HONOLULU — HONOLULU -- The "franchise players" of the National Football League gathered yesterday at the Pro Bowl and lamented their lot as franchise players.
Many of them will be excluded from the new system of free agency, scheduled to go into effect March 1. Each team can preclude one player from testing the free-agent market by designating him a "franchise exemption" between Feb. 19 and 25. The exact date is one of the many details yet to be finalized in a system so complex it has grown from seven pages to more than 200.
Confusion and uncertainty greets star players as free agency descends upon the NFL for the first time.
Philadelphia Eagles tackle lineman Reggie White was the envy of his colleagues because, as a named plaintiff on the settled lawsuits, he cannot be exempted from free agency with a franchise exception.
White said he would decide on his future by the end of March and said he does not consider the Eagles out of the picture.
The Houston Oilers didn't hurt themselves in White's mind by hiring former Eagles coach Buddy Ryan as defensive coordinator, but White didn't want to tip off his intentions.
"I've been here eight years and I've never in my life won a championship," White said. "That's going to be the most important thing. I'm going to ask teams whether they are going to keep guys around and whether they are going to get other guys."
Upon arrival Monday night, Pro Bowl players were given a briefing on the system and asked to sign cards re-establishing the NFL Players Association as a union so collective bargaining on benefits can be completed. The settlement still must be approved by federal Judge David Doty and then be ratified by players.
Washington Redskins linebacker Wilber Marshall, who made the old restricted free agency system work for him when he left the Bears for two No. 1 draft choices, objected to the "franchise exception" that he thinks may limit his market value. Marshall is one of about 20 players in the Pro Bowl whose contracts have expired. He said the Redskins have not told him he will be protected. If not, he will shop around and be glad to play "anywhere."
Marshall objects to White's status as one of 20-some plaintiffs who remain unprotected.
"I feel that's wrong," Marshall said. "How can those guys be free and not the other 200 [whose contracts have expired]?"
Atlanta tackle Mike Kenn, president of the NFLPA, had the answer.
"They had their opportunity a long time ago," Kenn said. "We had a hard time getting players because they were reluctant to put their names on suits. Now everybody regrets the fact they blew the opportunity."
How much free agency might change the face of the NFL is anybody's guess, but one thing is certain: There will be more wheeling and dealing behind the scenes than ever.
"I have a sneaking suspicion not that many players will move," said San Francisco 49ers quarterback Steve Young.
Young's contract expires, but he is expected to sign with the 49ers. At 31, if he signs a long-term deal, the 49ers wouldn't have to designate him a "franchise exception." Such a designation stays with the player until the end of the contract.
In effect, Young could "sell" one franchise exception to the 49ers in exchange for a guaranteed contract. The 49ers then would be able to use their exception on a young player.
"That is definitely a consideration because you want to keep the team together," Young said.
San Diego Chargers defensive end Leslie O'Neal, also an unrestricted plaintiff, likes his situation but worries about a fundamental flaw in an NFL free-agent system.
"To a certain extent, there is no incentive to win other than an owner's pride," O'Neal said. "Until that changes, things will stay the same."
Unlike baseball, NFL owners share so much revenue equally it diminishes the economic incentive to sign free agents.
Detroit offensive tackle Lomas Brown, also a free agent, is afraid the Lions may slap a first-refusal tag on him.
"All of us should have been able to move," Brown said. "I don't like first refusal."
As franchise exceptions, players are entitled to top-five pay at their position or a 20 percent raise. Transition exceptions get top-10 pay or a 20 percent raise. To some players who are as competitive at the salary table as they are on the field, 20 percent isn't enough.