MINNEAPOLIS -- In the latest strategic move in the five-year legal battle between the NFL owners and players, commissioner Paul Tagliabue said yesterday that he'll probably delay the start of the Plan B free-agent signing season from Feb. 1 to March 1.
At his annual Super Bowl news conference, Tagliabue said he feels there is "some progress" in the talks between the two sides and he hopes the delay might give them an incentive to reach an agreement. He said he hopes a deal would include a salary cap and a rookie wage scale for the upcoming 1992 season.
"We've had continuing discussions that have been candid and sometimes even constructive, which is a pleasant surprise. We're trying to put in a salary cap and a free agency system that would be responsive to the players' interests," he said.
He said the move to March 1 "would have a deadline in effect that would make both sides accelerate the pace of their talks and try to get something done for the 1992 season."
But Jim Quinn, the attorney for the players who have filed an antitrust suit in their quest for free agency, has a different view of the progress of the talks.
"We're still preparing for trial," Quinn said. The trial, originally scheduled to start Feb. 17 in Minneapolis, has been delayed, but federal judge David Doty has said he wants to complete it by the start of training camp in July.
Quinn said he would not be a part of any settlement that included a rookie wage scale and said he's "not thrilled" with the idea of a salary cap. He said the owners would have to offer a "pretty good deal" to get him to accept a salary cap.
He said the owners have yet to make what he calls a "formal, serious" offer. He said they made a formal offer in October, but said he didn't think it was serious. He said jokingly that there were so many restrictions on free agency in the offer that "some players wouldn't even be able to talk to their wives."
Quinn said his definition of free agency was that when a player's contract expires, he could negotiate with any team.
Under the Plan B system, a team can protect 37 players and the rest are able to move regardless of whether they're under contract. But the 37 protected players whose contracts have expired are free to consider offers from other teams. If one of the 37 protected players not under contract gets an offer, his team can match it to keep him or gets compensation if it doesn't. The last player to move under this system was Wilber Marshall of the Washington Redskins in 1988.
The Redskins gave the Chicago Bears two No. 1 picks for him after the Bears refused to match their $6 million offer.
The Plan B period usually lasts from Feb. 1 to April 1. If it doesn't start until March 1, Tagliabue said the end would be pushed back after April 1, but wouldn't conflict with the draft at the end of April.
Quinn also suggested that Tagliabue also made the announcement in an attempt to "show Judge Doty a willingness to settle" in hopes he might postpone the trial again.
Quinn, though, added that their announcement "might be a slight crack in their iceberg."
In other items covered in the news conference, Tagliabue made the following points:
* The NFL has no plans to change the Indian nicknames of such teams as the Washington Redskins and the Kansas City Chiefs. He said the nicknames aren't considered demeaning in a sports context despite protests from Indian groups that they are.
* The NFL won't ban a player who tests positive for AIDS. He said doctors have told him that a player is more likely to be paralyzed running into a goal post than he is to contract AIDS on the football field. He said the chances of getting AIDS on a field are "infinitesimal." He said he talked to Magic Johnson at the Redskins-Lions game and hopes he gets a chance to play in the Olympics.
* The NFL has no plans to change its current policy of refusing to accept expansion applications from Canadian cities. He said the NFL will address U.S. cities first.
* The competition committee will study instant replay before making a report at the owners' meeting in March.