In the off-season race to catch the Green Bay Packers, the San Francisco 49ers have taken an early lead over the Dallas Cowboys.
The 49ers and Cowboys had combined to win six of the previous eight Super Bowls, and one -- or both -- has been in every NFC title game but one since 1988 until they both fizzled last January.
They both lost second-round playoff games on the road and sat home while the Packers went on to win the Super Bowl.
That left the 49ers and Cowboys in a reloading mode, and San Francisco overreacted by pushing out coach George Seifert for untested Steve Mariucci.
But the 49ers quickly rebounded and were up to their old salary-cap tricks when they persuaded four veterans to take $3.4 million worth of salary cuts.
Safety Tim McDonald dropped from $2.4 million to $800,000, tackle Harris Barton from $1.75 million to $1 million, tight end Brent Jones from $1.1 million to $600,000 and linebacker Gary Plummer from $1.1 million to $550,000.
The players -- particularly McDonald -- weren't thrilled with the cuts, but they may make them up in playing-time incentives, and they know the market for veteran free agents is tight this year.
In this rent-a-player era, they also like staying in San Francisco.
"Guys like Tim McDonald and myself, we know how good we have it," Plummer said. "[This is] the best organization in football. It really makes it tough, because you'd like to be this tough negotiator, and tell them, 'No.' But I think they also realize you don't want to go anywhere else."
Jones, who never left when the 49ers routinely left him unprotected in the old Plan B free agency system, said: "This team is rare. I think there is a definite loyalty to the organization, [owner] Eddie [DeBartolo] especially. They've always talked about the type of player the 49ers go after. Well, that player isn't necessarily the guy who has to have the most money all the time."
DeBartolo, who said he was "gratified" by the players' response, said, "Obviously, it means a great deal to the organization. Things have changed in the NFL, but I haven't changed my attitude and I haven't changed the way I've tried to operate and treat players."
The salary cap, though, has forced DeBartolo to cut down on some of his lavish spending. After the team's Super Bowl triumph in the 1994 season, the league wouldn't let him take the team on a vacation to Hawaii, the way he had in the past. He settled for a trip to Colorado Springs.
But the 49ers are still good at manipulating the cap. They used the money they saved on the four cuts to grab Kevin Gogan from the Raiders for a $2.6 million signing bonus. He'll step into the starting lineup and stabilize an offensive line that all but got Steve Young killed last year.
Meanwhile, the Cowboys have done nothing to solve their problem at wide receiver. When Michael Irvin and Deion Sanders were injured against Carolina, a frustrated Troy Aikman went to the sidelines and screamed that he needed receivers who could at least run the patterns.
Although Irvin will be back, Sanders is doing his baseball gig again. That means their only wide receivers under contract besides Irvin are Stepfret Williams and Billy Davis. Williams caught one pass last year. Davis has yet to catch his first pass. And the Cowboys are in danger of losing receiver Kevin Williams to his old boss, Jimmy Johnson, in Miami.
It's becoming obvious that there won't be a lot of free-agent movement this year.
Only seven players moved in the first two weeks of free agency, although Ray Buchanan of Indianapolis will be the eighth because the Colts aren't going to match Atlanta's four-year, $13 million offer sheet. They've decided, instead, to sign Seattle's Carlton Gray to a four-year, $9.7 million deal.
It's a buyer's market because most teams don't have much money to spend and they've figured out they're better off re-signing their own players rather than chasing big-money free agents who might not fit well in their systems.
As Bill Tobin, the Indianapolis general manager, said, "There have been a lot of people burned, there's not as much money to go around and a lot of people have learned that just because you pay a player more money doesn't mean he'll play better. He has only one talent level."
The teams are concerned, too, that the cap might not take a big leap next year, even after the new television contracts are negotiated. The NFL Players Association has predicted the cap will go up from this year's $41.4 million figure to $48 million, but the league is predicting it may only go up another $2 million.
It means a lot of players are going to have to lower their sights, and the Ravens should be able to pick up a few bargains because they are $6.3 million under the cap after cutting Eric Turner. By contrast, almost half of the teams are less than $1 million under the cap.
But the Ravens only have 32 players signed, so they still have to be careful because they're being charged more than $7 million of this year's cap for departed players.
They have $6.7 million of that tied up in five departed players -- $3 million for Andre Rison, $1.3 million for Pepper Johnson, $916,700 for Turner, $830,000 for Tony Jones and $750,000 for Leroy Hoard.
Playing it again
The league's competition committee, which met last week in Tampa, Fla., came up with a compromise instant-replay plan that will be presented to the owners at their annual meeting in Palm Desert, Calif., next week.
It will add change-of-possession plays to a league plan that already includes sideline and scoring plays, along with questions on the number of players on the field. It rejected a Redskins proposal that would have included pass-interference plays.
The new plan features a coach's-challenge system similiar to the one used in an experiment during the exhibition season last year.
The league hasn't had replay since 1991, when it was voted out after being used on a year-to-year basis for six years. That system featured an official in the booth who could overturn plays, but it was subject to long delays and communication problems. In the new plan, the referee would overturn calls with the help of a sideline monitor.
The vote is expected to be close because 23 owners must approve it. That means it will take only eight negative votes to block it.
Orlando Pace, the Ohio State offensive tackle, figures to be the second player picked in the draft after quarterback Peyton Manning, assuming Manning passes on his senior year.
But scouts are concerned about Pace's health after questions were raised during his physical at the scouting combine. He reportedly has a stretched posterior cruciate ligament in his right knee and instability in one of his shoulders.
Pace likely will need to have a negative magnetic resonance imaging test if he's to be taken No. 2.
The New Orleans Saints, who have the second pick, already have Willie Roaf at left tackle and could be interested in trading the choice if Pace's stock doesn't drop.
Pub Date: 3/02/97