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Expect expansion issue to drag on

When Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney was asked last week what the "other side" thought of the new labor deal, he said, "I think Jim Quinn is happy. I think Gene Upshaw is happy. I can't speak for Al Davis."

Quinn, of course, is the players' attorney and Upshaw is the head of the NFL Players Association.

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The fact that Rooney was including Davis, owner of the Los Angeles Raiders, on the "other side" was a not-so-subtle reference to how divided the owners are these days.

The hard-liners such as Davis finally ratified the new deal last week -- but only when federal judge David Doty virtually held a gun to their heads and threatened to give the players free agency himself.

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The settlement still didn't answer the question of whether the owners can agree on anything else these days without a federal judge threatening them.

The amazing thing is that this settlement doesn't even settle all the lawsuits. The owners want to press on and try to overturn the $30 million judgment they lost in the 1989 price-fixing case when they signed practice squad players for $1,000-a-week. You would think the owners would want to put all the litigation behind them. No matter how many times they get bashed in court, they keep paying those legal fees.

It's just another indication that even though the owners grudgingly agreed to a new labor contract, they're still not eager to move ahead on any other issue.

That's why expansion should be a good litmus test for the owners. Unfortunately for the expansion contenders, Doty won't be involved in expansion. He can't push them. They owners are on their own.

They're back to trying to get 21 votes to approve anything, and that's always a struggle. When the expansion resolution was originally approved in Minneapolis in May 1991, it passed with only 22 votes.

If eight owners want to use the TV contract or any other any excuse to block expansion, they can do it.

The fact the league is so fragmented also makes it almost impossible to handicap the expansion race because there's no consensus among the owners on any issue right now.

On HBO's "Inside the NFL" last week, Gary Myers called St. Louis and Baltimore the front-runners. Last year, he called St. Louis and Charlotte the favorites.

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The success of Camden Yards and Charlotte's problems in financing a new stadium make it logical to jump Baltimore ahead of Charlotte in

the speculation derby, but logic rarely fits into any NFL equation.

TC Baltimore's only real negative seems to be that it doesn't have the united front that St. Louis and Charlotte have. In those cities, the NFL can deal directly with the potential owners, James Orthwein and Jerry Richardson. In Baltimore, things are cluttered with three ownership groups. But the attractive stadium situation in Baltimore may overcome that.

If the NFL had any foresight, it wouldn't be thinking about only two cities now that it has a new labor agreement. It would be thinking about at least four.

But foresight isn't the owners' long suit or they wouldn't have twice rejected a deal with a salary cap. They're too busy just trying to figure out which side ther're on.

Nuts and bolts

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Now that the two sides have agreed on the framework of a deal, they have to get down to the business of putting together the nuts and bolts of how free agency will work before the signing period starts on March 1.

For example, the top four teams won't be allowed to sign free agents, unless they lose players, until the 67-percent cap kicks in. The next four teams also will have restrictions, such as being allowed to sign only one player for $1.5 million. Those are some of the things that have to be worked out.

The owners also have to decide the formula for how teams that lose top players will be given extra draft picks as compensation.

The way it's apparently going to work, the Philadelphia Eagles, for example, would get a first-round pick if Reggie White jumps ship.

What the owners seem to have overlooked is this could encourage bidding. For example, if the Redskins sign White. They could then decide to let Wilber Marshall go if they're going to get an extra first pick for him. In effect, they'd be trading Marshall for White and a first-rounder.

The owners never seem to think out the long-term implications of their actions. They wanted a signing window because they said the lack of one would encourage holdouts. But it's not the free players who'll be holding out. Those players will sign deals and if they don't get them, they won't have much leverage.

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The players who'll be holding out are the players who aren't free, such as Gary Clark, Barry Foster and Emmitt Smith. Don't look to see

those three players in camp next year.

Saying goodbye

Before Chicago Bears owner Mike McCaskey fired Mike Ditka last week, he should have called Art Modell, the owner of the Cleveland Browns.

It was 30 years ago that Modell fired the late Paul Brown, and Modell still hasn't lived it down. It's been said in Cleveland that the outrage over that firing is passed down from generation to generation.

Ditka may have been an oaf, a buffoon and a cartoon character, and he certainly didn't rank with Joe Gibbs or George Seifert as the league's top coaches, but he was Chicago. Love 'em or hate 'em, Ditka couldn't be ignored.

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Mike Royko, the popular Chicago columnist, said he was disappointed in Ditka's emotional farewell speech. He said Ditka should have slugged McCaskey and walked off.

That may be a bit much, but McCaskey did seem concerned about fan reaction. He did provide for security at his home before he made the move.

The firing also creates a problem for Bill Bidwill, owner of the Phoenix Cardinals. Phoenix is sort of a Chicago West, filled with former Chicago residents who live there or winter there. The Bears are already more popular than the Cardinals in Phoenix, and hiring Ditka would be a master stroke for Bidwill.

That's why nobody expects it to happen. Master strokes aren't Bidwill's style.

Remember, this is a guy who passed up a new stadium at Camden Yards to share a college stadium with Arizona State.

The coaching derby

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Denver owner Pat Bowlen is going to start interviewing candidates to replace Dan Reeves, but most NFL people think he's just waiting to get Mike Shanahan, a former Broncos assistant, back from the San Francisco 49ers.

Dallas Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson has even advised his top assistant, Dave Wannstedt, not to interview for the job because he thinks Shanahan has it locked up.

Wannstedt is viewed as a leading candidate for the New York Giants job now that Boston College's Tom Coughlin has pulled himself out of the running.

Chill out, Jimmy

Johnson's emotional reactions to games in Dallas (Johnson ** still doesn't seem to understand he can't win virtually all of them the way he did in Miami) has become an issue in Dallas. Owner Jerry Jones even felt the need to deny he's worried that Johnson may have a nervous breakdown.

"Could this become so bad that I would make a coaching change? No way," Jones said. "People are unhappy with how Jimmy behaves when things go wrong. They are upset there is no place in his life for family and Christmas. Do I believe Jimmy is headed for a breakdown? No. He is totally absorbed in football and grew more tense as the season wore on."

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The family-Christmas comment refers to the fact that Johnson split with his wife when he left Miami. He said he needed a wife in college when he had to attend social functions, but not in the pros.

Johnson lost his temper on the plane ride home after the loss in Washington and lashed his players for sloppy play in a win in the regular-season finale against Chicago.

Both Johnson and Jones now won't settle for anything less than the Super Bowl. "If we don't reach the Super Bowl, it will be a real disappointment," Jones said.

A year too late

A total of 36 underclassmen, led by Washington State quarterback Drew Bledsoe, have decided to come out of college early this year.

Bledsoe is likely to be the first player selected -- New England has the pick, but could trade it to Seattle, which has the second pick -- and could have been looking at a contract close to $3 million a year if the labor deal hadn't been reached. Bledsoe now has to fit under the salary scale for rookies. It's supposed to be in the $2 million range for each club.

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The NFL won its bluff with San Diego State sophomore running back Marshall Faulk. The league said it'd go to court to keep him out, which would have added to its long list of losing lawsuits.

Denying a man a chance to make a living is not exactly an easy argument to make in court these days. But Faulk decided not to go through the hassle and will stay in school.

The fall guys

The fact that Jack Pardee had two years left on his contract at $500,000 per year as the Houston Oilers coach may have saved his job after last week's collapse in Buffalo.

Instead, owner Bud Adams decided to fire two assistant coaches, defensive coordinator Jim Eddy and defensive backfield coach Pat Thomas. It was much cheaper to fire them than Pardee.

If Pardee had quit in protest, he would have blown the $1 million, so he stayed. But when a coach is forced to fire his assistants, he knows it's just a matter of time before he's next.

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As Pardee said, "It's times like this when I wish I was selling insurance. It's his club and you have to do what he wants you to do."



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