To find proof of the value of the National Football League’s limited free-agent program, known as Plan B, look no further than today’s Super Bowl.
Both the Denver Broncos and the San Francisco 49ers have on-the-field results to show for off-season ventures into the Plan B pool. Nine players joined the teams during the first year of the program in 1989.
Two--defensive end Alphonso Carreker and cornerback Wymon Henderson--will start for the Broncos.
No wonder teams are making lists and checking them twice in anticipation of Thursday’s league deadline for submitting a roster of 37 players they will protect in Plan B. Unprotected players will be free to negotiate with other teams until April 1.
For teams such as the Chargers who are trying to break back into the playoffs, Plan B provides an ideal opportunity to upgrade talent. Working this market to advantage might be the most important task facing Bobby Beathard in his new job as Charger general manager.
“We’re going to be active and aggressive in seeking players who can help us,” Beathard said.
Before he resigned last May as the Washington Redskins’ general manager, Beathard was one of the most active participants in the Plan B market. The Redskins signed 15 players, including two starters--defensive end Fred Stokes from the Rams and cornerback Martin Mayhew from Buffalo.
Beathard seems just as interested this year. He said he particularly wants to improve the Chargers’ makeshift offensive line. But he will have to wait until Friday, when the league releases the lists of protected players from the 27 other teams, to know what kind of help will be available. Until then, he is left to tinker with his own list.
Plan B has become an important area of attention for NFL personnel departments. But its history has more to do with the courtroom than the playing field.
Plan B was born out of the owners’ interest in addressing some of the issues raised in a federal suit brought against the league by the National Football League Players Assn., the Washington, D.C.-based union that has served as the players’ collective bargaining agent.
The suit, filed after the strike of 1987, challenged on antitrust grounds the rules governing the players’ ability to move between teams. The union contended they were too restrictive.
The owners tried to blunt the suit’s attack with Plan B. According to John Jones, spokesman for the NFL Management Council (the owners’ bargaining arm), it was known during negotiations with the union as Proposal B, which led to the current name.
Teams submit, from a list of all players they hold the rights to, a roster of 37 they want to protect by Feb. 1. They may be players under contract or those whose contracts have expired (Feb. 1 is the annual expiration date for NFL contracts).
If a player is protected, and his contract has not expired, no other team may negotiate with him.
If the player is protected and his contract has expired, the team must present him with a qualifying offer by Feb. 1 to retain his rights, but the player still can negotiate with other teams. These players are known as conditional free agents.
If a conditional player signs an offer sheet with another team, the original team has seven days to match it. If the original team declines, the player is free to go, but the original team receives compensation from the other. In the case of most top players, that is two first-round draft picks.
Only two of 254 conditional free agents were presented offer sheets last year--defensive ends Bruce Smith of Buffalo by Denver and Ray Childress of Houston by Chicago. Both were matched, and the players stayed put. The last player to change was linebacker Wilbur Marshall, who two years ago moved to the Redskins from the Chicago Bears. The general manager who pulled off that rare move: Beathard.
The Chargers have 19 players whose contracts expire Feb. 1. Beathard said he expects most, including quarterback Jim McMahon, to be among those the team will protect.
Unprotected players are unconditional free agents and may negotiate with any of the other 27 NFL teams until April 1. They may not negotiate with their former team during that time.
If an unprotected player signs with another team, whether he is under contract or not, his former team does not receive compensation. If a player is unsigned by April 1, he may negotiate with his former team.
Of 619 unconditional free agents eligible to move under Plan B last year, 229 changed teams and 133 were under contract at season’s end, 115 of those on the active roster, according to Management Council figures.
According to the council, the average salary of the players signed under Plan B increased 40.3%, to $198,321 from $141,354, not including the average $35,000 signing bonus (the league-wide average salary for 1989 was $305,000).
Jones, of the Management Council, said the player movement and increased salary demonstrated that the owners have made a good-faith effort to address issues raised in the NFLPA suit by allowing a new form of free agency.
But the NFLPA, through Frank Woschitz, its director of public relations, said the Plan B experience only furthers the union’s contention that unconditional free agency would be a boon to the players.
“This shows the value of what we have been fighting for all along,” Woschitz said.
But Plan B has ultimately been more to the league than a legal maneuver. It appears to have contributed to another NFL goal--parity or, as the owners prefer to call it, “competitive balance.”
Plan B, like the draft and weighted schedule, is another way for bad teams to get better quickly and makes it more difficult for good teams to retain all of their good players.
The proof is in the standings. Of 11 teams that signed 10 or more Plan B players, seven improved their record, three dropped and one--the Chargers at 6-10--stayed even.
The three teams that signed the most players showed the most improvement.
Green Bay, which signed 20 and had seven players on the active roster, improved to 10-6 from 4-12. Kansas City, which signed 17 and had eight active, went to 8-7-1 from 4-11-1. And Washington, which had five active players among the 15 it signed, jumped to 10-6 from 7-9. They were a combined 28-19-1 in 1989 after going 15-32-1 in ’88.
“Bringing in all those veteran players made for a much more competitive camp than if we had brought in more rookies,” said Tom Braatz, Green Bay’s executive vice president for football operations. “We felt it made the whole team get better.”
The Chargers did not improve their record through Plan B, even though they were one of the more active teams. They signed 11 players, and eight were with the team at the end of the season. Among the more productive acquisitions were kicker Chris Bahr (Raiders) and starting offensive tackles Brett Miller (Atlanta) and Joel Patten (Indianapolis).
On the other side, the Chargers lost just five players, and only one--offensive tackle Ken Dallafior with Detroit--was a starter at the end of the season.
That might indicate that the Chargers, then under Steve Ortmayer, either did a good job of evaluating their own talent, or the bottom third of their roster was so weak that few teams found much for the taking. Or both.
Only four teams lost as few or fewer players than the Chargers. All made the playoffs--Buffalo (five players lost), Pittsburgh (three), Denver (three) and San Francisco (two).
Two teams--the Bears and Cincinnati Bengals--stayed out of the Plan B market, each losing nine players but signing none. Both made the playoffs in 1988, with the Bengals advancing to the Super Bowl. Whether it was coincidence or not, neither made the playoffs this season.
But despite their drop in record from 12-4 to 6-10, the Bears sound no more ready to indulge in the Plan B bidding than they were last year.
“If there is a player out there we really want, we’ll consider going after him,” said Bill Tobin, the team’s vice-president/player personnel. “But we’re not going to jump headlong into the Plan B market.”
Tobin, like other personnel people around the league, is bothered that Plan B allows other teams to pick up players from his roster.
“It penalizes the teams that scout the colleges well and do their homework,” Tobin said. “You work hard to find a player, you draft him, develop him and then turn him over to some other teams for nothing. It’s not fair to the teams.”
But compare that view, from the perspective of team that was winning before Plan B, to that of an executive for a team that was a loser before it. When Carl Peterson took over as president of the Chiefs last season, he looked at Plan B as key to a quick turnaround.
Peterson added such players as defensive tackle Dan Saleaumua (Detroit), center Mike Webster (Pittsburgh) and quarterback Ron Jaworski (Miami).
“We looked at Plan B like a second draft,” Peterson said. “It was a great opportunity to improve the depth of your team. We helped ourselves a great deal. But you have to be careful about who you sign. Remember, you’re still talking about the bottom third of teams’ rosters.”
The pickings could be slimmer this year. Because of rules changes that tightened injured-reserve roster restrictions and placed stricter limits on off-season roster sizes, average rosters are smaller than they were a year ago. Last year, teams had an average of 59 players on their roster, meaning 22 were exposed under Plan B. This year, said Jones of the Management Council, the average roster size is about 52 or 53.
The Chargers will have to select their 37 protected players from 54 on their active, injured-reserve and physically-unable-to-perform lists. They cannot protect the three players on their developmental squad and have exemptions for running backs Gary Anderson (contract holdout) and Napoleon McCallum (military service).
Because of the smaller pool, league officials expect fewer players to change teams this year. And Beathard says fewer quality players will be available.
“I have a feeling this year’s group of unprotected players will be a less attractive group when compared with last year,” Beathard said. “Last year, people didn’t know what to expect; when it was finished, some teams were a little surprised that teams were as aggressive and paid as much money as they did for some players.
“For that reason, some teams will be a little more reluctant to expose some of their players. You’re going to see more older players and more injured players left off the (protected) lists.”
That could mean more competition for quality players that are available, and more money for them in what last year proved to be a bullish market.
But not all the money spent on Plan B goes to the players; it has forced teams to rearrange scouting priorities. In the past, with the all-star games completed and the scouting combine in Indianapolis beginning Wednesday, teams would now be concentrating on college talent. But the impending Plan B deadline means more time and money for pro personnel evaluation.
Peterson said the Chiefs spent $425,000 in signing bonuses and costs associated with bringing in 62 players for evaluations in 1989. He said the average player signed by the Chiefs increased his salary by 14% and received a $22,000 bonus, both below league averages.
Braatz said the Packers spent $870,000 on salary, bonuses and evaluation. He said it was money well spent.
“The Packers had won only 10 games in the last three years,” Braatz said. “We just felt that some of the players out there were better than ones we had. Plan B gave us a shot in the arm.”
Such improvement does have a down side. Braatz said that last year, he had no trouble paring the the Packers’ roster to 37. The going will be tougher this year.
“We got down to 35 we feel real good about, but we’re down to arguing over four guys for the last two spots,” he said. “We still haven’t made up our minds. It’s sure more difficult this time around.”
It is the kind of problem every team wants to have.
HOW THE CHARGERS FARED
PLAYERS THEY SIGNED
Name Pos. Previous Team What He Did Chris Bahr K Raiders Kicked in all 16 games Joe Caravello TE Washington Started nine games before leg injury Jim Collins ILB Rams Played 15 games, two starts Lester Lyles S Phoenix Played 16 games, one start Brett Miller OT Atlanta Played 15 games, 11 starts Andy Parker TE Raiders Out six games with leg injury, played 10 Joel Patten OT Indianapolis Played 16, 14 starts Timmy Smith RB Washington Released Johnny Thomas CB Washington Played 13 games, then released Larry Williams OG Cleveland Physically unable to perform, bad shoulder Eric Yarber WR Washington Released
PLAYERS THEY LOST
Name Pos. New Team What He Did Ken Dallafior OT Detroit Played in 16 games, started last 11 Chris Gambol OT Detroit Released, resigned, played last six games Randy Kirk LB Phoenix Played in six games before breaking ankle Anthony Jones TE Dallas Released Kevin Scott RB Dallas Played in three games before knee injury
PLAN B IN 1989
Players Players Team Name Signed Lost Atlanta 10 13 Buffalo 6 5 Chicago 0 9 Cincinnati 0 9 Cleveland 14 10 Dallas 5 6 Denver 11 3 Detroit 10 7 Green Bay 20 8 Houston 7 15 Indianapolis 7 7 Kansas City 17 13 L.A. Raiders 11 6 L.A. Rams 3 12 Miami 11 6 Minnesota 8 8 New England 6 10 New Orleans 3 8 N.Y. Giants 4 9 N.Y. Jets 5 12 Philadelphia 6 6 Phoenix 11 9 Pittsburgh 8 3 San Diego 11 5 San Francisco 6 2 Seattle 9 8 Tampa Bay 6 8 Washington 15 12