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Original Issue


Five months removed from his team's exit from last season's
playoffs, less than two months before the start of training
camp, Philadelphia Eagles senior vice president Joe Banner needs
a vacation--badly. Banner, who is in charge of managing the
Eagles' salary cap and contract negotiations, hasn't had a full
week's break since joining the team three years ago. He hopes to
take his wife, Helaine, and their three children to Cape Cod for
the first week of July. "But I won't be able to do that," he
says, "if I haven't signed all of our draft picks."

Welcome to the NFL, a league of uninterrupted activity since the
inception of unfettered free agency in 1993. Thanks to a system
that allows unrestricted free agents to begin testing the market
on Feb. 14, setting in motion a game of musical chairs that
continues until final roster cuts at the end of August, the NFL
off-season has gone the way of the BABY ON BOARD signs: It still
exists, but you have to look very hard to find it.

The music started up again on Sunday when teams, in an effort to
free up salary-cap money to sign draft picks and/or free agents,
began releasing players whose high salaries made them
expendable. Before Sunday the remaining prorated shares of those
players' signing bonuses would have counted against a team's '97
cap figure; releasing the players on June 1 or later allows
clubs to count some of that money against the '98 cap, which
should be higher.

For example, if a player who accepted a four-year contract in
1995 with a $2.8 million signing bonus was waived before June 1,
the remaining $1.4 million of his prorated bonus would have
counted against the '97 cap. By waiting until after June 1, the
team can count $700,000 in '97 and $700,000 in '98.

Confused? So are productive, highly regarded veterans like
former Chicago Bears safety Mark Carrier and former Denver
Broncos wideout Anthony Miller. They were among 10 veterans
immediately released, with at least 25 more--including Arizona
Cardinals linebacker Seth Joyner and Kansas City Chiefs
defensive tackle Dan Saleaumua--expected to be cut in the next
few weeks.

Other prominent players, such as New England Patriots return
specialist and third-down back Dave Meggett, may opt to avoid
the waiver wire by accepting pay cuts. But there could be some
other surprise cap victims in the coming weeks as teams examine
a talent pool that also includes more than 100 unrestricted free
agents, who have been available for the past four months. After
an early wave of high-profile free-agent signings, the process
slowed during April and May to the pace of a Bernie Kosar
scramble as teams waited to see which players would be released
after June 1.

This roster turnover in the middle of the off-season is possible
because, unlike in the NBA or Major League Baseball, the vast
majority of NFL contracts are not guaranteed. NFL teams now woo
players with fat signing bonuses that are paid up front but for
cap purposes are prorated over the life of the deal. This ploy
reduces the impact of a rich contract on a team's cap figure.
The downside for some players with those contracts is that they
are eventually tossed overboard in the weeks leading up to
training camp, when numerous other veterans are still looking
for work, and then they have to accept a contract that pays less
than their previous one.

Take Joyner, who turns 33 in November. In 1994 he signed a
five-year, $14.5 million contract that called for a base salary
of $2.75 million in '97. Joyner has expected for months that he
would be released if he didn't take a substantial pay cut. He
had hoped to hook on with the Green Bay Packers after June 1,
but they went ahead and re-signed linebacker Wayne Simmons in
late May. Now Joyner hopes another team, like the Cincinnati
Bengals, will step up with a sizable offer, but a more likely
scenario is that he'll end up signing an incentive-laden
one-year deal for a base salary near the league minimum
($196,000 for players with three to five years of experience)
with a contender such as the Dallas Cowboys.

This is the NFL's version of bargain-basement shopping, but most
teams will merely browse because they have few cap dollars
available. However, there are a handful of clubs--the Bengals,
the Eagles, the Atlanta Falcons and the Jacksonville
Jaguars--that have significant cap money available, and one of
those, Philadelphia, is counting heavily on picking up players
at reduced rates now that June 1 has passed. "Philadelphia
thinks this is like shopping at a factory-outlet store," agent
Leigh Steinberg says.

"We're looking for what we call incremental upgrades--guys who
can help for maybe a year or two," says Banner, who on Monday
landed free-agent receivers Michael Timpson and Russell Copeland
and also re-signed tight end Jimmie Johnson. "It's not like you
replace a D quality player with an A; it's more like a B-minus
to a B-plus."

As of Sunday, the Eagles had nearly $5 million available under
the cap and expected to sign as many as five players. "We've
been planning for this for two years," Eagles owner Jeff Lurie
says. "We knew that the way other teams were mortgaging their
future, they would be in cap lock by now. And we were planning
for the time when other teams couldn't compete with us [for free
agents]. The smarter teams--and there aren't very many of
them--planned ahead.

"When you see teams giving out huge signing bonuses and long
contracts and spreading the signing bonuses out, that's not
avoiding the cap; that's placing more money against the cap in
future years," says Lurie. "We don't want to pay players who
won't be playing for us during the life of their contracts.
That's a terrible deal for the fans, and it's a terrible deal
for the franchise."

The market is glutted with capable wideouts, even after Miller
agreed to a one-year, $750,000 deal with the Cowboys on Monday,
and even with Alvin Harper expected to be waived by the Tampa
Bay Buccaneers and signed by the Washington Redskins sometime
within the next week. Michael Haynes, Brett Perriman and Andre
Rison are among a large group of accomplished receivers still
looking for work. Last week Rison and Haynes played on the same
team in a pickup basketball game at a suburban Atlanta gym and
discovered that they both have attracted interest from the
Oakland Raiders.

The Raiders were expected to clear some cap room by cutting Jeff
Hostetler, their starting quarterback for most of the past three
seasons; he could be headed to Washington to be Gus Frerotte's
backup. Jim Everett, the quarterback who threw to Haynes when
both played for the New Orleans Saints the past three seasons,
hit the waiver wire; he's expected to sign with the San Diego

As of Monday night a third quarterback who was a starter for
much of last year, Steve Bono, was waiting to receive his
walking papers from Kansas City, an event that carries the same
suspense as the Chicago Bulls' winning the Eastern Conference.
"This one was written a few days before Thanksgiving last year,"
says Ralph Cindrich, Bono's agent. On Nov. 24, Chiefs coach
Marty Schottenheimer yanked Bono from a game against San Diego
and replaced him with Rich Gannon, who was then declared the
starter for the rest of the season (though Bono ended up
starting the regular-season finale because Gannon was injured).
Cindrich says, "There were confidential conversations with Steve
at that time" during which K.C. officials indicated Bono would
be waived in June. "That's utterly ridiculous," Chiefs president
Carl Peterson protests.

Shortly after the season ended, the Chiefs gave permission to
the Packers and the San Francisco 49ers, two teams K.C. knew to
be interested in Bono as a backup, to work out a deal with
Cindrich. In April he negotiated a contract with Green Bay, but
Bono has spent the past two months as Chiefs property, unable
even to study a Packers playbook.

"That's the system, and we all have to live with it," Green Bay
general manager Ron Wolf says. "I don't think teams get too much
help from this June 1 thing. What it does is help you alleviate
some of your problems. We all make mistakes, and this is a way
to cut your losses."

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO After four tumultuous years as a starter with the Raiders, Hostetler was awaiting his pink slip. [Jeff Hostetler throwing pass]

COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER Sent packing by Denver, wideout Miller was quick to catch on with Dallas. [Anthony Miller in game]