In two successful Canadian Football League seasons, the Baltimore Stallions have captured the attention of fans with now-familiar players such as Mike Pringle, Chris Armstrong and Elfrid Payton.
But those players soon may be part of Baltimore's past, because the Stallions' roster figures to undergo significant change in the off-season.
Eighteen players, or nearly half of the active roster, could become free agents on Feb. 15.
They include such standouts as Pringle, the CFL's premier running back; Payton, one of its top pass rushers; Armstrong, the best receiver in Baltimore's two-year history; tackle Shar Pourdanesh, the CFL's reigning Most Outstanding Offensive Lineman; linebacker Matt Goodwin, its Rookie of the Year; and kicker Carlos Huerta, the league's leading scorer.
The Stallions are negotiating with many of their potential free agents. Though they expect to retain some, others will play out their options, then leave Baltimore for new opportunities -- either NFL tryouts that could result in richer contracts, or more lucrative deals with one of the CFL's 12 other teams.
Such is life in the CFL, where long-term contracts are rare. The majority of players sign for two or three seasons, including an option year. Baltimore is no exception.
"We'll probably lose some players," Baltimore coach Don Matthews said. "With free agency, players are always trying to better themselves. They want the shorter contracts so they can HTC see if their market value goes up. Players are going to shop their wares to see if they can't get a better deal."
Last year, when the Baltimore franchise was born, assistant general manager Jim Popp got the team off the ground by signing scores of free agents. After two seasons, one of his goals is keeping as much of the Stallions' nucleus intact as possible.
"It's not as drastic as it was when we came here, when we had to get everybody," said Popp, who worked for Matthews in Saskatchewan. "And it's not as easy as last off-season, when we had our whole team coming back and were only looking to upgrade in certain areas.
"We've talked to most of them [potential free agents] about re-signing. There's a handful of guys we definitely would like to have back. "Others have said they are going to play the market and have no interest in re-signing. More power to them. If you feel like you can get more elsewhere, if you want to try a different avenue in your career, do it."
Pringle, who earned a base salary of $42,500 last year, has said he is thinking of a new path, namely the NFL. At 28, he is four years removed from being a late training camp cut by the Atlanta Falcons. Since coming to Baltimore in a 1994 trade with Sacramento -- now the San Antonio Texans -- Pringle has blossomed. He is threatening the 2,000-yard rushing mark for the second season in a row.
Pourdanesh, Goodwin, Huerta and Payton are also angling for another shot at the NFL.
"Anybody in his right mind would want to play in the NFL, for financial reasons alone. But I'm looking to stay with Baltimore if I get what I'm looking for," said Payton, who leads the CFL with 17 sacks and hopes to more than double the $40,000 base salary he earned last year.
"For what he does and the way he produces, Elfrid has got a very low salary," Popp said. "We're still talking."
Baltimore's most pressing off-season needs could develop at running back and linebacker. In addition to Pringle, fullbacks Robert Drummond and Peter Tuipulotu are playing out their options. Besides Goodwin, starters Tracey Gravely and O. J. Brigance also stand to become free agents.
Several factors will influence how many veterans the Stallions retain, beginning with the league's $2.5 million (Canadian) salary cap, which works out to about $1.89 million in U.S. currency. There has been talk of the league's expanding rosters from 37 to 40 players. If that happens, it would put a tighter financial squeeze on teams, unless the league raised the cap.
Then there's the other expansion factor. Should the CFL add more teams for 1996, that would create a more advantageous market for free agents.
"There's a lot of guys on this team that a lot of people want," Popp said. "It's not all about money. How happy are you going to be? Are you going to be with a winning team? Sometimes, the grass looks greener in another pasture until you get there."
On the loose?
7+ Stallions who could become free agents:
Charles Anthony .. .. .. .. ..HB
Karl Anthony .. .. .. .. .. ..CB
Chris Armstrong .. .. .. .. ..SB
O. J. Brigance .. .. .. .. ...LB
Robert Clark .. .. .. .. .. ..WR
Robert Drummond .. .. .. .. ..RB
John Earle .. .. .. .. .. .. .OL
Matt Goodwin .. .. .. .. .. ..LB
Tracey Gravely .. .. .. .. ...LB
Carlos Huerta .. .. .. .. .. .PK
Shawn Jones .. .. .. .. .. ...QB
Elfrid Payton .. .. .. .. .. .RE
Mike Pringle .. .. .. .. .. ..RB
Shar Pourdanesh .. .. .. .. ..OT
Peter Tuipulotu .. .. .. .. ..FB
Nick Subis .. .. .. .. .. .. ..C
Alvin Walton .. .. .. .. .. ..LB
Ken Watson .. .. .. .. .. .. .HB