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The phone rang in the hotel room of agent Leigh Steinberg late
one night last week during the NFL owners' meeting in Palm
Desert, Calif. Running back Larry Centers, viewed as one of the
most coveted players available when the free-agent signing
period began on Feb. 14, was on the other end of the line.
"Leigh, I just fired my agent [Jeff Irwin], and I want you to
represent me," Centers said. "Things just aren't happening. I'm
not getting any offers."

A Pro Bowl selection the last two seasons, when he also became
the first running back to catch 200 passes in that time span,
Centers had received just one offer when he placed his call to
Steinberg: a three-year, $7.5 million deal from the Cardinals,
the team he played with for the past seven seasons. (He made
$800,000 last year.) "I told Larry there wasn't going to be any
more money out there," Irwin said. Sure enough, Steinberg failed
to drum up any more cash from the two teams that had expressed
an interest in the running back--the Giants and the
Redskins--and last Friday, Centers signed basically the same
contract that Irwin had previously negotiated with the Cardinals.

At week's end three other heralded free agents--Broncos tight
end Shannon Sharpe, Chiefs defensive end Neil Smith and Steelers
cornerback Rod Woodson--were still awaiting their first
big-money offer from a new team. In fact, only four players had
changed addresses at the stars' going rate of $2.5 million or
more per year: quarterback Elvis Grbac, from the 49ers to the
Chiefs for $4.08 million; linebacker Chad Brown, from the
Steelers to the Seahawks for $4 million; linebacker Micheal
Barrow, from the Oilers to the Panthers for $3.75 million; and
cornerback Ray Buchanan, from the Colts to the Falcons for $3.25

In the first month of free agency last year, 19 players moved to
new teams for contracts that averaged $2.5 million or more
annually. That's the kind of movement players expected every
year after unfettered free agency was introduced to the NFL in
1993. There was no salary cap that first year, and the next
three seasons were also lucrative for players because the cap
rose an average of 8.8% per year and teams, particularly
expansion clubs Carolina and Jacksonville, flooded the market
with money. Now just about everyone is snuggled up against the
cap, and when it rose only 1.7% (or $701,000 per club) in '97,
there was no room for most teams to maneuver.

So free agents wait for offers that may never come. As a
transition player, Sharpe is able to negotiate with any team,
but Denver can match any offer he receives in order to keep him.
The Broncos have tendered Sharpe a $1.74 million one-year
contract, slightly more than the required 20% increase over his
1996 salary. But no one has been willing to dangle the standard
$2.5 million in front of the league's premier tight end.

"It's hard to have free agency with a cap," Sharpe said on
Sunday. "It's like if your father said, 'Go buy anything you
want,' and then he gave you $100. You can't do it. We didn't
envision free agency like this. We thought a lot more players
would be moving."

What's worse, even with an anticipated healthy revenue increase
when a new network TV contract is negotiated after this season,
the cap is expected to remain relatively flat in '98 as well.
That's because of a little-known agreement in the labor
settlement that mandates a rebate to each of the 30 teams under
certain conditions. The payback, which is expected to amount to
at least $4 million per team, will come at least in part as
early as next year.

"I think if the players' association doesn't go to
[commissioner] Paul Tagliabue and get a significant [cap]
increase for 1998, this will be the start of a big rift between
management and players," warns Marvin Demoff, Sharpe's agent.


The Raiders were 82-77 in the past decade, and a couple of owner
Al Davis's recent acquisitions ($2.5 million a year for
cornerback Larry Brown in 1996, $1.5 million a year for
wideout-return man Desmond Howard earlier this month) suggest he
has lost some of his football marbles. However, Davis is excited
about the free-agent signings of Howard and quarterback Jeff
George because they signal the return of the vertical passing
offense to Oakland.

In a rare moment of candor, Davis admitted at the owners'
meeting that he never liked the West Coast offense Mike White
installed when he was promoted to coach in 1995. "I was talked
into it," Davis said of White's hiring, "and I was miserable
with that style of football. It's not me." Now wideouts Tim
Brown and James Jett will be taking off downfield, as Cliff
Branch and Fred Biletnikoff did in the Raiders' glory days.

Whether Howard can make a major contribution to that attack is
highly questionable. In five years with the Redskins, the
Jaguars and the Packers--three teams that aren't shy about
throwing the football--he had virtually no impact as a receiver,
with a total of 105 receptions for 1,404 yards and six
touchdowns. He became a hot commodity only after he returned
three punts for touchdowns last season and then made sparkling
returns to help win a divisional playoff game and the Super
Bowl. "Three teams have found out he's not a receiver," says
Packers general manager Ron Wolf. "Now a fourth will. And I told
Al that before he signed him."


Marketing executives marvel at the restraint shown by Packers
coach Mike Holmgren, who has left more than $500,000 in
additional income on the table since Green Bay won the Super
Bowl. Not only has Holmgren turned down $30,000 speeches and
untold autograph shows, he has also canceled his in-season TV
and radio shows. "I guess I'm nuts, huh?" he says.

You decide. The Packers pay Holmgren about $1.5 million annually
just to coach, and he has a big home in Wisconsin and a summer
cabin in California. "There's nothing we need that we don't
have," Holmgren says. "How much can a person want?"

Holmgren made his costly decision last month, following a speech
in Milwaukee, when he had to soothe 15-year-old daughter
Gretchen by cellular phone as he made the two-hour drive home to
Green Bay. "You can't make up time," he recalls thinking, after
he hung up the phone. "That was my last speech."


Some Rams officials aren't unhappy that running back Lawrence
Phillips is serving 30 days in a Lincoln, Neb., jail. Last Dec.
23 in El Monte, Calif., Phillips pleaded no contest to a charge
of driving under the influence--a violation of his probation
stemming from a 1995 no-contest plea to misdemeanor trespassing
and assault charges. Team officials hope that the time spent
behind bars scares Phillips straight.... Even after signing
former Ravens center Steve Everitt (five years, $11.4 million)
and former Cowboys kicker Chris Boniol (four years, $2.45
million), the Eagles still have the lowest 1997 payroll of all
NFL clubs. At week's end Philadelphia was $8.6 million under the
cap, and that means it could make a killing in free agency....
The Seahawks, with the 11th and 12th picks in the April 19
draft, and the Buccaneers, with the eighth and 16th selections,
are looking to deal those picks in an effort to move up even
higher. "We're thinking offense, a big-play guy," says Tampa Bay
coach Tony Dungy said. "But I really like [Florida State
defensive end] Peter Boulware. When I look at him, I see the
speed and explosion of Derrick Thomas." Boulware is projected as
a top-five choice.... In a recent workout by Florida State
players for NFL scouts, the most amazing number was put up by
one of Boulware's teammates, Walter Jones, a 300-pound tackle.
Jones may have vaulted from the mid-to-low first round into the
top 10 by running the 40 in 4.65 seconds, about 1.5 seconds
faster than his previous best.... It's time to put a moratorium
on the tiresome instant-replay debate. The energy spent by
various team officials in an attempt to have the system
reinstated is absurd. After replay proponents failed to get the
required three-quarter majority in a vote of owners last week
(they fell three votes short), it's clear that until there are
ownership changes among the handful of unwavering antireplay
teams, no system will be approved.

COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER Sharpe led all tight ends in catches last year, but the Broncos are the only team to make a run at him. [Shannon Sharpe in game]

COLOR PHOTO: WALTER IOOSS JR. Smith, a five-time Pro Bowl pick, was not chief among coveted free agents. [Neil Smith in game]