A Raven Nevermore
Vinny Testaverde is out of a job, his Pro Bowl year a mere memory
There isn't a more telling scene in sports than an athlete's
cleaning out his locker, a ritual that signals a change in--or
an end to--a career. Last month it was 34-year-old Vinny
Testaverde who sat, alone and quiet, emptying his locker inside
the Ravens' training facility in Owings Mills, Md. The veteran
quarterback, who wasn't officially cut until June 2, must have
been thinking about how quickly his fortunes had turned in
A little more than a year ago Testaverde was still basking in
the glow of his first Pro Bowl appearance, after finishing the
1996 season with career highs in yards passing (4,177) and
touchdowns (33). But last year he was back to his old self--a
guy with a cannon arm whose decision-making and leadership
skills were often lacking. With just 2,971 passing yards, 18
touchdowns and 15 interceptions through 13 games, Testaverde was
benched in favor of Eric Zeier. Then on Feb. 14, the Ravens
acquired Jim Harbaugh from the Colts for a couple of draft picks.
Even before Harbaugh's arrival Testaverde knew his days in
Baltimore were numbered. But he wasn't ready to pack it in.
"This has been tough," he said. "I thought I was in a good
situation, but they made a decision, and there's nothing I can
do about it."
Teams wait until after June 1 to cut some players because they
can spread prorated signing bonuses over the next two years. By
waiting to cut Testaverde, who was due to make $12 million in
base salary over the next three seasons, the Ravens were able
to move $2.7 million of his signing bonus to the '99 cap.
Given their shaky quarterback situations, the Bears, Panthers
and Saints are at the top of Testaverde's wish list. Testaverde
would consider a backup role on a playoff contender, but he
prefers to start and says he is willing to wait until late
summer to sign on the chance some team might come up needy. He
also wants a one-year contract, to leave his options open in
'99, a factor that stalled initial talks with one team last
week. "I want a good situation," he says. "Not something I'm
forced into taking."
This all sounds a tad demanding for someone who has produced one
winning season in 11. But after six years and 67 losses in Tampa
and five years marred by franchise upheaval with
Cleveland-Baltimore, he's had his fill of long-term commitments.
Testaverde's supporters say bad teams, and not his career
interception ratio of 4.4 picks for every 100 passes--highest
among active quarterbacks--is to blame for his record.
"Vinny is a victim of the teams he has played for," says one AFC
coach. "He started with a horrible team in Tampa, and he just
couldn't shake that."
Owners Take a Peek Indoors
At the owners' spring meetings in Miami last month, the NFL
amended a bylaw that had prohibited owners from investing in
other professional football leagues. Now, according to the Arena
Football League, as many as 10 NFL owners have shown interest in
indoor franchises, including the Saints' Tom Benson, who last
week was awarded an expansion team for New Orleans. Dallas,
Jacksonville, Kansas City, New England and Oakland are some of
the other NFL clubs exploring the possibility of bringing an
indoor team to their areas.
Benson, who paid $70.2 million for the Saints in 1985, will pay
about $7 million for his Arena team, which is scheduled to begin
play in the spring of either 1999 or 2000. Now in its 12th
season, the Arena league has 14 franchises in cities as large as
New York and Houston and as small as Des Moines and Grand
Rapids, Mich. Since the start of the '97 season, average
attendance has remained steady at better than 10,000, and plans
are to add two franchises each season until the number of teams
Arena commissioner David Baker approached the NFL in April, and
the idea evolved to develop a relationship that would be similar
in some ways to the pro basketball initiative whereby WNBA
franchises have been placed in NBA cities to keep basketball
fans' minds on the game during the NBA off-season.
Huizenga's Favorite Fish
As president of the Dolphins, Eddie Jones must attend regular
meetings with other top executives from the array of companies
and other teams owned by Wayne Huizenga. At these meetings Jones
often bumps into members of the Florida Marlins' front office,
and lately he has followed those encounters with a silent prayer
of thanks. While the World Series champions have been dismantled
in a humiliating fire sale, the Dolphins have enjoyed almost
carte blanche under Huizenga.
"Seeing those guys makes me feel lucky," says Jones. "Our
situation is just the opposite of theirs. Wayne has insisted
from Day One we do everything first-class. Money is not an issue."
It certainly is with the Marlins, who, in preparation for being
sold, have chopped last year's $53 million payroll to $16
million. At the same time, Dolphins coach Jimmy Johnson can
boost his payroll to the 1998 NFL salary-cap limit of $52.3
million and has Huizenga's approval to dole out large signing
bonuses for free agents. While the Marlins pinch pennies,
Dolphins coaches and staff stay in the best hotels and fly in
private jets to scouting combines. Also, the NFL club has spent
close to $3 million upgrading its training facility and video
system and recently plunked down $100,000 on vintage football
photos to decorate the offices.
The reason for the financial disparity is that the Marlins,
despite beating the Cleveland Indians in the World Series, lost
more than $30 million last year, according to Huizenga, while
the Dolphins, who went 9-7 and lost in the first round of the
playoffs, remain profitable. But people close to the owner say
the bottom line isn't the only reason he favors the Dolphins.
The Marlins were strictly a business venture for Huizenga,
whereas the Dolphins are his passion. Apparently, under that
cold-blooded business veneer pumps the heart of a football fan.
Good News, Bad News
Having spent the month of May cramming at his parents' house in
New Orleans, Peyton Manning knew the Colts' playbook nearly as
well as the coaches did when he took part in a minicamp last
week. Quarterbacks coach Bruce Arians estimates that Manning has
already mastered 75% of the offense. Over a 7:30 breakfast at
the team's complex, Manning sounded as if he wouldn't be fazed
if the season opener against the Dolphins were tomorrow. "Chuck
Noll said pressure is something you feel only when you don't
know what you're doing," Manning said. "That says it exactly.
I've always taken a lot of pride in being ready."
Arians, who is also in his first year with the team, says he's
just trying to keep up with Manning. "He's not in awe of the
game," says Arians. "He knows he'll struggle, but he's not
Marshall Faulk, who will be the biggest factor in whether
Manning succeeds early, is having his best off-season in five
years as a Colt. Opponents will blitz regularly, and if Manning
doesn't have a running game, he'll get buried.
So too might Manning's fellow rookie, the Chargers' Ryan Leaf,
especially now that San Diego has parted with its most
productive receiver, Tony Martin. Despite the fact that Martin
caught 238 passes for 3,299 yards and scored 26 touchdowns over
the past three seasons, Chargers coaches and front-office
personnel were doing quiet high fives last week after getting a
1999 second-round draft pick from the Falcons for the wideout.
Martin will be 33 when the season starts and didn't see
eye-to-eye last year with first-year coach Kevin Gilbride.
So here are the wide receivers Leaf is left with: Bryan Still, a
third-year man who is looking for his first touchdown; 5'8"
Charlie Jones, who caught 73 passes in his first two seasons;
Latario Rachal, a rookie free agent in 1997 who played primarily
on special teams; and Mikhael Ricks, a second-round draft pick
out of Stephen F. Austin. Their combined NFL totals: 103
receptions for 1,418 yards and five touchdowns. --Peter King
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH [Vinny Testaverde in game]
COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK Catch this After three productive years, Martin is a Charger no more. [Tony Martin]