Harmonic convergence of events may give Baltimore a bridge to NFL

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Fasten your seat belt. It's going to be a rocky ride.

Baltimore's decade-long quest to get an NFL team to replace the Colts finally will reach a climax in the next few months in a drama that's likely to have more twists and turns than a dime novel.

That became the likely scenario last week with three developments that will affect Baltimore's chances of getting a team.

The first was the "Save the Rams" campaign presentation to the Los Angeles Rams' executive vice president, John Shaw, that wasn't warmly received. It featured a renovation of Anaheim Stadium as a football-only facility for the Rams and a new baseball stadium for the Angels. That's not what the Rams have in mind. They want a new stadium.

Then owner Georgia Frontiere made statements to the Los Angeles Times that indicated Shaw is making progress in persuading her that she has to move the team.

"You know when the bankers start saying this is it, you have to start listening to them," she said.

"The fact is we have a wonderful country that allows us to go where we can make a living," she added.

Frontiere did everything with those comments except call the movers -- especially considering that the team is expected to lose $6 million this year.

That was followed Thursday by the death of Hugh Culverhouse, owner of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Unless Culverhouse changed his will at the last minute, he had instructed the trustees to sell the team to the highest bidder.

Suddenly, two teams are candidates to move.

Orioles owner Peter Angelos already had offered $200 million for the team before Culverhouse died, and he will put the offer back on the table once the trustees are ready to accept bids.

There will be attempts by Tampa-area businessmen -- probably including New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner -- to buy the team and keep it there.

But there's no way a new owner could make money in Tampa if he had to pay $200 million up front. That means a local owner would have to be willing to subsidize the team.

Owner Rankin Smith of the Atlanta Falcons said it doesn't look promising for Tampa.

"Obviously, I would like to see them stay in Tampa . . . . but it doesn't bode well for them," Smith said, referring to Culverhouse's death.

With two teams in play, the whole nature of the negotiations will change. It means Shaw might have to be more flexible in his dealings with Angelos, because Shaw no longer runs the only team that might move.

Of course, one thing hasn't changed: Commissioner Paul Tagliabue and Washington Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke will fight to keep a team out of Baltimore.

Cooke repeated his familiar line to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch last week that New York is the only city in the country that can support two teams.

He ignores the fact that Baltimore and Washington aren't the same city. If Baltimore can draw 41,000 for a Canadian Football League game, it easily could fill a 70,000-seat stadium for an NFL team.

Regardless of what Cooke says, it now will be more difficult to keep a team out of Baltimore, because Tagliabue and Cooke have to fight a two-front war. Not only do they have to persuade Frontiere not to move to Baltimore, they have to come up with a local owner to outbid Angelos or find a businessman from another city to outbid him and move it there.

Tagliabue is infatuated with Toronto, Vancouver and Mexico City, so maybe he can come up with investors there.

In any case, Baltimore has to be an underdog in this battle. Tagliabue proved he could rig the expansion race, and he'll go to any length to keep a team out of Baltimore.

But Baltimore is still the only city in the Western Hemisphere offering an NFL team a taxpayer-funded outdoor football stadium with 100 luxury boxes and 7,500 club seats that are mostly paid for.

St. Louis, which is offering a domed stadium, hasn't straightened out its lease situation.

That means Baltimore still has a chance. Maybe it's a slim one, but it's a chance.

Test of time

It was no surprise that the Pittsburgh Steelers of the 1970s had the most players (five) on the NFL's 48-man all-time team that was selected for the league's 75th anniversary.

The Steelers of that era are generally regarded as the best team of all time. Nobody could afford to put together a team like that again in the era of the salary cap.

Imagine paying the five on the team -- Joe Greene, Jack Ham, Jack Lambert, Mel Blount and Mike Webster -- and then trying to come up with the money to sign Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swann and John Stallworth.

It was a little surprising, though, that the Baltimore Colts of 1958-59 tied for second with the Oakland-Los Angeles Raiders of the 1980s with four -- Johnny Unitas, Raymond Berry, Gino Marchetti and Jim Parker. It shows that Colts team has stood the test of time.

The four selections kind of undercut coach Weeb Ewbank's motivational speech before the 1958 title game, when he went around the room and stressed to the players that they had been castoffs and needed respect.

Coaches like to do things like that. After all, it wouldn't have been much of a speech to say, "Hey, we've got four of the best players of all time in this room and the Giants have just one [Roosevelt Brown], so we should beat them easily."

Coaches don't say things like that.

It's also noteworthy that Don Shula's 1972-73 Miami Dolphins and the Joe Gibbs Redskins, who won three Super Bowls, didn't have any players selected.

That's a tribute to the coaching of Shula and Gibbs, but it's one tribute Shula doesn't want. He always argues the 1972 Dolphins should be considered one of the greatest teams because they had the only perfect season in league history.

But the Dolphins aren't ranked with the Steelers of the 1970s, the 49ers of the 1980s, the Packers of the 1960s and the Browns of the 1940s and 1950s in the listing of great teams. Like Gibbs' Redskins, Shula's Dolphins are noted more for playing well together than for having a group of great players.

The salary cap

Just about everything else has been said about the salary cap, but wide receiver Michael Irvin of the Dallas Cowboys was the first to inject race into the debate.

While criticizing NFL Players Association head Gene Upshaw last Saturday for agreeing to the cap, he said, "People will say, 'Hey, you know, that's why you can't put a black man in that position. He can't handle it.' Not only did he let me down as a player, he let me down as a black man, making that business decision."

Upshaw's image has come full circle. During the 1987 strike, he charged the owners wouldn't make a deal with a black man.

Meanwhile, the union keeps sending out information to the media extolling the benefits of the new plan. They should try to persuade the players first.

The players keep urging the baseball players to stay on strike to avoid a cap.

"I think a salary cap is worth going on strike against," said Chris Dishman of the Houston Oilers. "I'm not a baseball fan, but I think they should stay out as long as it takes to avoid a cap."

How soon they forget

Last year, Norv Turner was the newest genius offensive assistant as the Cowboys won their second straight Super Bowl. The Cowboys players gave him a lot of credit for their success and Turner parlayed that into the Redskins' coaching job.

Now they're raving about Ernie Zampese, who tutored Turner with the Rams and replaced him as the Cowboys' offensive coordinator.

"We'll miss Norv personally because we really liked him," Irvin said. "But football-wise, you hear Troy [Aikman] or me say, 'Ernie is putting in more new wrinkles.' Actually, it's a lot more than a few. We are doing a bunch of new stuff that's really sharp. I like that because after all those years, people were catching on to my same old deep-in, deep-out routes."

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