resources I know of," says Jones.
So why do the owners do it? They are unable to say no to aggressive player agents, who now more than ever hold their clients out of camp until the agents get the money they want. And this year, the owners didn't say no even though the '91 draft pool, in every expert's eyes, was a weak one.
The Cowboys traded up to get Maryland, despite their belief that while he would develop into an above-average performer, he probably would not become a consistent Pro Bowl player. Three months later they traded for Tony Casillas, who became a starter at defensive tackle with Danny Noonan. Maryland is splitting time at backup with second-year pro Jimmie Jones. The only 1991 first-rounders who've made an impact on their teams are Richard, who is San Diego's fourth-leading tackier; Bronco linebacker Mike Croel, who has eight sacks; and Patriot back Leonard Russell, who leads his team in rushing with 548 yards.
In their proposals to the players for a new collective bargaining agreement, the owners are trying to establish a system—a form of salary scale—that will funnel much of the money being paid to rookies to veterans who have proved their worth. Jerry Jones says such a system is the most important element of any new deal with the players.
No Cowboy veteran resents Maryland's good fortune; he's a workaholic and a likable guy. It's the system that the players hate. "It's not fair, just or right," says safety Ray Horton, a nine-year pro. "The longer you're in the league, the more you pull your hair out."
A postscript: It is standard procedure for players to be docked [1/17] of their annual salary for every game they miss while holding out in a contract dispute, and Pickens missed five games before signing a five-year, $7.25 million deal on Oct. 4. But the Falcons, in order to get the contract done, went ahead and paid Pickens his full salary for the five weeks, $132,350, during which he did absolutely nothing. That's an insult to Atlanta veterans like safety Brian Jordan, who led all NFL defensive backs in tackles last season and whose 1991 base salary is $185,000.
When Will We Learn?
Since getting a stranglehold on the NFC Central in 1984, the Bears have won the division in all but one season. Each year, though, some new hoss is supposed to rise up and knock them off. "One year it's Minnesota, one year it's Green Bay," says Chicago cornerback Lemuel Stinson. "This year it's Detroit. It's always somebody. But we're not ready to go down."
Who would have thought the Bears could dominate the division this season without rock-solid tackle Jimbo Covert, who is sidelined for the year with a ruptured disk; without big days from running back Neal Anderson, who is gaining only 62 yards a game; and without consistent pressure from defensive end Richard Dent, who has only 5½ sacks.
On Sunday, in a 20-10 victory over the Lions, Chicago held Barry Sanders to fewer than 70 yards on the ground for the third straight time by using a seven-man scheme that was packed in near the line of scrimmage. He had 63 yards on 18 carries. "They're good at what they do," said Detroit linebacker Chris Spielman after his team fell to 6-3, a game behind the Bears in the NFC Central, "and they've been doing it for years."
Stats of the Week
•Last year the 49ers were 8-1 in regular-season games decided by a touchdown or less. After losing to the Falcons 17-14 on a Hail Mary pass, San Francisco is 0-5 in such games this season.
•Since last Thanksgiving, the Packers are 3-0 against Tampa Bay and 0-12 against the rest of the league, including Sunday's 19-16 overtime loss to the Jets.
•Saints linebacker Pat Swilling has more sacks (11½) than three teams (the Bengals, the Cowboys and the Rams) do.
The Long Wait
The case of Terry Long, the Steeler guard who attempted suicide on July 24 after telling teammates he had flunked his steroid test, still has not been resolved by the league. Long returned to the team on Aug. 20 and played in six regular-season games before going on injured reserve with a torn triceps on Oct. 18.
One Steeler source says that the test turned up excessive levels of testosterone. The source also says that Long and his attorney, George Saunders, have argued in an appeal hearing before commissioner Paul Tagliabue that Long's natural testosterone level is unusually high and that the NFL's testosterone ratio to determine steroid use was arbitrary.
The NFL won't comment on Long's appeal, but the length of time the league is taking to review it suggests that Long has a good argument and might beat the rap.
The Duke Factor
In light of how the NFL stripped Phoenix of the 1993 Super Bowl after Arizonans voted last November not to make Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday a paid state holiday, it doesn't figure that the league will put another Super Bowl in New Orleans any time in this century if former Ku Klux Klan imperial wizard David Duke is elected to a four-year term as Louisiana governor on Nov. 16.
And how difficult do you think it will be for the Saints to sign top-quality black free agents with Duke in the governor's mansion? One prominent New Orleans player has already said he won't attend the Saints' kickoff luncheon next year if Duke wins and is scheduled to make an appearance at the annual affair.
At this time, the NFL will not address the volatile issue of New Orleans as a Super Bowl site—the city has hosted the game seven times—should Duke get elected. "Our concern in Arizona was to play a football game free of controversy," says Tagliabue. "It was not to get into politics. That's still my concern."
New Orleans is not scheduled to host a Super Bowl through 1996—the duration of Duke's term, if he is elected—but sites for future games will be determined during the time Duke would be in office.
When the Cardinals' Marcus Turner, racing downfield on punt coverage, was popped on the left side of his helmet by the Redskins' Danny Copeland on Sept. 15, it was just one of hundreds of hard hits delivered in the NFL that day. "I saw it on tape and it really didn't look that bad," Turner says. "All it did was spin me around. But I guess he hit the right spot." The blow from Copeland's helmet resulted in two tiny compression punctures to Turner's left inner ear, which have cost him 60% of the hearing in that ear, and in nerve damage to Turner's jaw, which has caused him to lose his sense of taste.
What's more, Turner has suffered blurred vision, his balance has been affected, and he has a headache that won't go away. "The scariest thing is I feel like I'm spinning in my sleep," he says. "I feel myself going around, so I have to wake up and balance myself." Doctors have told Turner that his vision, balance and sense of taste should return to normal, but they don't know when. On the other hand, the hearing loss might be permanent. Still, Turner hopes to play again next season.
Other than team physician Vincent DiStefano's improperly discussing the subject with the press last week, why the big flap over the Eagles' decision to include a check for HIV in the standard blood test taken when players report for their physicals at training camp? Most players weren't upset by the test for AIDS, only that the front office wasn't more forthcoming in telling them about it. "It's no big deal," says linebacker Seth Joyner. "I don't think anybody's too upset. But you have to wonder why they did it that way." While every player signed an authorization form, which listed tests that would be done during the physicals, including the HIV test, apparently some players didn't bother to read it....
The Steeler front office's patience with offensive coordinator Joe Walton's tight-end-oriented attack is wearing thin, and his job is in jeopardy. After 1½ seasons in Walton's system, Pittsburgh has a horrible third-down conversion rate (.308), its passing game lacks consistency, and the offensive players remain uneasy in Walton's schemes.
Game of the Week
Atlanta at Washington, Sunday. The Redskins, one of 18 teams in league history to start 9-0, should be favored in each of their final seven games as they try to become the second team since World War II (Miami went 14-0 in 1972) to sweep through a regular season undefeated. "I don't think we'll get there," says linebacker Matt Millen, who was on a 10-0 team in San Francisco a year ago. "It's too hard to do it." The schedule will help. Only three teams with playoff dreams—the Falcons, the Cowboys and the Giants—remain, and all have to come to RFK Stadium.
The End Zone
In the first quarter of the Cowboys' 27-7 win over the Cardinals on Sunday—with Dallas coach Jimmy Johnson and Phoenix wideout John Jackson watching from the sidelines, and with Cowboy owner Jerry Jones and Cards secondary coach Jim Johnson looking on from the press-box level of Texas Stadium—Dallas defensive tackle Jimmie Jones tackled Phoenix back Johnny Johnson for no gain.
Ismail says he's positive he made the right decision to spurn the NFL, and he says he'll definitely be back in Toronto next summer to fulfill the second year of a four-year contract that guarantees him at least $18.2 million. The Raiders hold his NFL rights, but Ismail is vague about his future in U.S. pro football. "People get paid to speculate," he says. "There are no yeses, there are no noes. Who knows what the future holds? Right now, for me, it's here and school."
The Argos finished with the best record (13-5) in the CFL and head into the postseason as the favorites to win the Grey Cup on Nov. 24—and the Rocket played no small part in Toronto's success.
He was fourth in the league in kickoff-return average (25.4 yards on 31 attempts), fifth in punt-return average (12.5 yards on 48 runbacks), ninth in receptions (64), fifth in receiving yards (1,300, for a 20.3 average per catch), 21st in rushing (271 yards on 36 attempts) and first in all-purpose yards (2,959, for a 16.5 average every time he touched the ball). In addition, he scored 13 TDs this year, but he electrified the crowd with only one of his patented kick returns for a TD.
Ismail, who is two semesters short of his degree in American studies, plans to return to Notre Dame in January. First, though, here are some of his impressions on making what is generally considered a difficult switch to the Canadian game:
•The 12-man lineups: "You see 12 guys on the field at first, and it's mass confusion, especially on special teams. On returns, you're back there and you look ahead, and you say, 'Holy smokes! Look at all these guys? Where'd they all come from?' You wouldn't think adding one guy is that big a deal, but it is."
•The CFL field, which is 10 yards longer and 12 yards wider than the American gridiron: "Going back to high school, all I was ever taught was: Run north and south, don't waste time going east-west. Whenever I saw even the littlest hole, I was gone upfield—or at least trying to go upfield. But here, the coach wants you to change your thinking. I can maybe go backwards five yards and run around and get a block, then pick up 20 extra yards. My mentality's not like that, and it's hard to break out of my north-south habit."
•Pass coverage: "It's so hands-on. I thought when I got up here the defensive backs were going to try to rough me up, because I was the new guy. But it's league-wide; they're all over you the whole field."
As for the Rocket's fan appeal: Attendance at Toronto games increased an average of 14,472 at the SkyDome (36,304 per game), but the Argos' average draw was up only 3,959 on the road (29,630) during the last season.
Wake Up, NFL, and Smell the Coffee
Here's how the 1991 pay of the No. 1 pick in last spring's NFL draft, Cowboy defensive tackle Russell Maryland, compares with what other standout pro athletes in the Dallas area will earn this year (the basketball and soccer salaries are for the '91-92 season).
Russell Maryland, DT
Julio Franco, 2B
Rolando Blackman, G
Alfred Jenkins, WR-LB
Maryland plays part time, Franco is the reigning American League batting champ, Blackman is a six-time NBA All-Star, Wadkins is the PGA Tour's 12th-leading money winner this year, Tatu is a two-time Major Soccer League MVP, and Jenkins was the Texans' 1991 MVP.