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League made headlines for action off the field in '95

THE BALTIMORE SUN

So what kind of year was it for the NFL?

It might be best summed up by noting that a 26-year-old New Jersey man named Jeffrey Lange got more attention than most of the players when a photographer snapped a picture of him throwing a snowball at Giants Stadium on Dec. 23.

When the Giants put up a $1,000 reward to the first person who identified him, 15 people called and gave his name. His defense is that he is being made a scapegoat and that his snowballs were aimed at other fans who threw at him.

In any case, the incident capped a year in which the NFL had much more action off the field than on it.

It was a year not of Jerry Rice and Emmitt Smith, but of Jerry Jones and Art Modell.

Jones, the Dallas Cowboys owner, caused the league headaches by making too much money with his marketing deals, and Modell's problem was that he couldn't make enough money despite attracting 70,000 fans a game. He started a national uproar by signing a deal to move the Browns to Baltimore.

Jones and Modell also showed the danger of overspending on free agents who didn't have a major impact on their teams with the signings of Deion Sanders and Andre Rison, respectively.

The league seems clueless in trying to find a solution to the problems Jones and Modell have created. It can't reach an agreement with Jones on sharing marketing revenue, so the two sides are in court. It has made no progress on trying to help Cleveland put together a deal to get a new team.

With Cleveland Mayor Michael White scheduled to meet with two committees on Thursday and with the owners scheduled to debate the Browns issue Jan. 17, the matter is on the verge of upstaging the playoffs.

Meanwhile, Jones and Modell became something of an odd couple as they shared the spotlight. Jones is a member of the new guard who fought the TV rebate that Modell, a member of the old guard, negotiated. The result was that Modell was bounced off the TV committee and Jones was put on it. Jones and Modell, though, have one thing in common. They're both their own general managers. They're both fans at heart, and what fan doesn't think he can run a team?

Jones fired Tom Landry and pushed out Jimmy Johnson. Modell fired Paul Brown and came to a parting of the ways with Marty Schottenheimer.

Jones is still on top, although it remains to be seen if his team can stay there without Johnson once Smith, Troy Aikman and Michael Irvin fade from the scene. The Browns were never the same after Modell fired Brown.

Jones has shown he's better than Modell at making money. Now he has to prove over the long haul whether he can be any more successful than Modell -- who's never made it to the Super Bowl -- at running the show.

America's problem

The Browns' move seems to have transcended the sports pages. It now seems to be a metaphor for what's wrong with America these days.

On the op-ed page of the New York Times last Sunday, Thomas Friedman wrote a column on how presidential candidate Pat Buchanan "has diagnosed what's troubling Americans these days."

One example he used was the Browns' move. It came right after the example of AT&T; offering buyouts to 77,800 middle managers.

In USA Today on Thursday, there was an editorial complaining about cities getting empowerment-zone money while they're trying to steal football teams.

It said Baltimore got $100 million in empowerment-zone grants and "suddenly found $175 million in untapped resources for a football stadium." Forget the fact that the stadium bill was passed eight years ago.

The paper, though, did give Maryland Stadium Authority chairman John Moag a chance for a rebuttal, and he pointed out that unless individuals "purchase bonds or play the sports lottery, they will not contribute to the stadium."

The criticism isn't easy for the Modell family. In an interview with a Cleveland reporter last week, Art's wife, Pat Modell, said she would never forgive the personal attacks.

She also said she originally thought she would be able to eventually return to Cleveland, but now doesn't know if that will be possible. And she doesn't know anybody in Baltimore. Of their days in Cleveland, she said, "We may never see that kind of time again."

The shrinking commissioner

This has not been a memorable year for commissioner Paul Tagliabue. The Sporting News dropped him from No. 2 to No. 14 on its list of most influential men in sports because of the turmoil in the league.

A New York columnist noted how the league abandoned Los Angeles and wrote, "The poor guy is facing a future biography that will say, 'was present at the downscaling of the NFL -- the malling of pro football.' "

Then there was the snowball fiasco at Giants Stadium last weekend. The referee threatened to forfeit the game if the fans didn't stop throwing snowballs. They didn't stop, but a forfeit wasn't called. The next day, a league spokesman said the officials aren't empowered to forfeit a game, they can only suspend it. So why did they threaten a forfeit?

The coaching derby

It was no surprise last week that Sam Wyche of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Buddy Ryan of the Arizona Cardinals were fired.

It's probably the end of their coaching careers. Both have had two head coaching jobs. Wyche may go into TV and Ryan will retire to his horse farm in Kentucky.

Avoiding the pink slips were both Shulas, Don in Miami and his son, Dave, in Cincinnati.

Don survived when Denver's victory over Oakland got the Dolphins in the playoffs (even though they barely put up a fight against Buffalo yesterday), and Dave's 7-9 record saved him.

It's possible, though, that Wayne Huizenga wouldn't have fired Don Shula even if the Dolphins hadn't made the playoffs. Since Shula only has one year left on his contract, it would be a lot easier simply not to renew it after next season than to fire him.

A new person on the hot seat is Mike White, coach of the Raiders. Owner Al Davis isn't happy that the team lost six straight to close the season. The real problems in the organization start at the top with Davis, but he's not going to admit that.

In New Orleans, things are on hold. Owner Tom Benson isn't going to meet with coach Jim Mora for another week.

The fate of Browns coach Bill Belichick, who meets with Modell this week, remains unsettled, but Modell isn't likely to make any moves while the team's future is up in the air.

No front-runners have emerged yet for the open jobs. The Bucs would like to get Jimmy Johnson or Steve Spurrier, but probably can't lure either one. In Arizona, owner Bill Bidwill tried to hire Bill Walsh as a general manager, but Walsh wasn't interested.

Bidwill also said he will talk with San Diego Chargers general manager Bobby Beathard and San Francisco 49ers president Carmen Policy.

Staying awake

Running back Tyrone Wheatley, a bust with the Giants as a rookie, had an odd response to reports that he fell asleep at meetings.

"Name one person who hasn't fallen asleep at a meeting," he said. "If anyone tells you they haven't, they're lying."

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