NFL bids farewell to a year full of bad news

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The NFL was more than happy to ring out the old year last week. The new one figures to be better simply because things can't get much worse than they were in 1992.

On and off the field, it was a nightmarish year.

For the second straight year, a player was paralyzed in a collision (Dennis Byrd). The season ended with the NFL investigating a charge that a referee, Larry Nemmers, directed a racial epithet at Eric McMillan of the New York Jets, a charge corroborated by a teammate. The AFC failed to produce a credible challenger for the Super Bowl, so there's not much anticipation for the game's showcase event. For the first time since 1972, all the teams from the nation's three largest TV markets -- New York, Los Angeles and Chicago -- failed to make the playoffs.

Meanwhile, off the field, things weren't any better. It was the year of the non-agreement.

At his Super Bowl news conference last January, commissioner Paul Tagliabue said he wanted to delay the start of the Plan B signing 18l

period for a month in hopes of getting a labor settlement. He not only didn't get a settlement, he couldn't even get an agreement to delay the signing period.

During the annual meetings in March, Tagliabue announced that Art Modell, the Cleveland Browns owner who heads the TV committee, had negotiated a two-year extension of the TV contract in exchange for a rebate in 1993. Tagliabue couldn't get 21 votes for the contract, and it was rejected.

He also announced he was in favor of instant replay, but it was tossed out when he couldn't get 21 votes to save it, although the league may be better off without it.

On Dec. 22, Tagliabue made a joint announcement with the NFL Players Association that they had reached a tentative agreement on a new labor deal. That fell apart Wednesday night when Tagliabue couldn't get a four-man majority on the seven-man management council to ratify it.

The deal could be put back together again when federal judge David Doty brings in the two sides Tuesday, but the larger issue is that it's obvious there's nobody in charge in the NFL.

Whether the negotiations are with the players or the TV networks, Tagliabue can't guarantee he can get the owners to approve any deal.

Instead of a league, the NFL is a loose confederacy of 28 fiefdoms all looking out for their own interests.

The problems date to Tagliabue's election in 1989 when a five-man committee unanimously recommended the election of Jim Finks, the general manager of the New Orleans Saints, as commissioner to replace Pete Rozelle. A group of minority owners blocked the election of Finks, not because they disliked him, but because they wanted to demonstrate their power.

The result was that Finks was tossed overboard and Tagliabue elected the commissioner of a divided league. The divisions have grown larger. It has become more and more difficult to get a consensus on any issue.

All of this has ominous overtones for Baltimore's hopes of getting an expansion team. Even if the latest snag on the labor deal is ironed out, 21 owners will have to agree to expand.

Then comes the problem of getting 21 owners to agree on two cities. Each of the five finalists -- Baltimore, St. Louis, Charlotte, N.C., Jacksonville, Fla., and Memphis, Tenn. -- figures to have its group of supporters, so it won't be easy to get a consensus.

It has the makings of another three-ring circus, which is about the way the way the NFL is being run these days. The only problem is it can't find a ringmaster.

Waiting for the judge

The next week or two figures to be a critical point in the five-year labor fight. Either Doty gets the two sides to make a deal or he'll have to make a ruling.

If he has to make a ruling, the two sides could spend a few more years in court, going all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Doty's ruling has to make one side happier than the other, and that side will be in no mood to make a deal.

As it is, the players are in no mood for more talks. They feel they made several critical concessions -- including a salary cap, a franchise player, three exemptions and a reduction in the draft -- to reach a deal that the owners shot down. If the owners aren't ready to take the deal (a signing period doesn't seem to be a big enough issue for them to reject the deal) this week, the two sides also could wind up in court this spring over the draft.

This may be the last chance to get labor peace for a long time.

The playoff picture

The four teams that have byes in the playoffs -- the San Francisco 49ers, the Dallas Cowboys, the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Miami Dolphins -- will be at home and favored next weekend.

If they all go on to the conference championship games, it could indicate the new three-year-old playoff system is weighted too much toward the four division champions with the best records.

Before 1990, when the new format went into effect, all six division champions had byes, and there were two wild-card teams in each conference. Starting in 1990, two wild-card teams were added and matched against the division winners with the third-best records in the first round. The other two division winners in each conference were given byes.

The four teams with byes won their first-round games in 1990 and 1991 and went straight to the conference championship games.

If this trend continues, it could devalue the worth of the first two rounds.

This year, the AFC appears to be so wide-open that it wouldn't be a major surprise if Pittsburgh or Miami lost its opener at home. But San Francisco and Dallas will be heavily favored to win at home and play Jan. 17 in San Francisco in what is already being dubbed the "real" Super Bowl.

The coaching derby

The first two coaches to lose their jobs this season, Dan Reeves of the Denver Broncos and Ray Handley of the New York Giants, departed for very different reasons.

Reeves was a successful head coach who wasn't satisfied to do just that. He was a control freak who wanted to run the whole show, regardless of the cost. When owner Pat Bowlen suggested he stop bringing more than 120 players to training camp, Reeves ignored him. The result was that Bowlen helped get an 80-man training-camp roster limit passed for the entire league. It was easier for Bowlen to get a rule passed for the league than to get his coach to listen to him.

Reeves also fired assistant coach Mike Shanahan, now with the San Francisco 49ers, last year because he didn't like Shanahan's TC close relationship with quarterback John Elway. Shanahan is favored to get the top job in Denver.

In New York, Handley proved that former presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy was right when he once said a football coach has to be smart enough to understand the game and dumb enough to think it is important.

Handley showed that intelligence doesn't always translate into being a successful head coach. There's no question that Handley, who almost went to law school two years ago, is smart, but he had no rapport with the players. Handley understood X's and O's, but not people. He also had a difficult task in trying to replace a popular coach, Bill Parcells.

Incidentally, Parcells won't be back. When general manager George Young announced Handley's firing, he said he was looking for "commitment." That obviously was directed at Parcells, who tried to leave the Giants for the Atlanta Falcons after his first Super Bowl victory in January 1987 and waited nearly four months to quit after winning the second one.

The new coach, though, won't have a honeymoon period because the Parcells supporters in the media and among the fans still will be pining for him even though a former Parcells assistant, Boston College's Tom Coughlin, could get the job.

The Ditka watch

Owner Mike McCaskey of the Chicago Bears went on vacation at the end of the season last week and won't be back for another week.

There are two theories about the odd timing of McCaskey's departure when the future of coach Mike Ditka is hanging in the air.

Either he's trying to make a point with Ditka by keeping him waiting before bringing him back, or he's going to let Ditka twist in the wind before firing him.

For his part, Ditka is keeping things stirred up. He said he'd like to bring quarterback Jim McMahon back. McMahon wasn't one of McCaskey's favorites.

Ditka also took a shot at one of McCaskey's favorites, quarterback Jim Harbaugh.

"There's nobody who loves Jim Harbaugh more than Mike Ditka, but where does love get you in life? Will it get you in a ditch or to the Super Bowl?" he said.

If Ditka does go, a former Bears hero, Washington Redskins assistant coach Richie Petitbon, is likely to be a candidate to replace him.

Vito Stellino's picks

When is a tentative settlement not a tentative settlement?

When the NFL makes it.

After the latest collapse of what the NFL called a tentative agreement, the question is if these two sides ever announce any agreement, how will we know it's for real?

It's another example that we can't hold our breath waiting for expansion or we'll be in danger of getting blue in the face. Instead, treat it as a pleasant surprise if it ever occurs.

VITO'S PICK THE LINE

Saints 24, Eagles 23 Saints by 3 1/2

Neither owner, Tom Benson nor Norman Braman, has won a playoff game (the Saints have never won one, period). If the Eagles win, maybe Braman should break out the Braman Boogie.

Bills 24, Oilers 17 Bills by 3

Frank Reich has waited his whole career for this situation.

Yesterday's record: 2-0. Against the spread: 2-0.

Last week's record: 9-5. Against the spread: 7-7. Best bets: 2-2.

Season record: 155-71. Against the spread: 110-115-5. Best bets: 28-37-3.

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