Put a Sock in It
It's hard to sympathize with NFL players who, like Dolphin running back Mark Higgs, whine about the new salary cap. Last year Higgs averaged 3.7 yards a carry in rushing for 693 yards, and Miami cut this mediocre back's salary from $810,000 in '93 to $450,000 this year. Maybe that's all he's worth in any market.
Then there's Rickey Jackson, the Pro Bowl linebacker with the Saints, who as a 36-year-old free agent this year found that his best offer from a new team was an incentive-laden deal with the 49ers that paid him the NFL minimum of $162,000. What's wrong with making a guy that old sing for his supper?
True, some guys—38-year-old quarterback Phil Simms, who was waived by the Giants, for instance—have found the new reality harsher than others as a result of the cap, which this year puts a $34.6 million limit on salaries for each team. But the clubs are turning over 64% of their projected revenue to the players, and the player benefits are vastly improved over the terms of the last accord.
Yet several players, most of whom never lifted a negotiating linger, are howling? It's ridiculous.
"It is what the players wanted," says Gene Upshaw, the executive director of the NFL Players Association, who negotiated the collective bargaining agreement and has been sharply criticized by some players for the results he achieved. "Before, the best players were frozen and couldn't move. Now the starters can find out what they're worth in the marketplace. We forced the traditionally cheap teams to spend, and we increased benefits drastically."
Fact is, there probably wouldn't be many complaints about the agreement if some players hadn't felt the pinch of the salary cap. Certainly, few players who were suddenly set free to test the market and saw their salary jump tremendously have bitched. But those who got squeezed (or Tear they will in the near future) sound like members of the National Rifle Association after the crime bill was passed last week.
"Free agency with a cap is like no free agency," says Cowboy wideout Michael Irvin, who will test the free-agent market after this season. "If you're on one team and they say, 'Look, we can't afford to pay you, but you're a free agent and you can go out and test the waters,' you go to the other 27 teams and they have the same problem your team has. They're at the cap. So what good is having the ability to move if you can't move?"
Many players feel this agreement was shoved down their throats by a union weary of battling NFL lawyers. There's some truth to that, but the players are wrong it they think they could have gotten unfettered free agency without some restriction like the salary cap. Says NFLPA attorney Jim Quinn, "The NFL told us, in effect, that they will appeal [the 1992 Freeman McNeil decision, which gave players more freedom of movement] forever, and while they appeal, they will initiate a new restrictive plan of player movement. We faced continuing the court fight for two or three more years without the money to fight."
In a 1989 SI poll of 617 players, 72% said benefits, pension and severance were more important to them than free agency. Well, this agreement gives every active player a benefits package worth $77,193 annually—up from $48,276 under the previous contract. Says 12-year veteran Cowboy safety and special teams player Bill Bates, whose salary was sliced from $384,000 to $170,000 this year, "A lot of guys just want a paycheck next week, but they'll be glad about this deal when they're 50 and they see their pension."
Here are some of the changes:
•Pension. Under the old agreement, players with at least four years of experience who retired between 1982 and '86 will receive $150 per month for each year they played, beginning at age 55. Now, for players accumulating just three years of NFL experience from 1993 on, pensions will rise gradually and top out in 1997, when each player will get $300 per month for each year played.
•Medical. The annual deductible for players has been reduced from $2,800 to $400 a year for full family coverage.
•Special disability. Previously there was no benefit for degenerative injuries. Now, if a player can prove he has a degenerative condition brought about by football, he will receive extra benefits, which amount to $4,335 per month by '97.
•401(k) plan. There was no such plan before the new agreement, but now each team will match $7,500 annually per veteran player in pretax savings for retirement.
•Postseason pay. A player on a division champion whose team won three playoff games including the Super Bowl in 1992 earned $64,000 in bonus money. Last season, the first year the agreement took effect, the bonus was $73,500. That figure will gradually rise to $107,000 by '99.
Believe it or not, some players feel that the sport has never been healthier and that they are making good money. "Whereas the foundation of baseball is shaky, the foundation of football is solid," says Mike Kenn, the Falcon tackle and NFLPA president. "For the first time in history, we have legitimate free agency, rewarding the players who play the best. And we have 106 more jobs coming to the league next year with expansion, which couldn't have happened without a labor agreement."
No labor agreement ever pleases everyone, but if the players understood the position the union was in when the deal was finalized—a drawn-out appeals court fight with owners could have not only bankrupted the players' association but also put previous legal victories at risk—they would realize that their union made the right decision at the right time. At least one union warhorse can appreciate Upshaw's work.
"Listen to this," says Upshaw, reaching for the answering machine in his office. He punches a couple of buttons and an angry voice comes through the speaker. "I read what those ungrateful s.o.b. players are saying about the new agreement," the voice says. "Tell them they can kiss your ass. You're doing a great job.... This is Mack, your main man."
"John Mackey," Upshaw says proudly, identifying the former Colt tight end who took the bold step of suing the NFL on the union's behalf 22 years ago.
In an SI poll of NFL coaches last week, 20 of 28 respondents said that the most significant rule change of the season will be moving kickoffs from the 35-yard line to the 30 and lowering the kicking tee to one inch. "A tremendous percentage of kickoffs are going to be returned," says Buffalo coach Marv Levy. "And it's going to move the ball well past the 30-yard line as an average start. Even if you don't score from there, you've got a field-position advantage if you have to punt."
Four coaches, including the Cowboys' Barry Switzer, thought the two-point conversion would be the most important rule change. "I think people consider the two-pointer a last, desperate chance to win a ball game," he says. "But I think the two-point play will be used in the first quarter, second quarter, third quarter and fourth quarter."
Apparently the new rule addressing where the ball is spotted after a missed field goal won't be as big a factor as we thought. The change means that if team A, for example, misses a 47-yard field goal, team B gets the ball at the 37, where the kick was attempted, instead of at the 30, the line of scrimmage. The coaches were asked what they would do now if faced with fourth-and-five at the opposition's 30 on the first drive of the game. Only five coaches said they would go for the first down. So much for the thought that the new rule would make coaches gutsier.
One rule (actually an application of an existing rule) that may make the coaches angry prohibits defensive players from contact with receivers beyond five yards from scrimmage. Formerly, receivers and corners could bump each other incidentally while running downfield with no penalty called; now officials have been told that contact should bring a flag. "The officials are calling that rule so inconsistently that I think it's really hurting the game," says Brown coach Bill Belichick. "It's gotten the offensive players, the defensive players and the officials all confused."
The reason the "Jimmy Johnson to the Dolphins" rumors won't die is that an attorney for Miami owner Wayne Huizenga remains in occasional contact with Johnson's attorney, Nick Christin, about the possibility of Johnson's coaching the team at some point. While Huizenga denies he has any interest in Johnson, those denials will ring hollow as long as such overtures persist....
How bad did Denver quarterback and car dealer John Elway want the Broncos to land a great receiver in '94? When Denver was courting Raider free-agent wideout Tim Brown in the off-season, Elway took Brown to lunch and said he would get Brown a fully loaded sport truck, worth about $29,000, if the receiver signed with Denver. Brown signed an offer sheet with the Broncos, but L.A. matched it, and he remains a Raider. Elway, though, got a fine second prize: former Charger go-to guy Anthony Miller....
Fox TV's John Madden, on the impact of the salary cap and the player-go-round it has spawned: "Not that I ever wanted to go back to coaching, but this is the first year since I left [after the 1978 season] that I thought I could never do that again. The whole thing about coaching is to build a team and develop players and keep them through their prime. That's not possible anymore."
Game of the Week
Dallas at Pittsburgh, Sunday. An excellent test for the two-time defending champions, who will be playing a division favorite before a hostile crowd, with the most-physical and best-coverage cornerback in the game, Rod Woodson, to bedevil Michael Irvin and Alvin Harper, and the NFL's most-intense set of outside linebackers, Greg Lloyd and Kevin Greene, chasing Troy Aikman. The Cowboys get the first indication of how much they will miss Jimmy Johnson.
The End Zone
Brian Henesey, Bucknell's alltime leading rusher, finished his college career in 1991 but was bit by the football bug again three years later. The 5'10", 215-pound Henesey flew to Phoenix in February, posed as a Federal Express employee and ambushed Arizona coach Buddy Ryan, begging for a chance to try out. Ryan watched the game films Henesey had brought along and signed him. Henesey—nicknamed Rudy after the former Notre Dame player and his eponymous movie—made the Cardinals' 53-man roster as a backup fullback.
Rushing' Toward the Record Book
This season cowboy running back Emmitt Smith will try to become the second back ever to win four straight NFL rushing titles, a feat previously accomplished only by Jim Brown (32, below), who actually won it five years in a row, beginning in 1957.
"That's awesome," Smith says. "I want it."
Brown lost out to Jim Taylor of the Packers for top rushing honors in '62: then he was again the leading ground-gainer for three straight years, from '63 to '65, before retiring with eight rushing titles in nine pro seasons. That's why Brown is still the standard against which all backs are measured. Here is a comparison between the first four years of Brown's career in Cleveland and Smith's first four seasons in Dallas: