I'm building my team Jimmy Johnson-style, with rookies, lots of
them, at least six of whom I project as starters for the
inaugural year of the Los Angeles Z's. And that includes my
quarterback, Pat Barnes of California. Yes, I think he's that
good. Barnes, a second-round draft choice, is a classic dropback
thrower with a powerful arm and terrific poise. Gil Brandt, the
former superscout of the Dallas Cowboys, agrees that Barnes is a
can't-miss prospect, although Joel Buchsbaum, who has been
analyzing NFL drafts since 1971, says, "Watch out. When things
aren't going right he tends to go into a slump." It'll be a
baptism by fire, a risky way to travel, but I think that
bringing in a young quarterback is the right fit for my coach,
Steve Spurrier, late of the University of Florida.
As you know, getting Spurrier, who had refused many times to try
his hand at the NFL game, was a bit of a coup. I had to give him
the richest coaching contract in NFL history. Give my owner, Ted
Turner, credit for that. When I bounced the numbers off him, he
said, "I want to win, and I want to win now." I pointed out that
that was impossible, since we don't play any games in February.
Turner seemed a bit annoyed at that comment but still replied,
"I know, I know, just pay the guy what he wants."
Spurrier was adamant about getting something else--a reliable
left tackle to protect Barnes's blind side. He was still having
nightmares about the way Florida State played handball last
November with Gators quarterback Danny Wuerffel. So I signed one
of the best left tackles in the business, Gary Zimmerman (no
relation), who was under the impression that he was going to
retire after six Pro Bowl seasons. I did a selling job on Gary
and persuaded him to hold off for a while, just as the Carolina
Panthers did in 1995 with Greg Kragen, who has turned out to be
a terrific nosetackle. It cost us $3 million, but Gary will have
the honor of playing for a president and general manager with
the same last name.
As of now 12 rookies are on my 53-man roster, possibly with more
to come once I start bidding for players who went undrafted. The
plus is that if you've chosen wisely, you have a nucleus of
young players locked into four- and five-year contracts at
reasonable prices. Which doesn't mean that those salaries can't
be adjusted upward if a raise is merited. San Diego Chargers
general manager Bobby Beathard once said that if you hold a guy
to a long-term deal that he has clearly outperformed, all you've
done is create an unhappy player.
How did I collect those dozen draft choices? First there was the
expansion arrangement that awarded my club, as well as Peter
King's, an additional pick in each round of the draft. Sure, a
lot of owners complained about the extra choices the Panthers
and the Jacksonville Jaguars got for their first two drafts and
vowed to never let that happen again. Gee, too bad. They got
'em, so I wanted 'em too! And I damn well got 'em for my $200
million expansion fee!
I had the second overall pick in the draft after losing the coin
flip to Peter (it was his coin), so I decided to put the largest
chunk of my money on the top veteran free-agent prize, former
Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker and sack machine Chad Brown. As
expected, Peter took Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning with
the first pick, and I traded the second selection to the Tampa
Bay Buccaneers for their two first-round choices, numbers 10 and
18. (I owned another first-round pick--the 33rd--as part of the
expansion deal.) I had to send the 18th choice, plus a
third-round pick, to the Atlanta Falcons for Bert Emanuel, who,
because he was a top-level restricted free agent, cost me a 1
and a 3. I needed a wideout who could get down the field.
That left me with two first-round choices, and I got a third by
trading my first-rounder in 1998. I also gave up my second-round
selection next year and whatever other future choices it took to
get extra picks for this year, so that I could sign a trio of
lower-valued restricted free agents: linebacker Marlo Perry
(Buffalo Bills), tackle Marcus Spears (Chicago Bears) and safety
and special teams crazy Larry Whigham (New England Patriots). I
did whatever was necessary to load up for this draft. It's a
variation on the old George Allen theme of buying on the
never-never, paying later for what you want now. There were
rookies I simply had to have.
With my trio of first-round picks and a second-round choice I
got Barnes; Ohio State defensive end Mike Vrabel, a great
hustle-and-desire guy whom I've already penciled in as my
starter on the strong side; Washington guard Bob Sapp, whose
superior drive-blocking skills and athleticism caught my eye;
and Jason Taylor, a 250-pound rush linebacker-defensive end from
Akron and the first draft choice in Z's history. Taylor erupted
in a sacking frenzy in the college all-star postseason, just as
Hugh Douglas, the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year with the New
York Jets in 1995, did two years ago. Brown and Taylor will be
my nickel-rush wingmen.
Clemson's Emory Smith, Emmitt's little brother, will start at
fullback. Freddie Jones of North Carolina is my tight end. Of my
half dozen other rookies, here are a couple of low-round
sleepers: Shay Muirbrook, BYU's highly productive middle
linebacker, carries the knock that he's undersized at a listed 6
feet and 240 pounds, but Zach Thomas carried the same baggage
when the Miami Dolphins drafted him in the fifth round last
year. You get the point? Montana center David Kempfert (6'4",
282 pounds) is a little light but a real battler. That's what I
want, warriors. Finally, from that great football factory on the
Hudson, Columbia, for which I shed many pints of blood once upon
a time, I took a chance on Marcellus Wiley, a 270-pound
defensive end with a sack mentality. A raw talent.
As expected, Peter and I got into a bidding war for veteran free
agents. You win some, you lose some. Bernie Kosar, who has
always played better than he looked, is my backup quarterback.
No, he's not ancient. He's 33, and he can still move the sticks.
I spent a lot of dough to pry fullback Larry Centers, the free
agent who played for the Arizona Cardinals, and I'm switching
him back to his original position, pass-catching running back. I
never viewed him as a true fullback--too small at 215 pounds.
Smith will be the big banger. It's a backfield without real
speed, like most NFL backfields.
Emanuel and Andre Hastings--he caught 10 passes for the Steelers
in Super Bowl XXX, remember?--are my wideouts, backed up by
Webster Slaughter, formerly of the Jets. Spears will start
opposite Zimmerman at one tackle, and we'll keep our fingers
crossed here. The Chicago Bears got down on him, but I liked
what I saw at times. Sapp, fellow guard Mike Zandofsky (Falcons)
and center Jerry Fontenot (Bears) are my middle three, although
I wouldn't be surprised if guard Lance Smith breaks in here,
just as he did for the New York Giants last season. Not bad, not
I guarantee that my defense will get after the passer. Brown,
Taylor, Vrabel, highly underrated Lester Archambeau (Falcons),
pass-rush specialist Martin Harrison (Minnesota Vikings), West
Virginia 260-pound outside linebacker Canute Curtis, another
sleeper, and Wiley, if we can harness that raw talent, will be
alternating like crazy. I'll have a constant supply of fresh
legs to get after the quarterback. Bill Walsh once told me,
"Pass rush late in the game is the key to the NFL." That's
something I've never forgotten.
The tradeoff is that this is an upfield-rush unit, and the
opposition will put it to the test with draws, counters and
traps. That's where my inside guys come in. I've always felt
that Tony Siragusa (Indianapolis Colts) is one of the sturdiest
and most technically sound defensive tackles in the game. My
second guy, Matt Brock, was active last year, and at times
inspired, playing in hopeless causes for the Jets.
Darrin Smith (Cowboys) cost me a lot of money, but he's worth
it. Space linebackers, gifted in coverage, are rare breeds in
the NFL, or any FL. He and Brown are my outside backers, Perry
is a good situation sub, and Matt Vanderbeek (Washington
Redskins) will double as my special teams wacko number two.
I love my left cornerback, Dwayne Harper (Chargers), who has
never gotten enough credit. On the other side Ray Buchanan
(Colts) is proven. I'm hoping former Baltimore Ravens strong
safety Stevon Moore still has enough giddyap. If not, dimeback
Chad Cota (Panthers) will get a shot. Another former Panther,
nickelback Toi Cook, gets the call at free safety. He hasn't
played there much, but he's an 11-year veteran who has plenty of
smarts and instinct.
Kicker and punter? Those are no-brainers. You pay the price
here, you get proven talent--Chris Jacke and Tom Rouen, late of
the Green Bay Packers and the Broncos, respectively.
Rod Dowhower, who was most recently the coach at Vanderbilt,
assists Spurrier with the quarterbacks and helps coordinate the
offense, and assistant head coach Vic Fangio, who was Carolina's
defensive coordinator the past two seasons, manages the defense.
That's my team. Come and get me, Peter.