Change quick out of league's backfield Free agency, expansion lend new look to game

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The NFL is right in tune with the president. It is selling change this year.

As the league prepared to kick off its 74th season today, commissioner Paul Tagliabue said last week, "I've called this year a season of firsts.

"We have our first national kickoff weekend celebration on the Washington Mall," Tagliabue said. "We have our new free agency rules. We have two rookie quarterbacks [Drew Bledsoe and Rick Mirer] opening the season as starters for the first time in two decades. We have our first Super Bowl in Atlanta, and expansion for the first time since 1976."

That last change is the one that matters most to Baltimore fans.

The NFL is scheduled to add two new teams next month to play in 1995. The expansion finalists besides Baltimore are St. Louis, Charlotte, N.C., Memphis, Tenn., and Jacksonville, Fla.

For the first time since the moving trucks rolled out of Owings Mills nine years, five months and eight days ago (not that anybody is counting) on March 28, 1984, Baltimore is in striking distance of getting back in the league.

And the league is getting back its focus after the owners and players finally ended their long labor war and agreed to a seven-year deal.

"It was a welcome departure from a year when I spent a good deal of the summer on a hard bench in a federal courtroom in Minneapolis," said Tagliabue, who spent this summer visiting training camps.

The new deal could very well turn the NFL upside down.

"This is the biggest change since I've been connected with the league," said New York Giants general manager George Young, who has been in pro football for almost a quarter of a century.

The players got free agency after four years of service in exchange for a salary cap that likely will end the domination of the free-spending teams such as the San Francisco 49ers and the Washington Redskins.

"I think the league is going to be well-balanced for the next half-dozen years or more," said general manager Mike Brown of the Cincinnati Bengals, who have the lowest payroll in the league. "No team or group of rich teams can come in and take a disproportionate number of the very best players. Teams are all going to be paying more or less the same amount, and that should mean we will all have competitive talent on our teams."

The 49ers and the Redskins, who have the top two player payrolls in the league and have combined to win seven Super Bowls since 1981, will have to pare their payrolls under the cap.

All that won't happen, though, until the cap kicks in next year.

That's why it's almost appropriate that the 49ers and the Redskins appear to have the best chance of winning the Super Bowl this year.

That's assuming that the defending champion Dallas Cowboys have the usual problems that plague Super Bowl champions. The holdout of Emmitt Smith could be a bad omen for the Cowboys.

Whether all this change is going to be a plus or a minus for the NFL is a matter of debate.

Although it could lead to more wide-open races, the NFL has done well featuring a small number of glamour teams on national TV.

The Redskins, for example, play six of their 16 games on national TV -- three Monday night games, a Sunday night cable game, a Saturday night and a New Year's Eve Friday special.

If the Redskins are sapped by a new system and become less of an attraction, the NFL has to hope that different teams can fill the void.

Baltimore fans will be interested in the belief that expansion teams could get good in a hurry because they'll start off with a low payroll and will have a lot of money to spend.

"They could buy the best quarterback one year and the best running back the next," said one owner.

Although the new deal will lead to huge salaries for superstars, it's still unclear whether it's good for the rank-and-file players.

Redskins tight end Terry Orr said he thinks a lot of players don't understand the ramifications of the deal.

"It's an egotistical thing," he said. "Everybody thinks they're worth more than what they're getting paid, and everybody says when my contract is up, I'm going to get a chance to be out there on the free market and do a bunch of things, but it's not going to be that way. This year, you didn't have a limited amount of dollars to deal with. You're going to have a limited amount [next year]."

But this year, the most talked about change has nothing to do with free agency.

It's a familiar story of a veteran who was injured and lost his job and had to move on to get a starting job.

The veteran happens to be Joe Montana, the best quarterback of his time and maybe of all time.

After missing all but one half of the last two seasons with an arm injury, Montana lost the starting job with the San Francisco 49ers to Steve Young.

It was difficult for the 49ers to let Montana go. At the last minute, they even offered him his starting job back, although Montana realized that would have been an awkward situation. After he left for the Kansas City Chiefs, three 49ers quarterbacks were injured, but Young's broken thumb has healed and he will start today.

Montana, meanwhile, has to prove he can still produce and stay healthy at age 37. He should get a tuneup today in Tampa Bay and then plays at Houston before he makes his home debut on Monday night against the Denver Broncos and John Elway in the third game.

Montana vs. Elway! Wasn't that a Super Bowl matchup not so long ago?

That's why this season should be a lot of fun. The focus is finally out of the courtroom and back on the football field.

VITO STELLINO'S 1993 PREDICTIONS

NFC EAST

L 1. Washington -- They won't be booing Mark Rypien this year.

2. Dallas -- They'll be learning how to sing the Super Bowl Blues.

3. New York Giants -- Dan Reeves won't miss John Elway.

4. Philadelphia -- Norman Braman won't miss Reggie White, but the Eagles will.

5. Phoenix -- Here's a trend: the Cardinals recorded their last playoff victory in 1947.

NFC CENTRAL

1. Green Bay -- Brett Favre means more to the team than Reggie White does.

2. Detroit -- Barry Sanders can't do it alone.

3. Minnesota -- How long can Jim McMahon stay healthy?

4. Chicago -- "Saturday Night Live" will miss Ditka.

5. Tampa Bay -- Sam Wyche has found a team wackier than he is.

NFC WEST

1. San Francisco -- Steve Young has pro football's most expensive thumb.

2. New Orleans -- Will a Jim Mora team ever win an NFL playoff game?

3. Atlanta -- Jerry Glanville's act is getting old.

4. Los Angeles Rams -- The first time around with the Rams, Chuck Knox had better players.

NFC wild-card teams: Dallas, New Orleans and N.Y. Giants.

AFC EAST

1. Miami -- Shula's the Don of NFL coaches.

2. Buffalo -- Buffalo in the Super Bowl again! Now there's a scary thought.

3. New York Jets -- How much does Boomer have left?

4. Indianapolis -- Will Mike Ricigliano bring the Bob Irsay doll to RFK Stadium when the Colts play there?

5. New England -- Bill Parcells was a better coach when he had L.T.

AFC CENTRAL

1. Pittsburgh -- They're bringing those Terrible Towels out of mothballs.

2. Houston -- Is Jack Pardee looking over his shoulder at Buddy?

3. Cleveland -- Bernie Kosar should send out an SOS.

4. Cincinnati -- David Shula is only 313 wins behind his father.

AFC WEST

1. San Diego -- Stan Humphries doesn't mind not being inside the beltway.

2. Kansas City -- Will Montana be an ordinary Joe?

3. Denver -- John Elway doesn't have Dan Reeves to kick around any longer.

4. L.A. Raiders -- The Raiders have no pride or poise.

5. Seattle -- Rick Mirer had a better supporting cast at Notre Dame.

AFC wild-card teams: Kansas City, Houston and Buffalo.

PLAYOFFS

NFC title game: San Francisco over Washington.

AFC title game: San Diego over Miami.

Super Bowl: San Francisco over San Diego.

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