PERILS OF A NEW ERA

Who knows what dangers lurk in the realm of the salary cap
September 05, 1993

I'm a decent man, Carmen Policy is thinking. I've worked for the San Francisco 49ers for 11 years, done everything a shrewd, loyal front-office guy should do. I helped the team win three Super Bowls in six years. Gave Steve Young more money than a sheikh. Never sold the fans down the river.

What did I do to deserve this?

Policy climbs out of bed and walks downstairs to his den. It's 3 a.m., and, of course, he can't sleep. He flips on CNN. Floods, droughts, other people's troubles. No matter how he crunches the numbers, he can't figure out how he will be able to keep the 49ers intact in the new, free-agency, salary-capped era of pro football. It's an era that is sort of here now—since the passage in June of the collective bargaining agreement between NFL management and the players—but won't begin in earnest until next year, when every team will likely be forced to operate under a uniform salary cap. That cap is expected to be a little less than $31 million per team. Right now the 49ers have a player payroll of about $40 million. Policy knows that in short order he may have to dump salaries, and star players, like a sinking frigate dumping cannon.

Policy starts to zone out. "How," the executive says half aloud, half in silent prayer, "will the players respond to us in our hour of need?"

Like sharks released from a holding tank, it appears.

For instance, veteran guard Bill Fralic, now with the Detroit Lions, is having no trouble sleeping. He recently became a free agent and bumped his base salary from $837,000 to $1.6 million—a 91% raise—just by moving from the Atlanta Falcons to the Motor City.

Loyalty? To what? To the feeding frenzy, Mr. Policy.

"I wanted to get two teams excited about me in order to push the price up as high as I could," says Fralic. "And that happened with the Lions and the New York Jets. I knew how much the Lions needed linemen—a cheerleader could have figured that out—and so we were able to push them."

Push. Leverage. Work the market. Fralic, a good but not great guard, now finds himself the eighth-highest-paid offensive lineman of all time because he did those things. NFL general managers, who for so many years have had the upper hand when talking money with players ("Where else you fixing to play, son—Canada?"), suddenly find themselves in a panic to sign the first mass outpouring of free agents the game has allowed. Indeed, 1993 is a year in which NFL execs have embarrassed themselves as never before. How can the linebacker-rich New York Giants, for example, justify signing former Buffalo Bill 'backer Carlton Bailey for $1.7 million a year, when he won't even start?

Don't make us do this, the G.M.'s are begging the players. The players' response? If you didn't have the money, you lying horse thieves, you wouldn't.

In March the Atlanta Falcons signed former 49er defensive end Pierce Holt to a guaranteed three-year, $7.5 million contract. "The 49ers thought things might have been different if they showed how much they wanted me," says Holt of his former team's wooing. "But it's not college anymore. This whole new game reminds me of what [writer and former NFL receiver] Pete Gent once wrote: 'Every time we say it's a game, you say it's a business. And every time we say it's a business, you say it's a game.' "

Heard anyone call it a game recently? Not in any NFL front offices, you haven't. Asked what his job will be like in 1994, Giant general manager George Young replies simply, "There will be blood on the floor." Some of it, no doubt, his own. Panic is evident in the mammoth salaries being commanded by free-agent offensive linemen. Consider that Indianapolis Colt tackle Will Wolford will make more than 49er wideout Jerry Rice this year, Colt center Kirk Lowdermilk more than Green Bay Packer receiver Sterling Sharpe, Fralic more than Dallas Cowboy receiver Michael Irvin. Last year the highest-paid offensive lineman in football was the Washington Redskins' Jim Lachey, at $1.35 million; this year at least 17 other O linemen will make more. "I think people finally realize how important we are," says San Diego Charger left tackle Harry Swayne, who signed a three-year, $5.4 million contract.

Think again, Harry. General managers have just realized that free agency makes everybody important. Suddenly even lowly blockers have other names on their dance cards. There was a time—at least, fans feel there was a time—when players stayed with their teams for years and built an identity that was connected with that franchise. At least some of that nostalgia is based in fact (Terry Bradshaw was with the Pittsburgh Steelers for his entire 14-year career; Walter Payton spent his 13 years in the league with the Chicago Bears), but it probably won't be like that again. In most cases NFL players will become free agents after four years in the league, and they most assuredly will then go wherever they can strike the best financial deal, on-field loyalties—dynasties, even—be damned. "For the difference of a couple of hundred thousand dollars, is it worth it to pick up and go to, say, Tampa?" asks the 49ers' soon-to-be free-agent tackle, Harris Barton. "Probably not. But if it's a substantial amount of money, I'd have to go."

Substantial amount? Used to mean something else, didn't it?

In truth, there won't be any more dynasties. Win a Super Bowl and all of a sudden even your average players think they're worthy of big paychecks. Funny thing is, the rest of the league thinks that too. So a lot of a winning team's players will take off after each season. It's about to happen to the Cowboys, the Super Bowl champs, who in '94 could lose defensive linemen Jimmie Jones and Leon Lett, cornerback Larry Brown, wideout Alvin Harper, guard John Gesek and tackle Erik Williams to free agency. And even if you are willing to pay to keep some of your stars, you won't be able to. The durned cap will get you. So players will come and go like moths on a screen.

The free-agent migration is already well under way. At a recent Jet-Redskin scrimmage, for instance, the announcer said: "At defensive tackle for the Jets, number 70, Leonard Marshall; at cornerback, number 22, Eric Thomas; at free safety, number 42, Ronnie Lott." Jets? Jet$ is more like it. The team spent $11.5 million in the off-season to sign these long-in-the-tooth veterans who, collectively, have been in the league or nearly 30 years. Across the board 129 players fetched more than $350 million in new contracts by changing teams during this inaugural free-agent auction. It won't be quite the same next year because of the projected cap, but there still will be a lot of action on the open market, and the prices in many cases will be plunging. Some stars will get big raises as teams bet their bankrolls on them; other big shots will have to take huge pay cuts or retire, because teams won't have any money left with which to pay them.

The truly interesting thing about the new era is that teams can structure their payrolls any way they want, as long as they pay every player at least the league minimum ($100,000 for rookies this season, $125,000 for players with a year's service, $150,000 for two or more years) and stay under the cap. For example, one team could pay each of the 53 players on its roster [1/53] of the cap, or $579,245 apiece; a weird team could pay its quarterback $25.8 million and divvy up the leavings among everybody else. Which team do you think might have some dissension? Which team's quarterback might not survive the season's first blitz?

In any case, fans might not at first take to the changes wrought by the new collective bargaining agreement. After Wolford, who had spent seven years with the Bills, signed with the division-rival Colts in April, he met some friends at his old hangout, the Big Tree Inn, near Buffalo's Rich Stadium. Before long Wolford was taking serious heat from the patrons over his defection. "Get the——out of here, you——traitor!" shouted one man. Stunned, Wolford split. Innocence cannot long withstand the assault of cash.

"I hate the fact that football people can't make football decisions anymore," says San Diego G.M. Bobby Beathard of the cap's dark effect on his profession. "So many other nonfootball factors will be involved."

But saying money is a nonfootball factor for NFL players is like saying hay is a nonmilk factor for dairy cows. There is some ultimate fairness to what is now transpiring, and if Beathard and his ilk don't like the new deal, sorry. The fact is the new agreement has placed football in the best labor-management shape of any major professional sport, with a contract that runs until the year 2000.

"The people in football don't know how good they have it," says Minnesota Twin general manager Andy MacPhail, who knows something about coping with free agency; the Twins are the only team to win two World Series in the last 10 years. "They've got a partnership with their players for the rest of the decade, unlike us. They already share all their TV revenue, unlike us. They've got fixed costs, unlike us."

Each NFL team can also designate a franchise player (who cannot move but must be paid a minimum of the average salary of the five best-paid players at his position) and, in '93 and '94, three transitional players (who can sign better deals with other teams, but only if their original team does not match the offer). The amount of the salary cap depends on the revenue coming into the league. The TV revenue is now about $39.5 million per team; but the figure may go down to around the $34 million mark after the league's new contract with the networks is signed in 1994.

What does it all mean? It means that teams like the Redskins, Giants and 49ers, all of which are now nearly $10 million over the cap, are in big trouble next season. They will have to dump good players just to stay upright, which is why Carmen Policy can't sleep nights. Teams like the Steelers, the Cincinnati Bengals and the New England Patriots, however, might benefit, because each is well under the cap and will have room to wheel and deal. The new arrangement should be good for the two new expansion teams, as well, when they enter the league in 1995. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Seattle Seahawks, the last two expansion teams, went a combined 2-26 in '76, their first NFL season; but the talent that will be available to, say, the St. Louis Beer Bottles and Baltimore Crabcakes two years from now should be considerably better than what was offered to the Bucs and the Seahawks. Most teams will be forced to expose a lot of high-priced players in the expansion draft—as baseball teams did in the major league expansion draft last year—and the Bottles and the Cakes, with decent coaching, should win some games early.

The new system will also help produce instant stars. There are a lot of rookies and backup players league-wide who simply need a chance to show their worth. Free agency and entry-level wages will give them that chance. Mike Sherrard would have been the third receiver in San Francisco; now he'll be the go-to guy with the Giants. Running back Rod Bernstine goes from backing up Marion Butts with the Chargers to starting with the Denver Broncos, jacking up his $685,000 salary by more than a million bucks en route.

Does this seem crazy, or fair? Don't ever forget that the average NFL career is now a mere 3.6 years, and that just when a player is feeling flush with power, he may get Hushed due to injury or salary. What was once a casual game of Go Fish is now a high-stakes game of stud poker, with everybody trying to bluff everybody else.

"It's nerve-racking," admits big winner Fralic, "but worth it. I never thought I'd make money like this in football." So stars will shine and marginal players will make marginal money. "Hey, that's how society is," shrugs new 49er safety Tim McDonald. "You've got to be elite to make elite money, just like in the business world."

And team chemistry? Forget it! Every July, camp will be like a get-acquainted party at the local steakhouse: "Hi, my name's Roger, and I'll be your center this year." Coach Mike Holmgren of the Packers, who were an ascendant 9-7 last year, thinks wistfully of the halcyon days of...1992. "I remember coming home from a game last season and thinking, What a great group of guys we have," he says. "There was such a great feeling in the locker room, a feeling of togetherness as much as on any team I'd ever been associated with. I didn't want to disrupt it." But he did, "to improve in certain areas." He adds, "Now we're a better team than we were last year, but will we still have that same unselfish together feeling?"

Doubtful. But that's only one of the new problems confronting team executives in the new era. Houston Oiler linebacker Wilber Marshall, ever the grasping, no-nonsense capitalist, describes the Oilers' worst nightmare if the cap forces the team into a fire sale: "What are they going to do, play Warren Moon at quarterback and cornerback?"

Right back atcha, huffs Packer G.M. Ron Wolf: "This is virgin territory for us old football guys. But my feeling is that this league is going to be in absolute turmoil next year. I don't think the players grasp what's going to happen. There are going to be players making $700,000 this year, and if they want a job next year, they're going to have to take $150,000." What goes around comes around.

Without the distraction of labor strife, will this be a kinder, gentler NFL? No. A dog-eat-dog NFL? Yes. Savvy, limited-skills players might even show up at camp next season wearing billboards stating NICE FELLA, WILL WORK CHEAP. It's all about finances now, and reading the market; just like a fantasy league wherein each owner has the same amount of bidding cash. "I want to believe the new system won't be as hard on the high-salaried teams as it seems," says quarterback Steve Young, who signed a contract during the off-season that will pay him $26.5 million over the next five years. "But it doesn't look that way I'd hate to see the league neuter the most progressive '90s organization in sports, the 49ers."

But it wouldn't bother, say, the Los Angeles Raiders a bit if that were to happen. In the brave new NFL world, every team will have a chance to make its mark. Fast. And to fall just as fast. Players' financial fortunes will soar and plummet so rapidly their ears might pop. It's going to be a topsy-turvy world, but it could be fun. The Patriots and the Phoenix Cardinals in the 1995 Super Bowl? Why not?

"Maybe it's idealistic," said the tired Policy recently in his 49er office, looking out over the practice fields. "But some players are going to have to make some sacrifices for the good of the team if we're going to continue to be the great team we've been in the past."

Be nice if that happens, Carm. If it doesn't, just remember this—the NFL is like the real world now: It's not enough just to have money anymore; you gotta be smart, too. Bon voyage.

ILLUSTRATIONTIM LEWIS ILLUSTRATIONTIM LEWISPlayers will go wherever they can strike the best financial deal. ILLUSTRATIONTIM LEWISBalancing salaries will be crucial to maintaining team morale.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)