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Original Issue

The League Of the Free

NFL camps open in the first year of free agency with 120 vets having signes on with new teams

No question it would mean the destruction of the NFL as we know it today.
—FRANK ROTHMAN, NFL lawyer, in his closing argument to the jury in the league's 1992 court fight over free agency

Sorry, Frank. It hasn't happened. the NFL's first free-agency period ended on July 15, and a touchdown is still worth six points, Jimmy Johnson's hair is still in place, and George Halas is still lying face-up in his grave. A total of 120 players changed uniforms in this inaugural, 4½-month free-agent derby, and not only is the league alive and well, but it also shows every indication of having been energized. Sorry, Frank, but free agency is great for the league.

During the trial, league executives insisted that the teams in the largest markets would have an unfair advantage in that bidding. That hasn't happened either. Consider that the prize of the whole auction, defensive end Reggie White, left Philadelphia, the nation's fifth-largest city, for Green Bay, the NFL's smallest city. Linebacker Hardy Nickerson, a veteran of six seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers, fielded offers from 20 teams before settling on the Tampa Bay Bucs. Says Nickerson, "The large-market argument was a myth that the owners wanted to present to stop free agency."

A salary cap, set to begin in '94, did serve to discourage the richer teams from stockpiling expensive talent, but the fact is that cable TV has created a global sporting village in which athletes who play in Seattle or Kansas City can be marketed just as successfully as those who toil in New York or Los Angeles. Shaquille O'Neal would not be earning one penny more from Reebok if he jammed in Chicago instead of Orlando.

Some of the neediest teams in the NFL's smallest cities used the new system best. The Atlanta Falcons, the worst defensive team in 1992, signed Pro Bowl defensive end Pierce Holt. Holt, who played five seasons with the San Francisco 49ers, spurned a larger offer from the New York Jets. The Indianapolis Colts grabbed the best available tackle and center, Will Wolford and Kirk Lowdermilk, respectively. The lowly Phoenix Cardinals spread $28 million among six players who might lift the team out of the cellar.

Here is SI's assessment of which teams won, which ones lost and which ones have yet to figure out how to play the free-agency game.

They Led the Way


Says coach Mike Holmgren, "People have told me the huge salaries are going to lead to friction between players. I don't buy it. But I told the team when I met with it this week, 'Some people are going to make more money than you in every walk of life. If that's going to bother you, tell me now. That way I won't have to cut you in the middle of the season. I can do it now.' "

Holmgren and general manager Ron Wolf grabbed hold of free agency and rode it aggressively, getting two players, White and former Miami Dolphin guard Harry Galbreath, who will be around for many years and three others, nosetackle Bill Maas (Kansas City Chiefs), tackle Tunch Ilkin (Pittsburgh) and wideout Mark Clayton (Miami), who are near the ends of their careers.


They worked the system perfectly, outspending all comers in building an offensive line for the future. In March general manager Jim Irsay figured out a way to sign his dream free agent, Wolford, a seven-year veteran of the Buffalo Bills. Why not put a clause in Wolford's offer sheet that Buffalo simply couldn't match? Irsay inserted a provision in the offer stating that Wolford would have to be his team's highest-paid offensive player during the first two years of his three-year contract. The Bills cried foul, because in order to keep Wolford they had to match the best offer made to him. Such a clause would be far more expensive for them than it would be for the Colts. Still, the league approved the contract.

There's a catch, though. In late April the Colts discovered that Wolford's torn left rotator cuff was completely detached from the bone. It was repaired, and doctors told Wolford that he might miss the entire season. Wolford, however, is confident he'll play by October. With Wolford and Lowdermilk protecting moody quarterback Jeff George, currently a holdout, Indy could contend for the division title.


Dan Reeves, who was fired as Denver's coach after last season, says he is shocked by the Broncos' largesse in the free-agent market, given the traditional parsimony of owner Pat Bowlen. So what changed? Why did the Broncos spend $12.5 million in the first two weeks of the free-for-all on former Minnesota Viking guard Brian Habib, tackle Don Maggs (Houston Oilers) and running back Rod Bernstine (San Diego Chargers)? "I knew everyone would stand around for a while and see how the market would develop," says Bowlen, "so we jumped in before the prices got sky-high."

Maggs, who recently underwent back surgery, will be lost until at least October, but the $4.6 million Bowlen laid out for the versatile Bernstine could well turn out to be one of the best bargains around.


"We'll win 10," says wideout acquisition Gary Clark. "I promise you." That would be six more victories than Phoenix had last season, but with the addition of Clark (late of the Washington Redskins), Pro Bowl safety Chuck Cecil (Green Bay) and quarterback Steve Beuerlein (Dallas Cowboys), the Cards should at least be respectable. A lot hinges on whether Clark, an eight-year NFL veteran, has any more 70-catch seasons left in him and whether Beuerlein can be as effective for an entire season as he was playing bits and pieces for Dallas. Phoenix, though, lost one of the game's best safeties when Tim McDonald signed with San Francisco.

They Got Immediate Help


After failing miserably in the White sweepstakes—New York said it wanted him, then didn't call him for the first eight days of free agency—the Giants played catch-up as well as John Elway ever has. New coach Reeves and general manager George Young signed two wideouts, former Cowboy and 49er Mike Sherrard and Mark Jackson, who had been one of Elway's prime targets in Denver. The Giants also got two of the three best inside linebackers in the free-agent pool, Michael Brooks (Denver) and Carlton Bailey (Buffalo), and they kept two of their own free agents, quarterback Phil Simms and linebacker Lawrence Taylor, for twin $2.53 million-a-year contracts.

"This scares me a little bit," says Holt of his new identity as the cornerstone of the Atlanta defense. "In the past I was always 'the underrated Pierce Holt.' Now I've got to live up to this big billing." Coach Jerry Glanville, for one, is not concerned. He thinks he got the best defensive player in the NFC, and he'll feature Holt as an inside pass rusher instead of a typical run stopper.

Owner Art Modell's offer to White wasn't good enough—but that was good for Cleveland. The Browns needed help almost everywhere, and the money that would have gone to White was used to buy several capable players. Houston Hoover, who played in Atlanta for five years, is an underrated guard, Mark Carrier (Tampa Bay) is an adequate starting wideout, and Najee Mustafaa (Minnesota) is a decent corner. And who knows? Maybe quarterback Vinny Testaverde (Tampa Bay) can resurrect his career if Bernie Kosar, who will play with two screws in his right ankle to stabilize a stress fracture, goes down.

Nickerson will anchor a shaky defense, and former Redskin Martin Mayhew will bring playoff experience to one of the corners. The Bucs wisely matched the New England Patriots' offer to center Tony Mayberry. But Tampa Bay did not play the quarterback game well. It sensibly allowed Testaverde to depart and then made an aborted run at Neil O'Donnell, who chose to remain in Pittsburgh. The Bucs had to settle for Mark Vlasic (Kansas City) and will start the season with 39-year-old Steve DeBerg, the oldest player in the NFL, at the helm.

Prediction: Quarterback Dan Marino and Keith Byars, the former Eagle whom Philadelphia moved from running back to tight end last season, will make beautiful music together. At $1.2 million a year, Byars will be one of the big bargains in this lottery and could catch 60 Marino tosses out of the backfield.

They Treaded Water, Which Is Good

They won the Super Bowl, and the best player they lost in free agency, wideout Kelvin Martin, wasn't among their 30 key players. The one player they really pursued, New Orleans Saint kicker Morten Andersen, wanted $1 million a year, so the Cowboys passed.

They lost Bernstine, but they gained an emerging linebacker, former Steeler Jerrol Williams, a four-year veteran they hope will contribute 15 sacks and take some of the burden off fellow linebacker Junior Seau.

They Got Help, but How Much?

12. JETS.
They told Wolford and guard Bill Fralic, who spent last season with the Falcons, that they were high on the team's list if it lost White. New York lost all three. The Jets hope that former Giant Leonard Marshall can be the inside pass-rushing tackle that Dennis Byrd was two years ago, and that Ronnie Lott (Los Angeles Raiders) and Eric Thomas (Cincinnati Bengals) can overcome age and an old knee injury, respectively, to strengthen a needy secondary.

They landed a solid left tackle, Gerald Perry (L.A. Rams), for the bargain-basement price of $1.1 million a year, perhaps because Perry has had legal difficulties. But they didn't get much else in the auction. Isn't a new system like this the kind of thing that Raider boss Al Davis usually capitalizes on? Weren't the Raiders supposed to have sneaked players into hideout hotels on March 1. the opening day of the free-agent bazaar, so no one could find them? Aren't they supposed to be crafty? Instead they signed weak-armed quarterback Jeff Hostetler (Giants) for their deep-passing offense. They also picked up linebacker Joe Kelly. He had spent four years with the Bengals and three with the Jets, two teams that desperately needed help at linebacker, and neither wanted him.

14. RAMS.
In Shane Conlan, formerly of the Bills, L.A. thinks it obtained the classic middle linebacker that it wanted for years. It did.

15. BEARS.
New coach Dave Wannstedt is too smart to be crazy, so we'll have to take his word for it on former Saint Craig (Ironhead) Heyward. "He's the best blocking back I've ever seen," Wannstedt says, "and we're going to give him a role every week so he knows exactly what he's doing. I think in the past that he didn't always know his role." In the past he also had trouble keeping his weight below 280. Stay tuned. Anthony Blaylock (San Diego) was a nice grab at cornerback, and now that raging Mike Ditka is gone from the sideline, we'll see if the re-signed Jim Harbaugh can really play quarterback.

They Thought This Was Plan B

Owner Jim Orthwein wants to build an attractive team so that he can sell it and get on with the business of making St. Louis an NFL expansion town. So how come the best player the Pats signed was special teams ace Reyna Thompson, a former Giant? Orthwein, who is on the board of directors of Anheuser-Busch, ought to know that you've got to spend money to make money.

Jim McMahon the quarterback savior? Give us a break. McMahon, who rode the bench last season with the Eagles, has spent nearly as much time on injured reserve in his 11 seasons as on the field. What's more, the offensive line is a sieve; Minnesota was shortsighted in allowing Lowdermilk and Habib to get away. The Vikings have actually given a job to Izel Jenkins, a cornerback who was burned more often than your backyard grill during his five forgettable years in Philadelphia.

For such an aggressive fellow, CEO Carl Peterson was strangely quiet in free agency. His prize: 33-year-old running back Marcus Allen, who left the Raiders in a huff after 11 years. The other K.C. recruits, offensive linemen Reggie McElroy (Raiders) and Danny Villa (Phoenix), are retreads.

They Treaded Water, Which Is Bad

They lost Heyward, quarterback Bobby Hebert and tackle Stan Brock and signed quarterback Wade Wilson (Atlanta), running back Brad Muster (Chicago) and tackle Tootie Robbins (Green Bay). This was the equivalent of a trade that hurt both teams.

They needed a pass rusher like White or the Saints' Wayne Martin and got neither. They needed to keep linebacker Wilber Marshall but lost him to the Oilers. Marshall will be replaced by former Giant Carl Banks, who never became the dominant player New York thought he would be.

They Got Taken to the Cleaners

21. LIONS.
They were desperate for offensive linemen, but they dawdled before increasing their offer for Galbreath, who signed with Green Bay. Owner William Clay Ford then phoned general manager Chuck Schmidt and blistered him with a stop-fooling-around speech. In the end Detroit got some players—Fralic, former Charger tackle David Richards and former Chief guard Dave Lutz—whom most teams weren't pursuing, and spent $13 million to get them.

They Got Hurt

22. 49ERS.
The impending league-wide salary cap (roughly $30 million per team, beginning in '94) could send San Francisco reeling into mediocrity. The Niners didn't match the offer Holt got from Atlanta, and they didn't want to lock themselves into a four-year deal for White, so they lost the chance they had to sign him. And last Saturday, Jerry Rice, who became the highest-paid receiver in history 11 months ago, said he wanted a huge raise because of quarterback Steve Young's new, $5.35 million-a-year deal. The good news? McDonald could be the impact player San Francisco needs.

Pittsburgh lost two of its best noses for the ball on defense, Nickerson and Williams. The Steelers unwittingly invited offers for O'Donnell by tendering him the minimum contract proposal, then were forced to match Tampa Bay's three-year, $8 million deal to keep him. Pittsburgh hopes that former Ram linebacker Kevin Greene can give the team a couple of good pass-rushing years.

They lost the leader of the defense, White, and Byars, the soul of the offense. Not to mention eight other guys. Philly replaced them with four Pro Bowlers from a bygone era: tight end Mark Bavaro (Browns), safety Erik McMillian (Jets), nosetackle Michael Carter (49ers) and defensive end Tim Harris (49ers), who may still be suspended for violating the league's alcohol policy.

Nobody wants to play in Cincinnati. Quarterback Boomer Esiason fled to the Jets. Local legend tackle Anthony Munoz retired to get out. Good soldier Eric Thomas, who had a traumatic knee reconstruction three years ago, said that he wanted to show loyalty to the Bengals. So what does he do? He follows Esiason to the Jets. Cincinnati will have to take advantage of the forthcoming salary cap to grab premier players who have grown too expensive for teams with large payrolls. "We're going to be sitting there, vulturelike," says general manager Mike Brown. "The worm will turn."

It's hard to sell Seattle to free agents because the team looks so dismal. The Seahawks got a nice third wideout in former Cowboy Kelvin Martin but overpaid for overweight tight end Ferrell Edmunds (Miami).

27. BILLS.
Wolford says in amazement, "I went to them last year and told them, 'Let's do a new deal now.' I just wanted [Washington tackle Jim] Lachey money, not anything like what I got. And they wouldn't do it." Translation: Wolford could have been kept by Buffalo for $1.2 million a year last fall. He'll make $2.55 million a year in Indianapolis. Nose-tackle Jeff Wright would have signed last year for $850,000, but Bill Polian, who was fired as Buffalo's general manager in February, says both negotiations were KO'd by owner Ralph Wilson's financial adviser, Jeff Littmann. With Wolford gone, the Bills had to re-sign Wright at $1.5 million a year. The Bills also lost five other players and much of their depth.

They Napped

They re-signed quarterback Cody Carlson, and Paul Tagliabue had to force them to honor their deal for Marshall. That was the beginning and the end of free agency for this underachieving team, which hasn't advanced beyond the second round of the playoffs in the nine-year Warren Moon era. "We didn't think there was anything out there that could help us," says general manager Mike Holovak. That's the spirit.



Beuerlein (above) gets a chance to play regularly, while McMahon (9) gets a last chance.



[See caption above.]



Hebert (3) gives the Falcons new leadership, while Holt will anchor the Atlanta defense.



Carrier (above) will be on the receiving end for Kosar, who has a leg up on Testaverde (12).



The Jets hope Lott, a veteran of four Super Bowls, can upgrade their defensive backfield.