ASHBURN, Va. -- If money talks, Jack Kent Cooke's checkbook spoke volumes about the future of the NFL this week.
The fact that the Washington Redskins owner was willing to spend more than $14 million to lock up Desmond Howard for four years and both Darrell Green and Jim Lachey for three years shows how concerned Cooke is about the possibility of free agency coming to the league.
When you add in the $9 million for three years -- plus $3 million more for an option year -- that
quarterback Mark Rypien got, Cooke spent $26 million on four players.
That's on a team that won the Super Bowl last year without having a single player among the top 25 highest-paid players in the league or the highest-paid player at any position.
Now they've got the highest-paid defensive back, the highest-paid offensive lineman and the third -- or second if incentives are included -- highest-paid quarterback.
"We want to keep this team intact," said one Redskins executive to explain Cooke's spending binge.
This is the same owner who let John Riggins sit out the 1980 season in a contract dispute.
"This is a different era," said Baltimore-based agent Tony Agnone. He figured Cooke couldn't risk taking such a hard line this time.
Cooke did threaten to reduce his offers if the players didn't sign by Aug. 17, but he not only didn't reduce them, he increased them to get the players signed for more than two years.
His main goal was to avoid giving them one- or two-year contracts. He was willing to pay to get the longer
The reason for that philosophy was that this year's negotiations were conducted with one eye on the courtroom in Minneapolis.
That's where the players are fighting for free agency in an antitrust suit that resumes next week.
The owners' official posture is that the trial won't be a bonanza for the players.
When he attended the opening of the new Georgia Dome on Sunday, commissioner Paul Tagliabue said, "I think a lot of the players have grossly inflated expectations as to what's going to come out of the litigation. They seem to have been led to believe that it's going to be a hit and a quick fix."
Tagliabue argued that unless the players settle on the owners' terms -- which include a lot of restrictions on free agency -- the case will bounce around the courts on appeal for years.
Tagliabue is definitely right about one thing. The players do have big expectations.
As Agnone said, "It's like Christmas. Free agency is coming."
Agnone contends that if the play
ers win, the owners aren't going to be able to go on with business as usual while the case is appealed.
"If they don't come up with a system, Judge [David] Doty is going to come up with a system. The guy wearing the robe is in charge in federal court, and he's warned both sides that if they don't settle it, he will," Agnone said.
Of course, there's always a chance the owners could win. The eight women who are hearing the case don't follow football, and have given no indication which way they're leaning.
The Redskins decided they couldn't take a chance that the players would get free agency.
After all, they originally signed Riggins from the New York Jets in 1976 when the players won a brief period of free agency in court in the mid-1970s.
They also saw what happened when they put Joe Jacoby on the Plan B unprotected list in February when he promised not to leave.
His former offensive line coach, Joe Bugel of the Phoenix Cardinals, offered him $1.25 million even though Jacoby is near the end of his
career at age 33. Jacoby turned it down, but the offer showed how salaries could skyrocket if the players did have free agency.
Until Lachey got his contract averaging $1.35 million that includes a base salary of $1.5 million in 1994, the highest-paid offensive lineman was Bruce Matthews of the Houston Oilers at $1 million.
In two years, Lachey will be earning 50 percent more than any other lineman is currently making.
But nobody knows what the market will be in 1994. The Redskins at least know they'll still have Lachey, Green and Howard.
"Sure, everybody would love to negotiate with 28 teams and take the best offer," Lachey said.
The Redskins made sure he won't be able to do that before 1995.
NOTES: CB Calvin Holmes, the team's seventh-round draft pick who was waived Tuesday, may be re-signed today because the Redskins have an opening on their roster after trading Joe Johnson and George Hinkle. . . . Howard got a crash course in the Redskins' system yesterday, meeting with receiver coach Rennie Simmons at 8:45 a.m. and with special teams coach Wayne Sevier after practice. The Redskins still aren't sure whether the rookie will play Saturday night against the Vikings.