PALM DESERT, Calif. -- Linebacker Carlton Bailey was the latest free agent to shake the NFL money tree yesterday.
Bailey's startling numbers continued the salary escalation that has marked the first three weeks of the new free agency system and overshadowed the first day of the NFL meetings yesterday.
As expected, the owners formally decided to play 16 games over 18 weeks this fall, giving each team two byes and cutting the time between the conference championship games and the Super Bowl from two weeks to one.
The NFL refused to rebate $1 million to the TV networks to cut the schedule back to 17 weeks the way they did last year, and Bailey's contract was another indication of why the owners were reluctant to give up any more revenue.
George Young, the Giants' general manager who had been criticized in New York for moving slowly in the free agency market, defended his offer to Bailey by saying, "We needed a linebacker and that's the price you have to pay."
Tony Agnone, Bailey's Baltimore-based agent, said the Green Bay Packers also were willing to pay it, but Giants punter Sean Landeta, another Baltimore native who signed a record four-year contract for a punter at $850,000 a year last week, helped convince him to play for the Giants.
That prompted Young to smile and say, "I'll probably get a bill from Landeta for recruiting."
Agnone said Landeta even suggested they could save money by sharing rides to Baltimore.
Agnone said, "Considering the money they're both making, I thought that was humorous."
Contacted at his parents' home in Baltimore, Bailey said he always wanted to play for the Giants, and Landeta stressed that it's a good place to play.
Bailey, who made $275,000 last year, added, "It still hasn't really hit me that I'm a millionaire or whatever. It wasn't necessarily about the money. I love the game. My decision was based on having an opportunity to go someplace and having a chance to play."
He got a $1.5 million signing bonus and $1.75 million for 1993, so he'll take home $3.25 million of the $5.25 million this year.
Bailey insisted he has "no hard feelings" toward the Bills even though they benched him late in the year in favor of Shane Conlan and Cornelius Bennett.
"I truly believe adversity builds character. . . . It was very difficult to accept knowing I'm a good player. But I'm thankful the Bills drafted me. Buffalo was my foundation. Now is the time to put the rest of the pieces together," he said.
He noted he played hurt during the season when a ruptured vein in his groin originally was misdiagnosed as a pulled groin muscle. He said that even though he recovered, the Bills told him he wasn't able to run when they benched him.
But Young noted that Bailey plays with a lot of intensity and is a good special teams player.
Bailey's contract may be causing teams to re-evaluate their positions.
General manager Charley Casserly said yesterday he called Ralph Cindrich, the agent for receiver Gary Clark, and told him to come back to the Redskins with his best offer.
The Redskins indicated last week they couldn't go to $2 million if Clark was offered that by another team, but that could change.
The Redskins also are staying in touch with safety Danny Copeland, who is likely to get an offer from the Atlanta Falcons today, and cornerback Martin Mayhew, who has been offered $1.3 million by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Coach Richie Petitbon hopes to talk Mayhew into playing for less to stay with the Redskins because their system fits him well.
Meanwhile, the Redskins could have problems signing linebacker Andre Collins, who asked for $950,000 last year and didn't get it. Now he thinks he'll get more.