Even 'stars' of expansion draft are a little short on highlight film

When the Carolina Panthers made cornerback Rod Smith of the New England Patriots their first pick in the expansion draft last week, ESPN started showing what were supposed to be his best plays.

But the first two showed him getting beaten on touchdown catches by Carl Pickens of the Cincinnati Bengals and Andre Reed of the Buffalo Bills.


Announcer Joe Theismann, trying to put his best spin on the passes, said of Smith's play on the Reed catch, "He doesn't get beat real bad, although he does wind up giving up a touchdown."

When the Panthers made offensive tackle Harry Boatswain of the San Francisco 49ers their second pick, ESPN didn't bother to show any highlight film of him.


Noting he started four games early in the season, Chris Berman conceded, "He didn't play that well at that time." He added that Boatswain "came on late."

When Harris Barton was injured early, Boatswain was playing tackle and Steve Young was running for his life. That's when coach George Seifert pulled Young during a 40-8 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, fearing Young was going to get hurt because he was taking so many shots.

Getting beat was Boatswain's contribution to the 49ers' season, but Bill Walsh, another member of the ESPN team, said: "He's got a Super Bowl ring and he brings that to the locker room. It means something."

Boatswain not only won't be winning any Super Bowls in the near future in Carolina, but he also won't be winning many games. The league isn't noted for being kind to expansion teams in the stocking draft.

As Carolina general manager Bill Polian said: "The expansion draft is not a player-acquisition draft. It is a means to put money on our salary cap and to get players with which we can line up."

There has been speculation that this year's expansion teams may be competitive more quickly than expansion teams in the past because of free agency. Walsh has even predicted the expansion teams could win six games this season.

Don't count on that happening. They could have trouble winning one. The extra draft picks they get may help them two or three years down the road if they make good selections, but the evidence is that -- with the possible exception of the 49ers -- free agency doesn't make teams.

Of the 20 free agents paid $2 million or more per year over the past two years, only seven played on playoff teams last season and none played in the Super Bowl. Of the 82 free agents paid $1 million or more, only 36 have made the playoffs.


The Washington Redskins are a good example. They signed 15 free agents the past two seasons, including seven for more than $1 million, but only two of them (Ken Harvey and Henry Ellard) made an impact as the team went 3-13 last season.

All this is good news for the teams in the AFC Central and the NFC West, the teams that had the expansion teams added to their divisions this year. In 1976, Seattle and Tampa Bay didn't start in divisions. Seattle played each NFC team once, and Tampa Bay played each AFC team once, and they played each other once.

This time, Carolina starts in the NFC West and Jacksonville in the AFC Central. San Francisco doesn't need any help, but two sure victories for New Orleans and Atlanta could make them playoff teams.

And look at Pittsburgh and Cleveland. They've got four games against Cincinnati and Houston. Now they add two against Jacksonville. In effect, they start off 6-0.

You can pencil in Pittsburgh and Cleveland for the playoffs right now.

No decision


In the NFL, they never make a decision until they're forced to.

That's why it wasn't surprising that the owners didn't formally approve the Rams' move from Los Angeles to St. Louis at a special meeting in Dallas last week.

But owner Georgia Frontiere, in a rare public appearance, had little doubt after the meeting that the move will be approved at the annual March meetings in Phoenix.

"I'm very optimistic that when March comes around, we'll get the vote," she said.

The only real question is whether the owners can get their hands on some of the $60 million windfall the Rams are getting through the sale of premium seat licenses by charging the Rams a relocation fee.

But they're not going to try to stop the move. In effect, the league guidelines are meaningless. No team would want to move unless it's leaving a bad deal for a great one, and that means it meets the guidelines.


The gold rush

Now that the Rams are getting a great deal, more teams that don't have one are getting restless.

Even the Detroit Lions, who play in the Silverdome in suburban Pontiac, Mich., started complaining last week.

"When we signed our lease, it was a fine lease. [But] the competitive landscape has changed dramatically in the NFL," said William Clay Ford Jr., the son of the owner.

Ford mentioned the possibility of returning to downtown Detroit. Although Detroit is talking about building a baseball stadium, it's uncertain if the city can build two stadiums or a combination one for both sports.

All this means Pontiac is going to be forced to sweeten the lease for the Lions, who get no money from parking, concessions or luxury suites.


Meanwhile, Mike Brown, the owner of the Cincinnati Bengals, is unhappy because nothing is happening on the stadium front in that city. The Reds don't want to discuss the stadium problem until the baseball strike is settled.

"We want to stay in Cincinnati and we want to get solutions to the problem, but I'm not going to kid myself that we will see any kind of solution," Brown said.

If he doesn't get one, Brown figures to be on the move.

The free-agent market

When the NFL owners and players hammered out a deal two years ago, one of the real sticking points was the players' refusal to give each team the ability to designate more than one "franchise" player.

A franchise player must be paid the average of the five best-paid players at his position. A team can keep him by matching his best offer from another team. If it doesn't match it, it gets two first-round picks for him.


Since few players are worth two first-round picks, the owners knew franchise players couldn't move.

What they didn't realize is that most teams wouldn't use the one designation they have. Since the salary escalation has raised the price for franchise players, it's easier to sign that caliber of player to a long-term contract. Last year, only 10 players got the franchise designation. This year, it's down to seven, and three of them -- Steve Atwater of Denver, Carnell Lake of Pittsburgh and Eric Turner of Cleveland -- are safeties.

Teams were allowed to give three players transition designations the first three years. That means a player gets the average of the top 10 salaries at his position. Now teams can give one player the transition label only if they don't have a franchise player. The result is that transition players are down from 56 to 29.

Teams are also finding out that they're hurt more by the players they lose than helped by the ones they gain. Keeping players has become the first goal.

The Dallas Cowboys, who are in danger of losing Alvin Harper, Mark Stepnoski, Tony Tolbert and Jay Novacek, are a perfect example.