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.
February 17, 1997
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 great--solid.
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.
LOS ANGELES Z'S
Players are listed by position and in the order in which they
appear on the team's depth chart. Asterisks denote projected
starters. Experience denotes the player's number of years in the
league, including the 1997 season.
Former Team 1997
Player Pos. or School Exp. Cap Value
PAT BARNES* QB Cal R $650,000
BERNIE KOSAR QB Dolphins 13 $400,000
BILL MUSGRAVE QB Broncos 7 $500,000
LARRY CENTERS* RB Cardinals 8 $2 million
LEROY HOARD RB Vikings 8 $500,000
HAROLD GREEN RB Rams 8 $350,000
EMORY SMITH* FB Clemson R $172,000
CARWELL GARDNER FB Ravens 8 $450,000
ANDRE HASTINGS* WR Steelers 5 $750,000
BERT EMANUEL* WR Falcons 4 $2 million
WEBSTER SLAUGHTER WR Jets 12 $400,000
BILL BROOKS WR Redskins 12 $400,000
TROY BROWN WR Patriots 5 $350,000
FREDDIE JONES* TE North Carolina R $320,000
JAMES JENKINS TE Redskins 7 $400,000
WALTER RASBY TE Panthers 4 $500,000
GARY ZIMMERMAN* T Broncos 12 $3 million
MARCUS SPEARS* T Bears 4 $500,000
WALTER JONES T Florida State R $190,000
BOB SAPP* G Washington R $650,000
MIKE ZANDOFSKY* G Falcons 9 $750,000
LANCE SMITH G Giants 13 $700,000
JEFF BLACKSHEAR G Ravens 5 $350,000
JERRY FONTENOT* C Bears 9 $1 million
DAVID KEMPFERT C Montana R $135,000
Former Team 1997
Player Pos. or School Exp. Cap Value
MIKE VRABEL* E Ohio State R $900,000
LESTER ARCHAMBEAU* E Falcons 8 $400,000
JASON TAYLOR E Akron R $1.45 million
MARTIN HARRISON E Vikings 7 $600,000
MARCELLUS WILEY E Columbia R $230,000
TONY SIRAGUSA* T Colts 8 $1.8 million
MATT BROCK* T Jets 9 $1.2 million
GLENN MONTGOMERY T Seahawks 9 $300,000
CHAD BROWN* OLB Steelers 5 $3.25 million
DARRIN SMITH* OLB Cowboys 5 $2 million
RICHARD HARVEY OLB Saints 8 $500,000
CANUTE CURTIS OLB West Virginia R $176,000
SHAY MUIRBROOK* MLB BYU R $135,500
MARLO PERRY MLB Bills 4 $700,000
DESHAWN FOGLE MLB Kansas State R $135,000
MATT VANDERBEEK MLB Redskins 8 $400,000
DWAYNE HARPER* CB Chargers 10 $1.3 million
RAY BUCHANAN* CB Colts 5 $2 million
STEVE JACKSON CB Oilers 7 $750,000
STEVE ISRAEL CB 49ers 6 $375,000
TYRONE LEGETTE CB Bucs 6 $275,000
STEVON MOORE* SS Ravens 9 $1.3 million
CHAD COTA SS Panthers 3 $400,000
TOI COOK* FS Panthers 11 $275,000
LEONARD WHEELER FS Bengals 6 $400,000
LARRY WHIGHAM FS Patriots 4 $450,000
CHRIS JACKE K Packers 9 $750,000
TOM ROUEN P Broncos 5 $750,000
Projected 1997 salary cap: $40.95 million. Z's payroll:
Coach: STEVE SPURRIER. Offensive coordinator: ROD DOWHOWER.
Assistant head coach/defense: VIC FANGIO.