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The Market Gets a Test in the NFL : Despite Movement, Players Contend That Nothing Has Changed

Times Staff Writer

After the first six weeks of pro football’s first venture into what it is calling free agency, the Cleveland Browns had signed nine of the 619 players made available by the various teams this winter, and the Cincinnati Bengals had signed none.

Some coaches planned to pick up 10 or 15 players before the April 1 deadline, some were considering one or two.

In the National Football League, this is a year of king-size conjecture. Everybody’s guessing. There’s some talent out there, but nobody knows how much of it will prove useful when a new season begins this fall.

As of Saturday, 103 of the 619 players listed on the new free market had moved to new NFL teams, setting a single-season record for free-agent movement in American sports.

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And there have been predictions that as many as 150 or even 200 will have changed teams following a late flurry of signings after the league’s annual convention in Palm Desert this week.

But is this really free agency?

Only the bottom eight payers of the 45 on each roster went on the market last month when the NFL’s 28 club owners unilaterally implemented the plan--over angry objections by the NFL Players Assn., which represents 1,500 athletes.

On every team, the 37 best players were arbitrarily bound to their owners. And there they remain.

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Said owners spokesman John Jones: “We think there’s a significant number of free agents when 228 of the 619 started at least one game last year.”

Dick Berthelsen, the NFLPA’s legal counsel, disagreed.

“It isn’t free agency when the determination is exclusively that of the owners,” he said. “These 619 players were simply released by the teams.

“Free agency is something else. Free agency is when a player can play out his contract--as he does in baseball and all other sports--and say, ‘I’m a free agent.’

“What you have in football now is just an extension of the NFL’s no-recall waiver system. During the year, there are mandatory player cut-downs (from 80) to 60 to 45. This thing is nothing but another cut-down to 37 players. It’s not free agency. It’s nothing but an early cut.”

Jones protested: “Most of the players on the list--397 of them--were on regular-season rosters for the last game of the 1988 season. That’s 64%.”

Said Berthelsen: “What the owners are each saying to the best 37 of their 45 players is: ‘Because you’re a good player, you can’t be free.’ That kind of judgment defies the rule of reason.”

The league’s owners and players have been operating without a bargaining agreement for more than a year, spending most of that time in Judge David S. Doty’s federal court in Minneapolis.

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Last November, the NFLPA petitioned Doty for an injunction prohibiting the owners from launching the present process.

Although federal courts normally rule one way or the other on such a request, Doty didn’t respond.

“He just ignored us,” a players’ spokesman said.

Here is a canvass of various aspects of the NFL’s 60-day experiment in what is either free agency or a new waiver scheme:

Question: Which club stands to lose the most talent?

Answer: Conceivably the Atlanta Falcons, of all teams. The Atlanta coaches have already lost nine players to other teams.

Q: The Falcons finished in the cellar again last year. Why did they turn loose so many players?

A: Last season, they and the NFL’s 27 other teams each averaged 55 players under contract, including an average 10 on injured reserve. Of these, 37 could be protected. --that is, indentured--by each ownership. That’s three full lineups of players for what is an 11-man game, plus four other players. The rest were released to the market.

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Q: Why is the NFL doing this?

A: Judge Doty said the owners would lose their antitrust case to the Players Assn. if they didn’t do something.

Q: If, as free agents, upwards of 100 NFL players change teams in accordance with this plan, how would that compare with other sports?

A: It would be unprecedented. In an average year, fewer than 25 baseball free agents change teams, and hardly that many National Basketball Assn. players.

There is, however, a big difference in free agency as practiced by the various sports.

In baseball and basketball, it’s often the best players who move, or threaten to move. In football, only the worst players--or those so perceived--have been freed to move.

Q: How many NFL free agents changed teams in former years, when the league enforced a compensation-first refusal system for all players?

A: A total of one--or, at the most, two--depending on NFL and NFLPA interpretations.

Q: Which ownerships have signed the most and the fewest of this year’s free agents?

A: The Green Bay Packers lead with 13. Four teams haven’t signed anybody. They are Cincinnati, the Chicago Bears, Houston Oilers and Minnesota Vikings.

Q: Is this the beginning of a free-agent era in the NFL, or is it a one-time thing?

A: Many teams and players say the plan is unlikely to be duplicated next year, or ever again. Neither group likes it.

“We all want to see a bargaining agreement (instead),” said Art Modell, president of the Browns. “I think this will spur both sides to a greater effort.”

Said NFLPA Executive Director Gene Upshaw: "(This) is a bad package for the players. Free agency is when everyone who works or plays for any sports team, or in any other American business, is free--at least at some point in his career--to negotiate with other employers.

“When you consider that 25% of all NFL players each year leave the league anyway--from natural turnover, from diminished skills, retirement, or just being cut--(the owners) aren’t talking about many players being free after the protected 37.”

The teams don’t like it either. Said Buffalo Bills Coach Marv Levy: “My feeling is that two (losers), Dallas and Tampa Bay, concocted this thing. (They) didn’t draft well, and (now they) nab your guy because you can’t protect him.”

Levy identified Tex Schramm of Dallas and Hugh Culverhouse of Tampa Bay as the instigators of the plan.

The biggest losers, however, may turn out to be some of the highly-paid veterans on the 37-man protected lists.

“It will be like the draft,” Modell said. “Some $600,000 veterans will be replaced by new younger players. That’s just how the system works.”

Q: Will as many players change teams as the owners expected when they launched this project?

A: Most believe so. Ram Coach John Robinson said: “The way it’s heading now, I think most clubs will sign between five and 10 of these free agents.”

That would make the league-wide total between 140 and 280.

Said Mike Lynn, executive vice president of the Vikings: “Based on our evaluation, 134 (of the available 619) could make it as players this year in the NFL. Every club sees it differently, of course, but I feel that well over 100 players will change teams.”

Mike Giddings, the former NFL coach who heads Proscout, Inc., an advisory scouting service in Newport Beach, said: “My prediction is that it will be about the same as the draft each year--four or five a team.”

That would make the league-wide total 112 to 140.

Q: Are prospects available at every position?

A: Apparently not. Said Giddings, whose clients include 10 clubs: “The league’s best special-team players were on the original free-agent list Feb. 1--but no pass rushers, and no quarterbacks.”

The list was heavy with situation linebackers, who are the backbone of most special teams.

“There were about eight good ones for each of the (four) linebacker positions,” Giddings said. “And 10 cornerbacks were available. But there were no halfbacks, only a couple of situation fullbacks, a couple of offensive linemen, a couple of wide receivers.”

Q: Why are teams such as Green Bay and Cleveland signing so many of them?

A: “We are trying to fill our needs now, so we can disregard need in (next month’s) draft, and go for the best players,” Modell said. “We expect to lose four or five of our free agents (to other teams) and sign about 10, for a net gain of five.”

Q: How active are the Raiders and Rams in this market?

A: Raider executive Al LoCasale said his club has signed four and lost two, linebacker Reggie McKenzie to Phoenix and running back Reggie Ware to Denver. The Rams, Robinson said, have signed two and lost four, defensive end Gary Jeter to New England, running back Keith Jones to Cleveland, nose tackle Greg Meisner to Kansas City, and tight end Jon Embree to Seattle.

Q: Is there a limit on the number of signings allowed by any one franchise?

A: The limit is 15 for each of the top 11 teams. It’s 25 for the next eight teams, and no-limit for the bottom nine.

Q: Will some owners acquire so many good ones that they affect the league’s competitive balance?

A: Possibly.

“The top teams are fairly close now,” said New York Giants Coach Bill Parcells. “If one team signs five, and then gets five guys out of the draft, then 20-25% of that team can improve. That may be all you need.”

Q: How much quality was really made available? There are reports that only the dregs are out there. There are also reports that many teams let go of players they very much wanted to keep. What’s the truth about this?

A: At the Raider office, LoCasale, declining to name names, summed up: “I would say that some of these free agents will be starters on their new teams this year. Some are going to make a contribution.”

At the Ram office, Robinson divided the original 619 into three categories: senior citizens, journeymen and redshirts.

“The (senior citizens) are former outstanding players who can still play in situations,” he said.

Giddings, who agrees, said: “There are quite a few of them--guys like Jeter who make maybe a dozen big plays a year--plays that can help a pretty good team make the playoffs. Such a player can be a big help to a certain kind of team--provided the owner understands that that’s all he’s getting.”

Robinson, defining a second category, said: “The journeyman type is what you’ve got to have on any football team if you don’t have anything better. They’ll always be in (the club’s) bottom 30 no matter what club they’re on.”

Said Giddings: “Most of the 619 are (journeymen). These are your special team players, slot receivers, designated rushers, nickel safeties, and the like.”

As for the third category, Robinson said: “Possible developmental players are in this group--what college teams call redshirts. They are your biggest gamble--but they can also be your biggest reward if you hit one or two. It’s a guessing game. A developmental player may or may not develop. These are guys who had to be (cut) before the teams had enough film to really find out about them.”

Said Giddings: “Players in the (redshirt) category have only been in the league a year or two. Teams left them unprotected hoping they wouldn’t be picked up. There’s no telling how many of these will make it big.”

Modell said: “Six of the first seven we took off the free-agent list were developmental players. And most of the others we sign will be in that (category).”

Q: If a player still has, say, a $300,000 contract for this season with the organization that put him on the free-agent market, does the team that signs him now have to honor that contract?

A: No.

“His salary will be whatever he negotiates with the new club,” said Jack Donlan, executive director of the NFL Management Council. “But if a player with a (1989) $300,000 contract is offered $250,000, it would make more sense for him to go back to his old club.”

Q: Will all of the free agents return to the jurisdiction of their former employers if they aren’t picked up by April 1?

A: Yes.

Q: Of those who have signed new contracts, are they making more money or less than they got from other NFL teams last year?

A: Most apparently are making considerably more.

Said Giddings: “The price is going up all the time because there’s so much bidding. Agents are flying their guys all over the country to get the best deal.”

From Cleveland, Modell said: “These fellows are definitely driving salaries up. And there’s a spiraling effect that will boost many (NFL) payrolls.

“What’s happening is that after an unprotected free agent gets a bonus and a raise from another team, his old (teammates) are also demanding a raise. They come in and say: ‘I was protected. You thought I was better than him--but look what he’s getting now. What about me?’ ”

Most sources believe that as the bidding gets more spirited, salaries will rise even more. Indeed, some free agents with bona fide offers have delayed signing while waiting for even better offers.

Giddings said: “You have to understand that most football players who’ve won an NFL roster job in the past have tremendous confidence in themselves. They think they deserve more, and they’re getting it.”

Of course, except for those getting signing bonuses, the free agents must make their respective teams before cashing in.

Q: When the owners announced this plan earlier this year, they said they would go even further in 1993, unilaterally installing a wage scale at that time for NFL players. Are they serious?

A: “Yes, it’s part of the (deal),” Jones said from New York. “If there’s no bargaining agreement by 1993, there will be a wage scale.”

Said Berthelsen: “That would be another violation of antitrust.”

Q: Wouldn’t it put most agents out of work?

A: “You’ll have to draw your own conclusions about that,” Jones said.

Q: Since the list was released Feb. 1, only one NFL club--Minnesota--has run a free-agent tryout camp. Last month, the Vikings’ Lynn, invited 134 of the 619 eligible players to Orlando, Fla. What was Lynn’s object?

A: “Our thinking is that you can’t rely solely on the draft anymore,” he said. “There’s so much competition in the league today that you’ve got to use all available methods. “This time, we saw a chance to get a bunch of prospects together all at one time, and, among other things, give them complete physical exams. We had to reject 35. The one missing ingredient for all these free agents was reliable medical information.”

Q: How many are Minnesota-bound now?

A: “I can’t tell you until the end of the month,” Lynn said. “Our coaches showed an interest in 134 players at first, then 84, and now we’re actively negotiating with eight, although we haven’t signed any of them. A lot depends on how many of our own free agents we lose, and at what positions. But it does help to be knowledgeable on so (much personnel).”


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