The voice on the other end of the line sounded defiant, stern
and, agent Leigh Steinberg thought, a bit desperate. New York
Jets president Steve Gutman was calling to up the ante for
free-agent quarterback Neil O'Donnell. The deal: five years, $25
million, including a $7 million signing bonus. From Gifford to
Namath to Gastineau to Taylor, no New York football player had
ever received an opportunity like this. "This is our final
offer," Steinberg recalls Gutman saying on the night of Feb. 27.
"There is not going to be another penny--not another penny!--added
to this package."
The Jets' deal was for $1.25 million more per year than
O'Donnell was being offered to stay with the Pittsburgh
Steelers. Yet, odd as it may seem, O'Donnell, torn between
returning to the AFC champion Steelers or migrating to the
woeful Jets, almost didn't take it. In fact, 21 hours after
Gutman made his final offer, O'Donnell told Steinberg, "Leigh,
I'm comfortable in Pittsburgh. I don't want to leave [coach]
Bill Cowher." But then, moments later, O'Donnell said he wanted
to review the two proposals again. Four hours after that, just
before midnight on Feb. 28, as he sat at the dining room table
in his suburban New Jersey house with Steinberg, wife Leslie and
family friend Bob Bryant, Neil still hadn't committed. So
Steinberg tore four pieces of paper from his yellow legal pad
and said, "Let's vote: Steelers or Jets."
There would be no straw poll, however, because Neil had already
decided. "You don't have to vote," he said. "I'm going to the
Not long ago, vagabond owner Art Modell said he would pay almost
any price--even trade 10 years of his life--for a Super Bowl
trophy. Judging by the early returns in the fourth season of
unfettered free agency, Modell's not alone among NFL owners. The
Jets' deal jumped O'Donnell ahead of such stars as John Elway,
Dan Marino and Emmitt Smith on the NFL salary list. What's more,
New York has signed tackles Jumbo Elliott and David Williams,
who in 15 combined seasons have made one Pro Bowl trip between
them, to five-year contracts worth a collective annual average
of $5.39 million. The Oakland Raiders paid $7.8 million in
signing bonuses for two mid-level cogs in the Dallas Cowboys
machine, defensive tackle Russell Maryland and cornerback Larry
Brown. And the Jacksonville Jaguars signed restricted free agent
Alonzo Spellman of the Chicago Bears to an offer sheet that made
him a $3 million-a-year pass rusher. Never mind that Spellman
has only 22 sacks in 63 games. Call it dumb and dumber: The
Bears matched the Jaguars' offer.
Perhaps it's too early to rip some of these moves, but NFL teams
seem to be doing what baseball purists bemoaned a decade ago:
making the .225-hitting shortstop a $2 million-a-year man. "What
worries me," says Green Bay Packers general manager Ron Wolf,
"is that people have lost confidence in their ability to judge
and develop and coach players. We're going crazy, buying guys.
That's not how you a build football team."
The NFL always worried that uncapped free agency would lead to
dynasties in big markets. That's why there's a salary cap, which
in 1996 is $40.75 million per team. Since its inception, the cap
has cost the Cowboys 24 free agents, including three defensive
starters this winter--Brown, Maryland and linebacker Dixon
Edwards. More defections from Dallas are expected. In addition
to O'Donnell, Pittsburgh has lost a rising star at tackle, Leon
Searcy, to Jacksonville. The cap may be designed to inhibit
dynasty-building, but it hasn't stopped teams with cap room from
At week's end only two free-agent starters had moved from a team
that had a losing record in 1995 to a club that had a winning
mark, yet 12 starters had left winners for teams whose record in
1995 was .500 or worse. As the O'Donnell and Searcy deals
showed, cash is king. "Leon and I heard all the stories about
[Jacksonville coach] Tom Coughlin being a dictator," says Drew
Rosenhaus, the agent for Searcy and the engineer of the richest
contract ever for an offensive lineman (five years, $17
million). "Screw that. Money talks."
But spending big on free agents hasn't necessarily translated to
winning big. "The only lesson you can learn from free agency is
that it can't be your primary way to build a team," says new
Miami Dolphins coach Jimmy Johnson, who took a major hit last
Saturday when he decided not to match the Philadelphia Eagles'
offer for restricted free-agent cornerback Troy Vincent. "The
draft is still the most important thing."
Last year the Dolphins bought up seemingly half of the
free-agent crop. Miami went 9-7 and was embarrassed in a playoff
loss to the Buffalo Bills. The Cleveland Browns signed five 1994
starters for the money they would have had to spend to get
pricey defensive end Reggie White in '93, and they finished
11-5. Yet after the Browns splurged on free-agent wideout Andre
Rison in the off-season, they plummeted to 5-11. The Denver
Broncos, who have been as active as anyone in the open market,
are 24-24 since free agency began.
The Steelers have been ravaged by free agency--they've had 14
full- or part-time starters test the open market, and 13 have
left--but it hasn't crippled them. The 14th starter, linebacker
Kevin Greene, a 33-year-old designated pass rusher, could break
the run of defections this off-season, but only if he's willing
to take a $500,000 cut from the $1.19 million he made in 1995.
Pittsburgh's philosophy regarding salaries is simple: It won't
spend any more in any one year than that year's cap figure. "We
don't panic, and we won't panic," Cowher says. "Last year, we
lose a bunch of players to free agency, and everyone comes into
the season doubting us. Then we lose [All-Pro cornerback] Rod
Woodson in the first quarter of the first game, and we start the
year 3-4. But we adjusted. We adjusted on the run after losing
Woodson, and we'll adjust this year."
O'Donnell's departure will require a tougher adjustment than any
other the Steelers have had to make. Still, Pittsburgh's
off-season losses and in-season wins make you wonder if free
agency is overrated. In 1992 the Steelers went 11-5 and lost in
the divisional playoffs. Over the next three off-seasons, 11
free-agent starters left. Yet in '95 Pittsburgh went 11-5 and
advanced to the Super Bowl for the first time since 1980.
The Steelers thought O'Donnell, a third-round pick in 1990, was
replaceable. They apparently will take their chances this fall
with '94 sixth-round pick Jim Miller, '95 second-rounder Kordell
Stewart or 11-year veteran Mike Tomczak.
It may sound risky, but there's plenty of evidence to suggest
Pittsburgh knows what it's doing. The Steelers lost Hardy
Nickerson to the Tampa Bay Bucs in 1993, but his successor, Chad
Brown, is one of the NFL's best young inside linebackers.
Pittsburgh now wouldn't trade second-year tight end Mark Bruener
for the man he replaced last fall, Eric Green. The feisty Justin
Strzelczyk will replace Searcy at right tackle. And hours after
losing O'Donnell, the Steelers signed tackle Will Wolford of the
Indianapolis Colts to a four-year, $9.9 million deal. He'll play
Is O'Donnell worth $5 million a year? To the Steelers, no. To
the Jets, yes.
Pressed to the wall, Pittsburgh owner Dan Rooney was willing to
pay the highest bonus ($4 million) and the highest average
salary ($3.75 million) in club history to retain O'Donnell. One
subplot: Rooney is convinced he must stand by the tenets of the
cap or risk going into the kind of debt that prompted Modell to
move his team out of Cleveland. If the Steelers had paid to keep
O'Donnell, it would have been next to impossible to keep their
defensive core--Brown, Levon Kirkland, Carnell Lake, Greg Lloyd
The Jets, on the other hand, had little choice but to sign
O'Donnell, if they wanted to rebound from a 3-13 record in 1995.
They had cut the cord with 34-year-old Boomer Esiason. With no
top-drawer quarterback available in the draft and no other free
agent with credentials similar to O'Donnell's on the market, the
Jets viewed O'Donnell as their only option.
Forget his scatter-armed performance in the Super Bowl.
O'Donnell is efficient. He should again be successful running a
low-risk attack under offensive coordinator Ron Erhardt, who
also joined the Jets after the Steelers cut him loose on Jan. 31.
Even so, New York believed it was pushing the envelope. On Feb.
26, Gutman called Steinberg and offered a five-year, $23.75
million package. Steinberg, a source close to the Jets said, was
stuck on $28.75 million over five years. When he hung up the
phone, Steinberg thought the deal was dead.
That night, however, Steinberg faxed Gutman a six-page treatise
in which he outlined quarterback salaries of the past, present
and future. He also left Gutman a let's-not-let-this-
thing-fall-apart message. "Steve," he told him, "you need to
make the incentive for Neil as compelling as possible. You're
asking him to leave a Super Bowl team and to leave a safe haven."
The next day Gutman raised his offer to $25 million. If
O'Donnell could live with this, Steinberg thought, he had a deal.
Three key factors emerged as O'Donnell weighed his options.
First, he believed that if the Steelers couldn't afford to
construct Dallas-type contracts (heavy on signing bonuses, even
if those bonuses strained the cap in future years), it would
cost them on the field. Also, the Steelers had asked O'Donnell
to lead them to the Super Bowl; he had done that, and now they
were offering to make him about the NFL's 10th highest-paid
quarterback. Finally, O'Donnell was comfortable in Pittsburgh.
"But life is about change," Leslie told him.
Leslie got no argument from Steinberg, who had told Neil during
negotiations, "If you have one life to live as an athlete, why
not live at least a part of it on center stage?"
The Jets haven't been center stage in New York for a
quarter-century. If O'Donnell gets them there, this $25 million
investment will be the wisest in franchise history since the
signing of Joe Namath. If not? Buy some earplugs, Neil.
CASH AND CARRY
Free-agent quarterback Neil O'Donnell's huge new deal with the
New York Jets raised eyebrows last week, because of both the
high value of the contract and the questionable caliber of the
player. Here's a sampling of other free-agent signings in
baseball, basketball, football and hockey that grabbed headlines.
Catfish Hunter OAKLAND A'S
To the New York Yankees for 5 years, $3.35 million in 1974
First big catch in the open market, but only one 20-win season
was left in his arm
Reggie Jackson BALTIMORE ORIOLES
To the New York Yankees for 5 years, $2.9 million in 1976
Mr. October (above) clinched '77 World Series with three home
runs in Game 6
Wayne Garland BALTIMORE ORIOLES
To the Cleveland Indians for 10 years, $2 million in 1976
"You're not worth it," said his mom. She was right: He won 28
games rest of his career
Barry Bonds PITTSBURGH PIRATES
To the San Francisco Giants for 6 years, $43.75 million in 1992
Added third MVP award in 1993; wanted child-support payment cut
Chris Dudley NEW JERSEY NETS
To the Portland Trail Blazers for 6 years, $24 million in 1993
Has averaged 5.0 points a game and $4 million a year since
Horace Grant CHICAGO BULLS
To the Orlando Magic for 5 years, $17 million in 1994
Fills frontcourt void, steers young Magic all the way to NBA
Finals in his first season
Ron Harper LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS
To the Chicago Bulls for 5 years, $19.2 million in 1994
Mr. Free-Agent Bust a year ago, he's filling quiet role as
starter on 52-6 team
Reggie White PHILADELPHIA EAGLES
To the Green Bay Packers for 4 years, $17 million in 1993
Alltime sack leader was best NFL free-agent bargain ever; he's
still playing as if he's 27
Deion Sanders ATLANTA FALCONS
To the San Francisco 49ers for 1 year, $1.335 million in 1994
More interested in a Super Bowl ring than money, he got what he
Andre Rison ATLANTA FALCONS
To the Cleveland Browns for 5 years, $17 million in 1995
Poster child for money ill-spent; when fans boo, he says, "F---
Deion Sanders SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
To the Dallas Cowboys for 7 years, $35 million in 1995
More interested in money than a second Super Bowl ring, he wound
up with both
Dale Hawerchuk BUFFALO SABRES
To the St. Louis Blues for 3 years, $7.5 million in 1995
Signed richest contract in NHL's young free-agent history but