A Declaration of Independence
This is an article from the March 30, 1992 issue
In the old days—oh, about four or five years ago—commissioner Pete Rozelle and his ad hoc vice-commissioner, Cowboy president Tex Schramm, could really work a room. If they didn't have the necessary votes to pass a rule or bylaw they thought was best for the league, they would lobby their old pals among the owners, take straw votes and lobby some more until they got enough support. Rozelle and Schramm should have been working Capitol Hill, they were so good.
But as last week's annual owners' meeting in Phoenix showed, genuine democracy now exists in the league. Even the passionate interests of new NFL potentates Paul Tagliabue, who succeeded Rozelle as commissioner in 1989, and Jim Finks, the Saints president who replaced Schramm as chairman of the rules-making Competition Committee the same year, can't be force-fed to an owners' group that now includes more independent thinkers. Finks watched helplessly as instant replay was voted down after a star-crossed six-year run, and Tagliabue tabled until March 30 a vote on a watershed plan he had endorsed to restructure and extend the current television contract.
"The league will never be the same as it was a few years ago," says an owner who bought his team in the 1980s. "You can't twist arms and force things down throats the way Schramm used to."
Instant replay had survived by the minimum three-quarters vote (21-7) in each of the last two years, but 11 teams opposed it this year. Philadelphia and Dallas had opposed the replay in recent years, but neither wanted to cast the deciding vote to eliminate it. The Bucs and the Jets also hated it but had fallen in line with the league office. This year all four teams put their votes where their mouths had been.
The proposal to rework the TV contract is more complicated. Cleveland owner Art Modell, who as head of the Broadcast Committee for 30 years had enjoyed almost carte blanche to work with the commissioner in hammering out lucrative deals with the networks, is being met head-on by a contingent of owners who oppose his proposal to offer relief for the advertising-depressed networks. Modell's committee proposed rolling back the scheduled 18-week regular seasons in 1992 and '93 to 17 weeks and reducing each team's TV revenue for 1993 from $41 million to $34 million. In exchange the networks would extend the league's contract two years, through 1995.
In other words each team would receive about $34 million a season for the next four years, and the league would not have to face the uncertainty of negotiating in what could be hard times when the current contract expires after the '93 season. "I think I could have pushed it [relief for the networks] through," said Tagliabue, even though at least 10 teams spoke out against the deal either publicly or privately last week.
The argument to keep the contract intact, from Dallas owner Jerry Jones: "I believe the economy's going to be so much better in 1993 and 1994 that it would be inappropriate to redo the contract now. Nothing I see—in attendance, in TV ratings—points to a major meltdown in our sport. Let's see what happens and then do another contract when this one's finished."
The argument to rework and extend the deal, from Modell: "In getting the payment up to $41 million per team, we added an 18th week of games to create more product for the networks. That glutted the [depressed advertising] market. Now we're better off tightening the marketplace and getting stability in return."
Another factor is involved here. NBC almost walked away from the NFL during contract negotiations in 1990 before relenting and agreeing to pay $752 million for the rights to AFC games for four years and to one Super Bowl. If NBC gets no relief when the owners vote on March 30, the threat that the network might drop its NFL coverage will be even greater, leaving ABC or the inexperienced Fox network to pick up NBC's share of the Sunday afternoon telecasts. "It'll be a dark day for the league if this measure's not approved," says Modell, whose negotiating powers would be undercut if the proposal is voted down. "We've always had a healthy partnership with the networks. Our doors have been open to them if they have problems, and their doors have been open to us."
Who's the best two-sport athlete in the Falcons' secondary? It might not be cornerback Deion Sanders. Consider the spring training stats that safety Brian Jordan has put together while playing the outfield for the St. Louis Cardinals: At week's end Jordan was batting .310 with a team-high seven RBIs and had the Cards thinking hard about keeping him in the majors to start the season instead of sending him to Triple A Louisville, where he spent last season before joining the Falcons in July.
Jordan has had three-hit games against the Texas Rangers and the Kansas City Royals, and he has hopes of playing baseball full-time. His baseball agent, Jim Turner, and St. Louis general manager Dal Maxvill began talking last week about a contract that would make baseball Jordan's primary sport.
Jordan says it's a "strong, strong possibility" he'll pick baseball over football if the Cardinals offer him the right money and a multiyear deal. "It's going to be a real tough decision," he says. "I'd prefer baseball if I could do it at the major league level, because of the longevity."
Meanwhile, Sanders continues his bid to start in centerfield for the Atlanta Braves on Opening Day. He was hitting .359 with eight stolen bases through Sunday. Still, according to Pittsburgh Pirate general manager Ted Simmons, "Jordan is a better long-range impact type of player. He'll hit third, fourth or fifth, and he'll hit for power."
The most significant expansion development at the owners' meeting wasn't the trimming of the list of candidates from 11 cities to seven. It was the bailing out of the Patriots by James Busch Orthwein, the moneyman for St. Louis's bid for a franchise. Pending the league's approval, Orthwein will buy financially strapped Victor Kiam's 51% share in the Pats—and do the NFL a big favor. But what happens if Orthwein can't resell the club, as he plans to do, in time to plunk down the money to get a team in St. Louis? "If Jim can walk in and solve such a big problem for the league, I'd think it would be very indebted to him," says Jerry Clinton, who's part of the group bidding for a St. Louis franchise.
The expansion leader board looks to be, in order: Charlotte, St. Louis, Baltimore and Memphis, with Jacksonville, Oakland and Sacramento likely to miss the next cut, in May. The top four are all terrific candidates, but like St. Louis, the other three have question marks.
One owner fretted last week that Charlotte's ownership group would have to spend so much start-up money (about $275 million for the franchise fee and stadium) that running a profitable team in the foreseeable future would be impossible. This owner puts Charlotte third on his list, behind St. Louis and Baltimore. Baltimore has the misfortune of being sandwiched between an NFL city 45 miles to the south (Washington) and one 100 miles to the north (Philadelphia). And Memphis has the smallest TV market—40th nationally—of the contenders, plus the Liberty Bowl, a 27-year-old stadium.
Running from Reality
An update on three frustrated backs:
•Eric Dickerson, Colts. Indianapolis keeps saying it will keep Dickerson and pay his ridiculous $3 million salary next year. But in a poolside chat with Dickerson's agent, Marvin Demoff, last week, Colt general manager Jimmy Irsay indicated he would take as little as a third-round draft pick for Dickerson. Trouble is, who'll give it to him? The most logical team would seem to be Philadelphia, which lost a Plan B battle with Cleveland last week for running back James Brooks, but Eagle coach Rich Kotite told a reporter, "You have a better chance of playing for the Eagles than Eric Dickerson. He ain't coming here. He's not my kind of guy." It's not logical, but look for Raider boss Al Davis to enter the Dickerson stakes by draft day.
•Herschel Walker, Vikings. Rumors abound about the Falcons' interest in Walker, but their best offer has been a fifth-round draft pick. Walker might have to swallow his pride and return to Minnesota as a role player under new coach Dennis Green.
•Bobby Humphrey, Broncos. Atlanta is much more serious about acquiring Humphrey than it is about Walker. One AFC general manager said last week in Phoenix that Denver is close to sending Humphrey to the Falcons for the 19th pick in the first round of the draft. That's a fair price for a two-time 1,100-yard rusher who's only 25.
Buffalo defensive end Bruce Smith has quietly had more surgery on his ailing left knee in the off-season, and Bills owner Ralph Wilson worries that the knee will never be totally sound again....
Even though the Lions signed restricted free-agent linebacker Pat Swilling of the Saints to an offer sheet on Monday, the fact that none of the other marquee free agents—Cornelius Bennett of Buffalo, Jerry Rice of San Francisco and Mark Rypien of Washington—has gotten a nibble from another team reinforces the Players Association's contention that free agency in the NFL is meaningless. Rypien's agent, Ken Staninger, thinks Rypien, the Super Bowl MVP, could command a salary of $8 million in a truly free market this year. Rice's agent, Jim Steiner, believes Rice's free-market value would be between $4 million and $5 million a season....
Twelve of agent Leigh Steinberg's football clients have gotten married or will do so this off-season, including quarterbacks Tommy Maddox (UCLA) and Dan McGwire (Seahawks), both of whom were married last Saturday. While in Reno for McGwire's wedding, Steinberg said, "There's no question there's been tremendous behavioral modifications because of the fear of AIDS."...
The World League keeps trumpeting how an influx of players on loan from the NFL will improve the caliber of play in the spring league. In truth, 47 of the 110 players on loan were not on World League rosters for last weekend's season openers.
The End Zone
Super Bowl halftime shows have been a cross between an Up With People performance and The Lawrence Welk Show. Finally, the NFL might be recognizing the MTV generation. League people met last week with representatives of Michael Jackson, trying to line up the Gloved One to perform at Super Bowl XXVII on Jan. 31 in Pasadena. "It went pretty well," said one league source of the meeting. "The odds of getting him have gone from 10,000 to 1 to about 10 to 1."
ALL'S FAIR IN LOVE AND PLAN B
Before the Feb. 1 start of the plan B free-agent signing period, kicker Steve Christie assured the Bucs he wouldn't accept another team's offer if he wasn't among Tampa Bay's 37 protected players. The next week he signed a $2.23 million, four-year deal with the Bills. Similarly, kicker Ken Willis got a substantial-salary advance from Dallas for his promise to spurn Plan B offers, and cornerback Milton Mack got a new contract as an incentive to stay with the Saints. Willis and Mack both defected to Tampa Bay for better deals.
Since Plan B's inception four years ago, teams have used various financial means to get around the 37-man limit on protected players. But Christie's change of heart last month taught at least one team, the Bucs, a lesson. "Plan B is a bare-knuckled fistfight now," says Tampa Bay coach Sam Wyche. "There are no rules."
Still, rich contracts can be had by many players left unprotected, even though only some 40 have changed teams as the April 1 deadline approaches (139 players were signed last year). Excluding quarterback Dave Krieg, whose new contract terms with Kansas City were not available, here are the top 10 multiyear contracts signed by Plan B free agents in 1992.
Player, New Team
1. Thane Gash, 49ers*
2. Mark May, Cardinals
3. Robert Clark, Dolphins
4. Butch Rolle, Cardinals
5. Ron Solt, Colts
6. Jack Del Rio, Vikings
7. Bruce Reimers, Bucs
8. Vencie Glenn, Vikings
9. Delton Hall, Chargers
10. Steve Christie, Bills
*Gash must be on the 49ers' active roster for at least eight games per season, or his pay will be reduced by $160,000.