Bad Signs for the NFL

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The names fall around you in torrents, loud, like a winter rain on the patio.

Ron Stone signs with the New York Giants for $10 million.

This is good, you think. The Giants are one of the few traditional NFL franchises remaining. The Giants need to spend big money to stay strong.

Then you wonder.

Who is Ron Stone?

The names fly past you, frantic, like stray dogs in an alley.

David Williams signs with the New York Jets for a $3-million bonus.

This is good, you think. The Jets have a bad offense, Williams is a big lineman.

Then you wonder.

How much would this guy have been worth if he had actually been employed at the end of last year?

The names beat you about the head and shoulders, leaving you dizzy, disillusioned.

Leslie O'Neal to the St. Louis Rams. Cornelius Bennett to the Atlanta Falcons. Alonzo Spellman to the Jacksonville Jaguars for a $4-million signing bonus and $12 million over four years.

Oops. Alonzo Spellman back to the Chicago Bears, who kept him by agreeing to pay that same obscene amount of money.

Then you wonder.

Who is Alonzo Spellman?

You love the NFL. You are excited that, since free agency began in 1993, it has become a year-round sport.

But for the love of Dixon Edwards (Minnesota Vikings, four years, $10 million), you can no longer keep track.

You are confused. And for reasons you can't quite understand, you are angry.

And experts say you are not alone.

The furious beginning of this year's free-agency period--with 41 players changing teams in three weeks--has signaled warnings that for the nation's most popular sport, this is the eve of destruction.

"All this movement, people have lost a lot of respect for the NFL," said Ralph Wilson, owner of the Buffalo Bills. "The league was up there on a pinnacle. But something has happened."

In less than a year, this autumn tradition has begun to resemble a spring training box score: Familiar names on strange teams playing in odd places.

Heroes walking out of town, and nobody can stop them. Memories tarnished by ugly divorce.

"The whole thing," said Stephen Jones, Dallas Cowboy vice president, "is pretty depressing."

And no stone, no matter how embedded, has been left unturned.

Take Super Bowl XXX. Played all of six weeks ago.

Neil O'Donnell, the Pittsburgh Steeler quarterback whose two interceptions may have cost his team a victory, has since defected to the Jets.

Larry Brown, the Dallas Cowboy defensive back who made those two interceptions, joined the Oakland Raiders.

The player who made key blocks for O'Donnell on those plays, tackle Leon Searcy, is gone to Jacksonville.

Brown's defensive teammates--Edwards, Russell Maryland and Robert Jones--are gone to Minnesota, Oakland and St. Louis, respectively.

Different towns, same tales.

The prototypical Detroit Lion, a dirty-faced linebacker named Chris Spielman, leaves home for Buffalo.

The future of the San Diego Chargers, former Pro Bowl running back Natrone Means, is released so the team can make room for more reliable free agents.

Football's two most popular teams--the Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers--lose six key players combined.

The most compelling statistic of the 1995 season may have been 220,000. That was the approximate increase in no-shows from 1994, a sizable amount even when you figure that there were two more teams in the league.

"We aren't talking about fans who didn't buy tickets . . . but fans who bought tickets and then said, 'The heck with you,' " said Jim Miller, New Orleans Saint vice president. "When those numbers increase, that's getting a little scary."

Scary is the fan who ran down to the first row at the Superdome in December and started screaming at Miller about Morten Andersen, the Saints' kicker signed by the Atlanta Falcons during last year's free-agency period.

"He was screaming, 'You going to send Morten a Christmas Card, huh, huh?' " Miller related. "I just said Merry Christmas and kept walking. But it was tough. You don't realize how attached fans get to players."

Scary is the late-night phone calls O'Donnell received from Steeler personnel hoping to convince him to remain with his team for less money than what the Jets were offering ($1.25 million less per year on a five-year, $25-million deal).

Calls from coaches reminding him of how the team stuck with him during hard times. Calls from front-office people remembering the good ol' days.

But he does not remember calls from specific teammates.

Because even faced with untested Jim Miller as their quarterback, Steeler players thought O'Donnell should take the money and run.

"The way players look at it now is, if somebody will pay you more money, why not take it?" Maryland said. "It's like that in American business, isn't it?"

But at its core, the NFL is not American business. Or even any other sports business. Because of the team nature of the game, rarely will a free agent make an impact on his new team.

For every Bryce Paup, Buffalo's defensive player of the year, there are three Andre Risons.

Of the combined 66 offensive and defensive starters of the three Super Bowl champions since the advent of free agency, only seven had been acquired as free agents.

Not that anybody is listening.

"This year, people are in a feeding frenzy," said agent Leigh Steinberg, who has done many of this year's biggest deals and is not finished with quarterback Jeff George. "It's crazy. People are asking you to make life decisions in a matter of hours."

All of which could result in the death of a league's popularity, for a couple of reasons that will surely be discussed at the league's annual meeting in Palm Beach, Fla., this week.

--Free agency is the underlying reason four franchises have announced moves in the past year.

How's that? Because teams are moving to stadiums that can offer more non-shared revenue from luxury boxes and personal seat licenses.

It is with this revenue that teams can give big bonuses to free agents while remaining under the salary cap. See the Cowboys and Deion Sanders.

Without total free agency, owners aren't so desperate for the extra money that they would risk their lives to change addresses. See Art Modell.

"When a judge forced us to have free agency, we all toasted because we thought it would work well with a hard salary cap," Wilson said. "But now that bonuses have made it a mushy cap, we'd like to throw those glasses out the window.

"Because now, everybody is moving all over the place just to be like the Joneses."

Literally.

--Free agency will be the death of such consistently great teams as the Cowboys and 49ers.

"More than anything, free agency is destroying the fabric of a team," said Pat Bowlen, Denver Bronco owner. "You draft a guy, you spend four years building him up, the fans love him, he's helping your team, then he's gone. And unlike in other sports, in football you can't just plug somebody else in."

Last spring the defending champion 49ers lost running back Ricky Watters and never recovered.

This spring, the Cowboys have lost four players who were vital to their three recent Super Bowl titles, players schooled in the Cowboy system who will be far less valuable elsewhere.

"I guess there are some people in this league who like it the way it is, who want 15 teams to finish 9-7, and 15 others to finish 7-9," the Cowboys' Stephen Jones said. "It was so hard losing players who we never wanted to lose. I guess we'll just have to go back to the draft board and build ourselves back up."

--Free agency will be the death of that important football trait, patience.

In the past, Charger General Manager Bobby Beathard could cut more slack to a distraction like Natrone Means.

But last week, faced with another ugly Means contract holdout, and stories of potentially ugly off-field incidents, and questions about work ethic, Beathard had no choice.

There were such free agents as defensive end Marco Coleman and safety Kevin Ross waiting to be signed. Beathard needed Means' $2.3-million salary with which to pay those new players under the cap.

"This was a move made to get the right group of people in our locker room," he said. "And because of everything else going on, I had to do it now."

It was a move criticized by many NFL fans--Means did gain 1,350 yards two years ago. But it was a move supported by executives throughout the league.

In these troubled times, they said, somebody finally made an old-fashioned football decision.

"Bobby has always been the same--he wants guys that fit in," St. Louis General Manager Steve Ortmayer said. "He wants guys who play football the way it used to be. That's kind of nice. "

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RATING THE MOVES

THE FIVE BEST

1. New York Jets sign quarterback Neil O'Donnell from the Pittsburgh Steelers. You have the league's last-ranked offense. You have no quarterback. You know there are no quarterbacks in this year's draft. You know if you wait until Tennessee's Peyton Manning shows up at your front door, you will have already been evicted. You are Rich Kotite, it's 2 a.m., and even Super Bowl goats are beauty queens.

2. Jacksonville Jaguars sign tackle Leon Searcy from the Steelers. That they have found the league's best right tackle to protect the blind side of left-handed quarterback Mark Brunell is only one of the reasons this works. With Searcy opposite Tony Boselli, the Jaguars have two mountains who can move running back James Stewart.

3. Chicago Bears sign linebacker Bryan Cox from the Miami Dolphins. A defense badly in need of some attitude just got plenty. As a bonus, the Bears also gained somebody who knows how to rush the passer, helpful on a team ranked 18th in the league in sacks.

4. San Francisco 49ers sign guard Ray Brown from the Washington Redskins and release tackle Steve Wallace. Finally, the folks in football's golden coffin realize their offensive line is about half-dead. Brown, a 6-foot-5, 312-pound giant, crushed Dallas Cowboy defenders in the Redskins' sweep of the Super Bowl champions this season; Wallace was part of an apparent conspiracy to maim Steve Young. The 49ers gave up 33 sacks, 15 more than Cowboys.

5. The San Diego Chargers release running back Natrone Means. Before addressing those letters to us filled with the words Big Fathead, first answer these two questions: How many times did Means gain 100 yards after September? How many yards did he gain in the eight games after suffering his weight-related leg injury on Nov. 5? The answers are none, and 17. The emergence of Aaron Hayden, and an urgency to gain Means' $2.3-million cap figure so they could sign others, makes this move a no-brainer.

THE FIVE WORST

1. Oakland Raiders sign Larry Brown of the Cowboys. Al Davis considers Cowboy owner Jerry Jones one of his few league friends, and vice versa. Now we know why. Only a true buddy would take another man's headache. Larry Brown would have been a nickel cornerback making about $750,000 if those two Super Bowl passes hadn't hit him in the numbers. Now he's a $2.5-million star? AFC West receivers can't wait.

2. Raiders re-sign Harvey Williams. He disappeared in the final four games, averaging fewer than 50 yards a game, only to reappear in February with a five-year deal worth $11 million. In Davis country, this is what is known as Greasenomics.

3. Bears re-sign Alonzo Spellman to $3 million a year. Four years, 22 sacks, and a $4-million bonus. The only people more foolish were the Jaguars, who signed him to the offer sheet that forced the Bears to pay that salary to keep him.

4. Minnesota Vikings sign linebacker Dixon Edwards of the Cowboys. Call him the Purple Money Eater. A $3.5-million bonus was given to a guy who, like many of the Cowboys' mid-level players, has been in the right place at the right time. Edwards prospered in an attacking system with great players such as Charles Haley and Leon Lett throwing off blockers in front of him. Now he'll be fronted by, among others, the legendary Esera Tuaolo.

5. The New York Giants re-sign running back Rodney Hampton. He was headed for the 49ers. An offer sheet had been signed. The Cowboys' reign would be challenged. The NFL in November would be fun again. Then Dan Reeves decided that he didn't like rookie first-round pick Tyrone Wheatley and was willing to pay his injury-prone veteran more than Emmitt Smith (six years, $16.45 million). The Giants will now have another silly training camp controversy while Hampton will be haunted by trade rumors weekly. We hope Reeves is happy.

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