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Free agency hard sell to NFL owners

There might be just one obstacle left to labor peace in the NFL.

It's not money or free agency or even the Analysis

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salary cap. It's what one owner called the "fear of the unknown."

In the deal that commissioner Paul Tagliabue hammered out last Wednesday with Jim Quinn, the attorney for the players, a blueprint was designed with sweeping changes in the way the NFL is run.

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Change is always unsettling, and that's why Tagliabue and Dan Rooney, the owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers who worked on the deal with Tagliabue, are spending so much time on the telephone selling the deal this weekend.

It's a hard sell because many executives are uncomfortable with change and think the owners are giving away too much. They want more exemptions to free agency than one franchise player who won't be free and three transitional players -- two the first year and one the second -- who'll be subject to the right of first refusal.

The teams in the small markets think they'll lose all of their good players to the glamorous teams in the big markets.

"I think we have to have safeguards in the agreement to make sure the small-market and Rust Belt teams can compete," said the general manager of a small-market team. "There need to be safeguards to help the less glamorous markets. They need to be taken into consideration."

Nobody really knows what will happen if the deal goes through and all the veterans with five years of experience are free to move except the exempted players.

That's why the debate has been raging throughout the league over the weekend as teams try to digest what the deal will mean.

A general manager of a big-market team said, "I think a talented player -- who's happy where he is -- will probably want to stay there. A talented player who isn't happy will look for a winner in a nice location."

On the other hand, teams such as the Green Bay Packers, who haven't won a title since Vince Lombardi's last year in 1967, haven't thrived under the current system.

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The proponents of the deal argue that cities don't win, managements do. Bob Irsay lost in Baltimore, and he's losing in Indianapolis. Bill Bidwill lost in St. Louis, and he's losing in Phoenix. Bobby Beathard won in Washington, and he's winning in San Diego.

The best argument for the deal, though, is that it's the best one the owners can get and it'll be the best one in pro sports. The alternative is going back to court to continue a fight the owners have been losing.

Even though the deal gives the players free agency, it grants each team a franchise player. The Miami Dolphins don't have to worry about losing Dan Marino. The Denver Broncos don't have to worry about losing John Elway.

It also has a hard cap of 67 percent that will go down to 64 percent -- along with granting free agency after four years -- if it is reached. In basketball, the cap doesn't count against a team signing its own players.

The pro coaches also might have to learn to follow the mentality of college coaches. They only have players for four or five years before they are replaced.

There's also the argument that so much of pro football is coaching. For example, for the last two years, Barry Foster was a young running back for the Pittsburgh Steelers who looked impressive in preseason scrimmages against the Washington Redskins and virtually disappeared once the season began. Foster didn't fit into Joe Walton's offense.

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When Bill Cowher took over as head coach and brought in Ron Erhardt to run the offense, they featured Foster, and he's having the best season of any running back in Pittsburgh history.

There's also the argument that because contracts are staggered, a team couldn't be devastated in one year. Look at the Redskins, for example. Last year, they had three high-profile veterans -- Mark Rypien, Darrell Green and Jim Lachey -- who would have been free.

But this year, the top three eligible for free agency appear to be Gary Clark, Wilber Marshall and Brad Edwards. Brad Edwards? He's a solid player, but not exactly a household name.

One of the problems in selling the deal is that Tagliabue made it with only one other owner at the meeting, Rooney. Some of the league executives feel left out of the process and don't think they had enough input.

But the larger the group involved, the tougher it is to reach an agreement. The overall deal is extremely complicated on the structuring of the salary cap.

That's why the league is fortunate the owners gave the seven-member executive committee the authority to approve the deal. If Tagliabue had to get 21 of 28 votes for this deal, he'd probably have no chance. Just last year, he couldn't get 21 votes to give the TV networks a rebate.

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Getting four of seven votes should be easier, especially since Rooney, New York Giants owner Wellington Mara and Denver Broncos owner Pat Bowlen are expected to support it. Rooney helped craft the deal, and Mara and Bowlen tend to support league policies.

Getting the fourth vote from one of the other members could be a problem. Mike Brown, vice president of the Cincinnati Bengals, and John Shaw, vice president of the Los Angeles Rams, are fiscal conservatives who tend to be hard-liners.

The son of Paul Brown, Brown thinks that Tagliabue doesn't pay enough attention to football matters because of his legal background. On the other hand, Rooney and Brown are close, and the Cincinnati and Pittsburgh markets are similar. If Rooney is convinced Pittsburgh can live with free agency, he might be able to convince Brown that Cincinnati can survive with it.

John Cooke, vice president of the Washington Redskins and the son of Jack Kent Cooke, isn't likely to vote yes. Free agency figures to help the Redskins, but Cooke opposed Tagliabue's election and never has been an ally of the commissioner.

This leaves Al Davis, the managing general partner of the Raiders. Davis is the most unpredictable man in the league. The owners once feared he'd sign all the best players in a free-agency system, but he's now opposed because he's not drawing big crowds in the Los Angeles Coliseum.

Davis is the wild card in all of this. He loves intrigue and he's also close to Gene Upshaw, a former Raider who heads the NFL Players Association. The league's worst nightmare is a 3-3 split with Davis as the power broker. Nobody knows what he'd do, but he'd enjoy the attention.

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The lobbying will continue until the committee meets in Dallas Tuesday, one day before all the owners meet. As the owners ponder the future, there is only one good bet about what is going to happen.

Regardless of the system, the good organizations will be successful and the bad ones won't. Free agency or no free agency, look for the 49ers and Redskins to continue to win and the Colts and Patriots to continue to lose.



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