Tagliabue closed the annual owners' meetings yesterday by announcing he's going to the NFL Players Association with a plan to take some of the money in the rookie salary pool and put it in a performance-based incentive program for rookies.
"We want to reward players like Curtis Martin, Errict Rhett and Terrell Davis," he said of the three low-round draft picks who had an immediate impact on their teams.
That would cut down on the huge signing bonuses paid out to the first few players selected.
Tagliabue singled out Heath Shuler of the Washington Redskins, the third player selected in the 1994 draft, as a player who never lived up to his contract.
"Look at the Redskins' decision on Heath Shuler," he said. "Nineteen million dollars for somebody who didn't play. That's real money. It begins to add up after a while. Now the players are seeing $19 million going to someone who isn't playing and $336,000 going to Errict Rhett, who is playing. There's got to be a better way to do it."
Although Shuler's contract called for $19 million, that was a paper figure to spread out his $5 million signing bonus. He made $8.5 million in his first three years even though he lost his job to Gus Frerotte, who played three years for the minimum salary.
Rhett had a $336,000 contract last year with Tampa Bay and sat out half the season in an attempt to upgrade it.
Meanwhile, rookie contracts keep escalating, even in the three years since Shuler signed.
The Ravens paid Jonathan Ogden, the fourth player picked last year, $7.5 million in first-year compensation, including a $6.8 million signing bonus.
David Modell, the son of owner Art Modell, who negotiated the Ogden deal, concedes he got flak from the league for that contract, but said it was a special situation because the Ravens didn't want their first draft pick holding out in their first season in a new town.
It turned out Ogden is a future Pro Bowler so he's earning the money, but Tagliabue's system would prevent top players from getting that much without producing.
When Tagliabue was asked how Manning could be affected by such a system that cut down on the big contracts for top picks, he said, "Would he be impacted big-time? He might be. It depends on what kind of a player he is. [Mark] Brunell [Jacksonville quarterback] would have been a winner under this system."
He added, "That's the beauty of the [proposed] system. You're actually paying players on how they perform in the NFL, not on the basis of scouting reports and expectations that don't materialize."
Getting the NFL Players Association to agree to such a system may be a tough sell, however.
Although Tagliabue said that Gene Upshaw, the head of the NFLPA is "sympathetic" to the concept, Doug Allen, assistant executive director, sounded wary.
"They have indicated they have some concerns," Allen said. "The Players Association has not agreed to anything at this point. We're listening and considering what they're saying, but there's some real distance between us in the way we view these issues."
Tagliabue said: "This is the type of thing you're not going to do overnight. It's got to be phased in. You might start out with one concept with the understanding that you're going to review it after two years and fine-tune it or pull the plug on it. It's obviously got to be a transitional thing.
"But when you wind up with so many players playing at the minimum, this type of thing avoids that. The guy who might be signed at the minimum all of a sudden might be getting 6, 7, $800,000 [if he plays well]."
The rookie minimum is currently $131,000.
Tagliabue is also concerned that on most teams, 10 percent of the players make 75 percent of the money. It may be difficult to change that without some kind of a cap on signing bonuses and the NFLPA isn't likely to agree to that.
Overall, Tagliabue lauded the state of the game.
"The game is phenomenal right now," he said. "Whatever economic problems there are with free agency, competition has been great around the league."
He said there's much harmony even though the Raiders are suing the league, but he brushed that off by saying the Raiders had "opted out of the league."
Of course, there are a lot of storm clouds on the horizon. Attendance and TV ratings were down last year and franchise free agency has turned off some fans.
A lot of teams -- including Seattle, New England, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Denver, Minneapolis, Chicago, Arizona, Philadelphia, Indianapolis and San Francisco -- have stadium problems.
The teams with stadium problems have revenue problems. Dan Rooney, the owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers, who doesn't want to threaten to move, said if the Steelers don't get a new stadium they face the prospect of "going out of business." It's hard to imagine that happening, but it shows teams without enough premium seats lag in revenue.
Even teams with newer stadium aren't immune if they have problems selling tickets. The Atlanta Falcons project they could lose up to $10 million this year if their sales don't improve.
The league also faces lawsuits from the city of St. Louis over the relocation fee and from Fran Murray, the former Patriots minority owner who says he was illegally forced out.
But Tagliabue will worry about all those problems at a later date.
For now, he said, as he ended the meetings, "It's time to play tennis."
Pub Date: 3/14/97