Last week in San Diego, future Hall of Fame offensive tackle Anthony Munoz interrupted the rest of his life—he's running his Italian restaurant in Cincinnati and training for a triathlon—and stepped back to the future. Munoz, 34, had retired in December, a decision hastened by an injury to his shoulder that had nagged him at the end of his 13-year career with the Bengals. But after nearly a month of watching the salaries of NFL free-agent offensive linemen rise like so many Roman candles, Munoz couldn't help himself; he had to see if there was any money left for him. So, on March 30 he spent the day with the San Diego Chargers, having his shoulder examined (it's O.K., said the doctors) and meeting coach Bobby Ross. Munoz played at 275 pounds, but he has slimmed down in preparation for his triathlon, hoping to weigh about 250 for the June race—a race he is unlikely to run if one of the several teams that have expressed interest ends up signing him.
Who can blame Munoz for wanting to milk another year out of his career? Since the free-agent market was declared open on March 1, salaries have soared, as expected. But the cost of beef has risen most dramatically on the offensive line. The Denver Broncos have nearly quadrupled the salaries of two linemen, tackle Don Maggs and guard Brian Habib, who will never be mistaken for Munoz or Hall of Famer John Hannah. Guard Harry Gal-breath's average annual salary jumped $1.12 million when he signed with the Green Bay Packers. And last week the Indianapolis Colts broke the $2 million-a-year salary barrier for offensive linemen. Twice. Within 24 hours.
The Colts lured center Kirk Lowdermilk away from the Minnesota Vikings for a cool $2 million a year, then offered tackle Will Wolford $2.55 million a year to defect from the Buffalo Bills. Wolford is a restricted free agent, and he is not yet a Colt because the Bills have matched the offer, though the two teams are haggling over other contractual details.
"It's been like a land rush to get the linemen," says Indianapolis general manager Jim Irsay. "But we've got a franchise quarterback in Jeff George, and we're determined to protect our investment." Adds Denver director of football operations Bob Ferguson, "We're seeing how important it is to build a solid core of big, strong, smart and tenacious guys to set the tone for your offense."
During the first month of free agency five men owned the title of highest-paid NFL offensive lineman. On March 1 Washington Redskin tackle Jim Lachey wore the crown by virtue of a three-year contract he signed last year, which will pay him $1.35 million for the '93 season. On March 8 Lachey was deposed when the Broncos signed Habib, a converted defensive tackle from the Vikings, for $1.4 million a year. On March 23 Green Bay signed Galbreath, a former Miami Dolphin and one of the league's smallest offensive linemen at 6'1" and 271 pounds, for $1.52 million a year. "The incredible thing about Harry's deal is that we left money on the table," says Gal-breath's agent, Jimmy Sexton, whose client preferred to play in Green Bay. "If we'd been out only for money, we could have gotten more." On March 28 Lowdermilk walked out of Indianapolis owner Bob Irsay's house with his three-year, $6 million deal; a day later Wolford was tendered his $7.65 million offer sheet.
Naturally you would assume that the Broncos, Packers and Colts had bought filet mignon, not ground chuck, for their dollars. But consider that three of the four new millionaire linemen have never played in a Pro Bowl. At 6'7" and 300 pounds, Habib has size, toughness and athleticism. But he sat out his entire rookie season in 1988 because of a shoulder injury and is still a question mark, largely because he is unpolished and has been a starter for only a year and a half. Gal-breath, a starter since '88, his first season in the league, was no better than third-best among Miami's offensive linemen last year. Lowdermilk, on the other hand, is smart, durable and a quiet leader—a good anchor for any line. Of the four, Wolford is the lone Pro Bowl player; he is among the top five or six left tackles in the game, quick and smart. But is he worth more than $2 million? With a salary cap of about $31 million per team looming for 1994, the contracts tendered to these linemen are frightening many in the NFL establishment. "It's a fast rush to get players who probably aren't worth it," says Cincinnati Bengal offensive line coach Jim McNally.
"We might be getting into an era where we're paying incredible money for .220-hitting shortstops and 4-10 pitchers," says New York Jet general manager Dick Steinberg, echoing a common theme throughout the league.
In the NFL, when it comes to talent, especially at the anonymous offensive line positions, beauty is most definitely in the eye of the beholder. Take, for example, the Broncos' decisions to sign Habib and Maggs. Ferguson, in his first year in Denver's front office after four seasons as Buffalo's director of professional personnel, put Maggs, the Houston Oilers' starting left tackle, and Habib, the Vikings' right guard, at the very top of his list of unrestricted guards and tackles. Despite his limited ability, Maggs was probably high on many teams' lists because left tackles—who protect a righthanded quarterback's blind side—with experience are scarce. But last year Viking defensive end Chris Dole-man consistently beat Maggs with outside moves that forced quarterback Warren Moon to run for his life. As for Habib, one AFC coach called his signing "the worst contract I've ever seen in this league." Now Maggs and Habib will be the cornerstones of the unit that protects the franchise, quarterback John Elway.
Of course, Denver did not have much choice. Last year the Bronco line allowed 52 sacks (only four teams gave up more), and unless Elway has the time and the freedom to make things happen, the Bronco offense goes nowhere. Maggs had planned to visit several other NFL cities immediately after seeing Denver. So what could Ferguson do but offer Maggs, and then Habib, who was also planning on shopping himself around, more money than they had ever dreamed they would earn, and pressure them to close the deal.
Ferguson's reputation is on the line, just as it was when he made risky deals to acquire Cornelius Bennett (in 1987) and Leonard Smith (in '88), deals that ultimately helped the Bills become the AFC's best team. "This is definitely not a system for the timid," Ferguson says. "But you have to give the credit here to [owner] Pat Bowlen, because these were not famous guys. When I talked to him about [Habib], he kept calling him Rashid. But he was excited about developing a young guy like Brian and building with him."
The money, of course, continues to send shock waves through the game. A week before concluding the deal that sent Galbreath to the Packers, Sexton was telling one team, "It'll fall between $1.1 million and $1.5 million a year to get Harry. But I'm not going to kid you—1.5 is in my wildest dreams." Galbreath got more.
Asked if he's stunned to be a $2 million man, Lowdermilk said, "Stunned is not the word. There is no word in the English language to describe it." Habib was so overwhelmed by his contract that he said to Lowdermilk, "Will you please hurry up and sign, and pass me [in salary], so I can fade back into anonymity?"
On the other hand, Munoz, who earned $950,000 last season, thinks a grave inequity is finally being addressed. "For years," he says, "we've been told that everything starts with us, that we've got to keep the pass rusher, who is making two or three times as much as us, off the quarterback, who is making two or three times as much as us. The message, I think, is, If you want your quarterback to survive, you'd better keep him clean."
By week's end the Colts and the Bills were still bickering over Wolford's rights for the next three seasons. Indianapolis had included a clause in Wolford's offer sheet requiring that Wolford's base salary be the highest of any offensive player on his team. The Bills, not surprisingly, argue that this is unfair, that the clause was inserted only to make it nearly impossible for them to match the deal.
Imagine that: two teams fighting for the privilege of paying a left tackle more than $2 million a year. And the frenzy is not likely to subside between now and July 15, when the free-agent market shuts down. Two other left tackles, Ken Ruettgers of Green Bay and Harry Swayne of the Chargers, are likely to join the millionaires club, though neither will approach the rarefied Wolford territory. "We're into uncharted waters," says Colt coach Ted Marchibroda, "and no one knows where it will end."