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Not only did U.S. District Court Judge David Doty rule last week that restrictions binding four free agents to their former teams were illegal, but he also warned NFL owners that any future free-agent restrictions would suffer the same fate as Plan B—which was struck down by a jury verdict in Doty's court in Minneapolis on Sept. 10. So much for the possibility of a Plan C. In a 20-page opinion that accepted every argument made by the four players while rejecting every claim of the owners, Doty ruled that any restrictions on player movement would cause "irreparable harm" to the players because "they suffer irreparable [economic] injury each week" of the season. Free agency is now the law of the NFL land unless through collective bargaining the owners can get the players to accept some restrictions.

Of the four players who remained unsigned throughout the McNeil v. NFL antitrust trial and then won their freedom last week, All-Pro tight end Keith Jackson and defensive end Garin Veris were the most likely to benefit. And on Monday night Jackson announced that he had agreed to a four-year contract with the Dolphins, after Veris signed a two-year deal with the 49ers, worth $1.4 million plus incentives, earlier in the day. Wide receiver Webster Slaughter had a long meeting with the Cardinals on Monday, but running back D.J. Dozier, who has never been a full-time starter in six NFL seasons, is presently playing outfield with the New York Mets.

In trying to block the four players' bid for total free agency, the owners contended that the players could collect money damages as a result of the McNeil verdict. But Doty wrote that money was not enough, because "many of the economic injuries alleged by the players, such as their inability to play for teams that may better utilize their skills, and thus maximize their value, their inability to switch to teams that would allow them to start...or to play on natural grass (which may pro-long a player's career) may be impossible to quantify in monetary terms."

In the meantime, team executives, coaches and players are pondering the effect that imminent free agency will have on the game. Tampa Bay coach Sam Wyche looks on the bright side, believing that free agency could be just the panacea the long-moribund Bucs need. "When you think of all the NFL players from Florida, and all the other ones who would like to live here," Wyche says, "this could be one of the top franchises in the league if free agency comes."

On the other hand, young teams on the rise, like the Cowboys, and older teams that have been hard-line negotiators, like the Oilers, are fretting. Says Dallas quarterback Troy Aikman, "It would be a shame for us to turn around from 1-15 and get to the point where we're contending, and then see free agency demolish what we've built. That could happen."

Houston is a team ripe to be ransacked whenever a free-agency system is put into place. Many Oiler players resent owner Bud Adams's tactics during contract negotiations. For instance, on Sept. 16, safety Bubba McDowell boycotted practice because he said the team had reneged on a promise to keep his salary in line with that of cornerback Cris Dishman.

When the season ends, the contracts of linebacker Al Smith, running back Lorenzo White and wideout Ernest Givins run out, and all of them might stake a claim to enter the $1 million-a-year salary stratum. "Probably 45 to 50 percent of the players here would go elsewhere if they could," McDowell says.


•The Browns (1-3) have gone two games without completing a pass to a wide receiver. They didn't even attempt to throw to a wideout in Sunday's 12-0 loss to the Broncos until 91 seconds remained.

•Steeler kicker Gary Anderson, who missed two PATs in his first 10 seasons, missed two in September.

The punt-return unit of the Cowboys' special teams established its priorities when it blocked the Redskins' first punt for a safety in their 1992 opener. A week later Dallas blocked the Giants' first punt and deflected their second en route to a 34-0 lead. Led by Issiac Holt, who has blocked seven punts in his eight-year NFL career, the return unit torments Dallas special teams coach Joe Avezzano on the sideline, daring him to go for the block by saying things like, "Don't lose your guts, Joe!" But who can fault Avezzano for wanting to set up a return once in a while? After all, Dallas's Kelvin Martin leads the league in punt returns with a 27.5-yard average.


•The Patriots played 170 minutes this season before they ran a play inside the opposition's 20-yard line. The magic moment came in the fourth quarter of Sunday's 41-7 loss to the Bills.

•New England (0-3) has given up 14 sacks and scored 13 points this year. Buffalo (4-0) has yielded five sacks and scored 153 points.

•Early in the third quarter on Sunday, Patriot quarterback Hugh Millen had completed all 14 of his passes, and his team still hadn't scored.


The career of Bengal linebacker Kevin Walker continues lo be a nightmare. A third-round pick in the 1988 draft, Walker is best known as the guy who ended Bo Jackson's football career with a dragging tackle two seasons ago. But Walker also is thought to be one of the few men ever to play pro football on two reconstructed knees. He was doing it this year—after surgery on his left knee in '88 and his right knee in '91—until Sunday, when he tore up the left knee again in Cincinnati's 42-7 loss to the Vikings. He's only 26....

The Chargers (0-4) have thrown for one touchdown and had 11 passes intercepted this season and haven't scored a touchdown in their last 169 offensive plays. Only a month into his first season as an NFL coach, Bobby Ross is blowing his stack at reporters and apologizing to the fans for San Diego's crummy play. "They look like the same old Chargers to me," says former San Diego defensive end Lee Williams, who's now an Oiler....

The second pick in the 1990 draft. Jet running back Blair Thomas, has six NFL touchdowns. Deion Sanders has seven.


Rams at 49ers, Sunday. Six years ago the Oilers and the 49ers nearly made a monster trade involving quarterback Jim Everett, whom Houston had drafted but been unable to sign. San Francisco offered two first-round draft picks, the lower of its two second-round picks in '87 and nosetackle Manu Tuiasosopo for Everett. The Oilers wanted the higher of the Niners' two second-round picks, and San Francisco said no. The next morning Houston sent Everett to the Rams for two first-round selections, a fifth-round pick, guard Kent Hill and defensive end William Fuller. The following spring the Niners sent their lower second-round pick plus a fourth-rounder to the Bucs for another quarterback, Steve Young. Everett and Young will be the starters in Sunday's game.

Aftermath of the Everett sweepstakes: a great nontrade for San Francisco; a great deal for Houston, which drafted wideout Haywood Jeffires and running back Spencer Tillman with two of the Rams' picks and traded the third for defensive end Sean Jones; a lousy deal for Los Angeles, unless Everett, who is 40-44 as the Rams' starter, snaps out of a two-year funk.

This Sunday, when he faces Minnesota's Chris Doleman, Bear left tackle Troy Auzenne will be blocking a player wearing number 56 for the fourth straight week. Pat Swilling of the Saints, Lawrence Taylor of the Giants and Darion Conner of the Falcons preceded Doleman across the line from Auzenne.





The Dolphins grabbed Jackson, the biggest catch of court-ordered free agency.



Ken Norton and the rest of the Cowboys' punt-return unit are coming on with a rush.