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NFL players are conservative when it comes to football-related issues, according to an SI poll of 617 of the league's veterans. Largely because of statements by leaders of the NFL Players Association, the public perception is that the players oppose random drug testing and that their top priority in negotiations with management is liberalizing free agency. But our survey contradicts that impression. Seventy-two percent of the players polled said that they thought improved benefits, rather than free agency, should be the NFLPA's No. 1 bargaining priority, and 59% said they supported random testing for drugs.

Those views shouldn't be taken to mean there's a revolt brewing against the union. Although the players have gone 26 months without a collective-bargaining agreement with team owners, 68% said that they rated the NFLPA's overall performance as good. And by a 51%-39% margin, players said they approved of the job Gene Upshaw was doing as the union's executive director. "I think your poll shows we're not going to go away and the league's not going to eat us up," says Upshaw. "I think it says the union's doing very well."

In the unscientific survey, which was taken in August and early September, SI asked an average of 23 nonrookie players per team to answer 11 questions about their sport (box, right), three of which directly concerned their views of the performance of the NFLPA. The questions about the union prompted the player representatives of two teams, the Jets and the Giants, to ask their teammates not to respond to the poll, and they complied. Thus 26 of the 28 NFL teams are represented. Here is a further sampling of what we found out:

•The players have mixed views on Upshaw, but they don't blame the NFLPA for the lack of a bargaining agreement. "I think if you'd taken this poll last week, you'd have gotten a different result, because I've visited 10 teams in the last two weeks," said Upshaw last Friday. "I believe the players tell me the truth when I'm alone in rooms with them. They know I'm in there fighting for them." Still, the players are frequently said to be apathetic about union affairs, and Upshaw says, "I don't know how many of the players really know what I do."

•The players are ambivalent about free agency. When Upshaw held private team meetings before calling the 1987 strike, the players voted free agency the No. 1 bargaining issue. Now, after going two years without an agreement and knowing that the latest figures of the NFL Management Council show that the average NFL playing career is only 4.05 years, the players seem to be more benefits conscious. Already the average player's deductible for medical benefits is about $200 a year more than it was before the expiration of the collective-bargaining agreement, and as of this season the teams have cut off their contribution of roughly $10,000 a year toward severance pay for each vested veteran. Those factors may explain why only 19% called free agency the most important issue. 'That really surprises me," says Upshaw. "What that whole question says to me is they don't understand the problem. I don't think they truly understand what they gain with free agency."

But Jack Donlan, executive director of the Management Council says, "This poll is not surprising. What we've heard all along from players and clubs is that free agency isn't the will of the players but of the NFLPA."

•The players are remarkably strong in their support for random drug testing. "Let the public see that 98, 99 percent [of the players] aren't taking drugs," says Packer center James Campen, echoing a sentiment expressed by many of his peers. Even the union seems to be softening its stand. Last Thursday, Upshaw came away from a meeting with a drug-testing firm encouraged that new methods might satisfy the NFLPA's concern over the reliability and security of drug tests. The union has said it doesn't trust the league's present testing system.

The NFL now tests players once a year, in the preseason, with further tests permitted only if a player has already tested positive or if a team can demonstrate reasonable cause for suspicion. The league would like more frequent testing but is prohibited from instituting it by an arbitrator's ruling in 1986. "If that's all that's going to be done, it's a paper tiger," says Falcon linebacker Tim Green, referring to the current once-a-year system. "It's nothing."

•By a 72%-27% margin, the players favor retaining instant replay as an aid to officials. Their support for the system may be even stronger than the owners'.

•The players strongly favor the NFL's plan to create an international league, because it would mean additional jobs.

•Although the players showed no consensus when asked to name the premier offensive player in the game and which coach they would most like to play for, they cited Eagle end Reggie White by a stunning three-to-one margin as the league's best defensive player.

After Sunday's 23-12 defeat of the Bengals, the Colts were 19-14 in the two years since they decided to play for today. In the last 24 months, Indy obtained running back Eric Dickerson from the Rams, linebacker Fredd Young from the Seahawks and linebacker Chip Banks from the Chargers. To get them, the Colts gave up their rights to linebacker Cornelius Bennett; No. 1 draft picks in '88, '89 and '90; and at least two second-rounders. The acquisition of Banks—who came from San Diego on Oct. 17 after missing the first six weeks of the season in drug rehab—is perhaps the strongest indication of Indy's win-now mind-set. Most teams wouldn't have touched Banks, who started Sunday. Here are the particulars of the deal: If he stays drug free until April 10, 1990, and the Colts decide to keep him, Indianapolis will have the choice of sending San Diego a second-round pick in '91 or a third-round pick in '90. If Banks is waived by that date, the Colts will send San Diego a fourth-round pick in '90. "There's no question we're rolling the dice," says Colt general manager Jimmy Irsay. "But to me, the downside isn't that big. If he plays well, it's a great deal for us. If he doesn't, he'll cost us just one of three fourth-round picks we have in 1990."

In Sunday night's conclusion to ESPN's computer-based NFL fantasy series, Dream Season, the 1972 Dolphins will play the '78 Steelers for the mythical title of best team ever. Tight end Jim Mandich is the only guy to have played for both teams. He went to Pittsburgh after Miami waived him in '78. "I have no doubt the Dolphins were superior," says Mandich, now a construction-company executive and sportscaster in Miami. "Those two teams did play, sort of. We went to Pittsburgh in December 1972, and the Steelers' nucleus was in place. They were playing great football. We beat them 21-17." Mandich may think Pittsburgh's nucleus was in place by '72, but Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Mike Webster and Jack Lambert were all two years away from joining the team.... Will Green Bay tackle Tony Mandarich be switched to the defensive line, as some observers have speculated recently? "I don't know where that one came from, but it's absolutely untrue," says Packer coach Lindy Infante.... In 1983, the Broncos obtained the rights to quarterback John Elway from the Colts, but in a sense, the trade still hasn't been completed. Indy received quarterback Mark Herrmann, offensive lineman Chris Hinton and a first-round draft selection in '84 for Elway. The Colts used the pick to get guard Ron Solt, whom they traded last season to Philadelphia for a first-round draft pick in '89—which they used to choose wide receiver Andre Rison—and a fourth-rounder in '90. So it will be at least seven years after the Elway trade before we'll be able to evaluate it fully.... What a Long Strange Season It's Been Dept.: The Dolphins have three guys with more sacks than anyone on the Bears has.

before the game because he'll be thinking about Rodney, Detroit's quarterback.

Eagles at Broncos. In Philadelphia, Wade Phillips, who was the Eagles' defensive coordinator from 1986 through '88, couldn't escape the shadow of coach Buddy Ryan, who dictated Philly's defensive style. So Phillips moved to Denver, where he runs the Broncos' revitalized defense. "Here, we're doing what I want to do," says Phillips. Doing it well, too. Last year Denver allowed 4.6 yards a rush; this season it's yielding 3.6, and the Broncos rank fourth in the NFL in overall defense. Phillips admires Ryan and has brought to Denver some of Ryan's defensive philosophy, including an eight-man line. "From the start, we said, 'We're going to play this defense no matter how the other guys line up,' " says Phillips. "We want to be in control." Sound familiar?

Vikings at Giants. This could be the highest-rated Monday-night game since the unbeaten Bears played in Miami on December 2, 1985. New York and Minnesota both should make the playoffs, and Herschel Walker, who will be returning to the stadium of his first pro team, the USFL New Jersey Generals, will at last be fully integrated into the Viking offensive system.