PALM DESERT, Calif. -- Let's make a deal.
That should be the theme of the NFL owners annual March meetings this week.
Since the league has a labor agreement and is continuing to move slowly on expansion, the talk outside the meeting rooms may be more interesting than the talk inside.
With the top executives for all 28 teams together, the scramble for free agents is expected to continue.
One team facing a major decision is the San Francisco 49ers, which must decide by Wednesday whether to match the three-year, $7.5 million deal the Atlanta Falcons offered defensive lineman Pierce Holt. He'll be the league's highest paid defensive player -- until Reggie White signs his new deal.
Holt's agent, Leigh Steinberg, will be at the meetings to get the answer and shop two of his other key players, safety Tim McDonald of the Phoenix Cardinals and quarterback Neil O'Donnell of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
It could be a long week for the Washington Redskins. Defensive lineman Jumpy Geathers appears headed to the Atlanta Falcons, and three other free agents, safety Danny Copeland, cornerback Martin Mayhew and wide receiver Gary Clark, could jump if they hear the right numbers.
The only thing certain is that the numbers will continue to skyrocket. It started with Brian Habib, an obscure offensive lineman for the Minnesota Vikings, who got a three-year, $4.2 million deal from the Denver Broncos to become the highest paid offensive lineman.
The deal was negotiated by a Baltimore native, Steve Weinberg, and his partner, Jordan Woy, who are both based in Dallas.
"We were falling off our chairs," Weinberg admitted when the offers started coming in. On Friday, Weinberg and Woy negotiated another big deal, a three-year, $4 million package that cornerback Melvin Jenkins signed with the Falcons. It includes more than $2 million this year.
Players at every position are sharing in the windfall. Sean Landeta, another Baltimore native, became the highest paid punter in the game's history last week when he signed a four-year deal for more than $4 million.
Despite the skyrocketing costs, some of the owners aren't worried. They know a salary cap is likely to kick in next year to put a ceiling on the bidding.
"The biggest thing about this deal is that the players participate in the whole deal and it's up to them to protect the game the same way as the owners," said Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney, who helped negotiate the labor deal. "We all have a responsibility to look at the long term."
The owners will spend a lot of time thinking and talking about the future including television, international football and expansion.
For impatient Baltimore fans, the expansion talk will continue on much too slow of a track. The expansion committee will meet for about an hour tomorrow evening and present a report to the owners on Tuesday. They're not likely to do much more than reaffirm the fact that expansion is still on track for this fall.
For Maryland Stadium Authority chairman Herbert Belgrad, who will attend along with Chip Mason of the Greater Baltimore Committee, it'll still be encouraging to hear that expansion is going forward.
After suffering through years of delays, Belgrad said, "It's a major, major step forward." Belgrad knows many owners still aren't keen on expansion, but they've run out of excuses to delay it longer.
The league isn't encouraging expansion owner groups to attend, and two of the Baltimore groups, the ones headed by Leonard "Boogie" Weinglass and Tom Clancy and Jim Robinson, have decided to pass. But the other group consisting of Malcolm Glazer and his sons, Joel and Bryan, will be on hand.
"We think it's important to be there," Joel Glazer said.
An issue that could have an impact on expansion will be a proposal to allow corporate ownership of teams. The Charlotte expansion group favors this proposal because it figures corporate ownership would help the shaky financial backing for its stadium proposal.
The one cloud on the horizon for the owners is television. They're expected to take a step toward a showdown with the networks next year by deciding to play 16 games in 1993 over 18 weeks with each team having two byes.
Last year, each team decided to rebate $1 million to keep the schedule at 17 weeks because the networks were having trouble selling advertising. The owners are refusing to do it this time so each team will have two byes.
The networks, though, may get the last word in 1994 when the newcontracts are negotiated. The NFL may have to take a sharp drop in the $40 million each club will get this year.
On the playing field, the NFL will do just minor tinkering. There's a proposal to cut the time between each play from 45 to 40 seconds, which was opposed strongly in the past by former Redskins coach Joe Gibbs. Now that he's not on hand to argue against it, the measure may pass. Another proposal is to move the kickoff from the 35 to the 30 to increase the number of returns.
The owners also are expected to officially award the 1996 Super Bowl to Phoenix as a reward for passing the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday last November.
Overall, though, the major developments are likely to be the continuing contract escalation.
) Let the bidding continue.