PRO FOOTBALL : Orthwein’s Dilemma: To Sell Patriots or Move Them

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Consider that James Orthwein paid about $110 million for the New England Patriots last year.

As owner-in-waiting of the St. Louis expansion group, Orthwein will have to pay $140 million for a new franchise.

As owner of the Patriots, Orthwein has Coach Bill Parcells and quarterback Drew Bledsoe.

The St. Louis group has no idea who will be its coach. And, at this point, it’s hard to know if a young, “franchise” quarterback will be available in the ’95 draft.


What would you do?

What will Orthwein do?

He found himself in a tough spot as NFL owners met this week in Atlanta to inform the five expansion hopefuls of the new franchise price tag.

Orthwein’s St. Louis group has long been considered a lock, primarily because it is solid ownership in the largest available television market with a stadium under construction.

He further solidified that bid when he bailed the league out of a messy ownership situation in New England with Victor Kiam and Fran Murray.

Orthwein has the Patriots up for sale but will hardly get his value if there’s no new stadium. Consequently, he has spent a lot of time working with Boston officials on how to put together a sports megaplex, such as the one being built in St. Louis.

If Boston officials commit to a new stadium, Orthwein would make money on his sale of the Patriots.

If the commitment falls through, Orthwein’s got a white elephant on his hands. He may be able to sell, but the price will be cheap and he’d be looking at the hefty expansion fee for St. Louis.


So it seems the smart option would be simply to move the Patriots to St. Louis and tell the NFL to award expansion teams to two of the other finalists--Baltimore, Charlotte, N.C., Jacksonville, Fla., and Memphis, Tenn.

Worse things could happen to St. Louis. Remember, it was 1976 when the last two expansion teams, Tampa Bay and Seattle, began playing in the NFL. Both have yet to make it to the Super Bowl.

With Parcells and Bledsoe, the Patriots sure seem like a fair shot three or four years down the road, which is about the time the expansion teams will get started.

Yet, St. Louisans are divided. Some want the Patriots. Others want something fresh, something new, something adventuresome. These people want to be free of baggage, especially baggage as trampled as the Patriots’.

For the record, Orthwein says his only goal is to fix the Patriots franchise, sell it and get on with business in St. Louis. That’s everything the NFL wants to hear.

The Patriots’ moving would leave a huge hole on the map. It would leave the seventh-largest television market without a team. And, right now, if any market needs a Parcells and a Bledsoe, it’s New England.


Therefore, it probably comes as no surprise that Orthwein has been in continual contact with the league about the expansion fee, which was announced Tuesday.

The key here is not only the $140 million price tag but how the NFL expects to get its money. Orthwein and the other expansion hopefuls want the payout to extend over seven years. The interest rate on that fee is critical. And Orthwein is in a pretty fair position to do some diplomatic negotiations with the league.

THE PRICE OF the Will Wolford arbitration case has proved costly for NFL owners and beneficial for designated franchise and transition players.

As a tradeoff for closing loopholes that allowed Wolford to jump from Buffalo to Indianapolis, NFL owners agreed to amend the formula for minimum contract offers to franchise and transition players.

Under the original settlement terms, franchise players were to be offered the average pay of the top five players at their position and transition players were to be offered the average pay of the top 10 players at their position.

Under the recent collective-bargaining agreement, the salary table was amended to include all salaries as of May 6. In return, the owners closed the Wolford loophole but the differences in franchise and transition salaries were significant because of the fruits of two months of free agency.


For instance, Reggie White’s $17-million deal dramatically changed the figures for franchise defensive ends. The old average was $1.71 million. The new average jumped to $2.91 million, a hike of $1.2 million.

As a group, franchise offensive linemen also cash in. Their old average was $1.17 million. The new average is $2.29 million.

If franchise or transition players are not tendered these offers by June 15, they may become free agents through July 15. Any team signing them would lose two first-round draft picks as compensation.

AN OVERLOOKED POINT in the new collective-bargaining agreement is fan participation in choosing players for the Pro Bowl. Under a formula yet to be revealed, NFL fans will get their first chance to vote for the National Football Conference and American Football Conference teams.

Don’t get too excited. The formula provides that fans get only a one-third say in the selections. Players and coaches--who previously had exclusive voting rights--also will each get a one-third say.

How they determine this weighted system--considering the voting numbers won’t be split equally--is still a mystery. There will be some sort of national balloting, probably through USA Today.


It’s a good idea not to give the voting completely to fans. Unlike basketball and baseball, where player performances can be measured almost daily and by statistics, it would be very difficult for a fan to determine the league’s best center.

On the other hand, players have done a mediocre to poor job of selecting the teams themselves. Too much politics accompanies the balloting.

If you wanted to get truly representative Pro Bowl teams, the coaches would be the ideal voters. Defensive coaches could vote for the best offensive players and offensive coaches could vote for the best defensive players.

Ah, that makes too much sense.

WOLFORD’s SURGERY to repair a torn rotator cuff came as no surprise to the Colts. The injury, which Wolford played with last season in Buffalo, was noted in the contract: If he misses six or more games in 1993 because of that injury, the team receives an option year on the original three-year deal. . . . There was a real chance that league owners would liberalize intentional-grounding rules at the meetings this week to allow quarterbacks to get rid of the football to avoid injury. . . . The league also is in the process of changing its Super Bowl site selection process, possibly breaking up the traditional bidding by geographic region.

UNDER THE NEW collective-bargaining agreement, which amended the legal settlement, franchise players must be offered at least the average salary of the five top-paid players at their positions as of May 6. Transition players must be offered at least the average salary of the 10 top-paid players at their positions as of May 6. The difference between 1992 average salaries and average salaries since free agency took effect:

FRANCHISE PLAYERS / TRANSITION PLAYERS Then/Now / Then/Now QB/$3.03/$4.23/$2.93/$3.60 RB/$1.47/$1.69/$1.28/$1.54 WR/$1.50/$2.10/$1.33/$1.80 TE/$1.08/$1.23/$0.87/$1.05 OL/$1.17/$2.29/$1.08/$1.88 DE/$1.71/$2.91/$1.48/$2.23 DT/$1.39/$1.99/$1.20/$1.66 LB/$1.64/$2.17/$1.44/$2.03 CB/$1.26/$1.86/$1.13/$1.62 S/$1.17/$1.70/$0.97/$1.40 All salaries listed in millions.