As salary cap kicks in, veterans kicked out Low price tag beats out experience in teams' efforts to meet payrolls

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Carlos Huerta had worked all week to remove the emotion of the moment. He talked himself through practices. He meditated. He used breathing and visualization techniques.

Still, when the moment arrived Monday night and he jogged onto the turf at Soldier Field with the Chicago Bears, the diminutive kicker no longer could hold back his feelings.

As he joined his new teammates on the sideline, his pulse raced and his eyes glistened with moisture.

"It hit me, for 10 or 15 seconds, how much I had dreamed to be there, not for the Chicago Bears necessarily, but in the NFL," Huerta said later. "After that, I was very focused, very cold."

Playing before a national television audience in the season's opening weekend, Huerta was the most visible symbol of the NFL's evolving salary cap era.

At the age of 27, with two years in the Canadian Football League and two failed NFL tryouts behind him, Huerta beat out 34-year-old veteran Kevin Butler, a man with 243 field goals on his resume.

Butler was the last remaining member of Chicago's 1985 Super Bowl championship team. Huerta was the kicker in the Baltimore Stallions' Grey Cup championship season a year ago.

Cold times, indeed.

This was a recurring scene around the league this summer: high-salaried, veteran kickers displaced by less-expensive, unproven kickers right off someone's practice squad.

The Miami Dolphins traded veteran Pete Stoyanovich to the Kansas City Chiefs for a fifth-round draft pick and turned over the kicking job to Joe Nedney, a gangly 23-year-old who spent three weeks on the team's practice roster last season.

The Oakland Raiders dumped veteran Jeff Jaeger and his $675,000 salary in favor of second-year man Cole Ford, 23, who subbed for an injured Jaeger for five games last year and will make $178,000 this year.

The New England Patriots gave 40-year-old Matt Bahr's job to Adam Vinatieri, 23, a rookie from Division II South Dakota State.

The Washington Redskins cut veteran Eddie Murray, 40, and kept Scott Blanton, 23, who spent all last season on injured reserve with a groin injury.

Those transactions, coupled with Huerta's coronation, are more than a coincidence. In an age when the three-year-old salary cap has inspired new ways of filling rosters, they represent a distinct and clear trend.

"I think a lot of it is cap-related," said John Macik, a North Palm Beach, Fla., agent who represents Bahr. "If you look at what happened overall with veteran kicker salaries the last four years, you'll see it's trickled down.

"Morten Andersen had to take a reduction in salary, and he had a tremendous contract with New Orleans."

Andersen was a cap casualty a year ago when he was cut by the Saints and wound up taking less money with the Atlanta Falcons. Gary Anderson met a similar fate when he balked at an offer from the Pittsburgh Steelers and signed, instead, with the Philadelphia Eagles.

But there is more to the sudden vulnerability of established kickers than mere financial statements or birth certificates.

There is also the Jimmy Johnson influence. It can be seen in the decisions this year by coaches Dave Wannstedt in Chicago and Norv Turner in Washington, both Johnson proteges.

During his five-year run with the Dallas Cowboys, Johnson went through kickers like T-shirts, with an emphasis on inexpensive. He had Roger Ruzek and Luis Zendejas in 1989, Ken Willis the next two years, Lin Elliott in 1992 and Murray in 1993.

"The Cowboys set the tone by bringing in unknown kickers and keeping them on the team at minimum salary," Macik said.

Gil Scott, a Toronto agent who represents Huerta, put the San Francisco 49ers into that cost-efficient equation as well.

"Teams looked at Dallas and their success," said Scott. "And the years they won the Super Bowl, they pretty much paid the minimum for their punter and kicker. San Francisco never had highly-paid guys at that position, either. So teams started looking at that when they were looking for room under the cap."

Johnson is retracing his steps as new coach of the Dolphins. Stoyanovich was a fan favorite in Miami, but Johnson had no qualms about giving the job to Nedney, a left-footed kicker who had missed 13 extra points and 31 field-goal attempts in four years at San Jose State.

"They were nip-and-tuck on field goals [in the preseason], but Joe has been better on kickoffs," Johnson said. "That's ultimately what decided it. . . . Joe has a stronger leg, and that obviously will help us with field position."

Although the Dolphins moved Stoyanovich's big contract, they still are charged $1.305 million in salary cap money this season on his pro-rated signing bonus.

The Chiefs will be charged only $320,000 this year on a contract that runs through 2000. They don't mind the big salary because they see Stoyanovich as the missing piece of their puzzle. He made 14 game-winning or game-tying kicks for the Dolphins. Despite having the best record in the NFL a year ago, the Chiefs lost in the playoffs to the Indianapolis Colts, 10-7, when Elliott -- currently unemployed -- missed three field-goal tries.

Johnson's philosophy on kickers obviously strays from what had been conventional wisdom in the NFL.

"He has said, 'How often is a guy going to come in and win the game with a field goal from over 40 yards?' " said Bob Ackles, director of football operations for the Dolphins. "Not that often.

"Stoyanovich was a very good kicker, but he had done it only once in his seven years here. There are other guys out there who can do the job.

"Jimmy doesn't worry about having any established players, other than [quarterback Dan] Marino. He'd be prepared to make a change at any position at any time if he felt it was better for the team."

In New England, coach Bill Parcells also opted for the stronger, younger and less expensive leg. Bahr, a 17-year veteran, did not attempt a field goal in the preseason, and Vinatieri hit four of six. In Sunday's season-opening loss at Miami, Vinatieri hammered all three of his kickoffs inside the 5-yard line and kicked a 25-yard field goal.

But the move was difficult for Parcells because of Bahr's track record in pressure situations (he made 10 game-winning kicks in his career, and his 42-yarder at the gun against the 49ers sent Parcells' New York Giants to Super Bowl XXV in 1991).

Parcells said Bahr made the pressure kick "better than anyone I've ever seen."

Macik suggested that the salary cap was not the deciding factor because Bahr's pay already had been cut to $275,000 for 1996.

"I'm not so sure Parcells is guiding the boat as he was the year before," Macik said. "I know Parcells and Matt are very good friends. . . . They were willing to give the guy [Vinatieri] a shot. If it doesn't work out the first part of the season, they can always turn to Matt."

After getting cut by the San Diego Chargers (1992) and Houston Oilers (1993), Huerta understands how fragile -- and cold -- the life of an NFL kicker can be.

Once he got a grip on his emotions Monday night, he hit three of four field-goal attempts in a 22-6 romp over the Cowboys. He had been gracious in interviews after beating out Butler, even though the two rarely talked in camp and Butler had openly questioned his ability.

"I feel for him," Huerta said. "He hadn't been cut before. I'd been cut twice. He is an excellent kicker, a talent, and I'm not just saying it. He should be playing for an NFL team. . . . I was a little more gracious, but I had experience in being disappointed."

Huerta also had perspective on why he was in Chicago, after all.

"It's the right place, the right time, the right money, the right coach, the right team," he said. "You need all those things to make it."

Pub Date: 9/06/96

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