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Inside The NFL


Back to Reality
The Rams and Cinderella star Kurt Warner are miles apart on a new

Suddenly, the Kurt Warner story is not so warm, not so fuzzy.
Warner, the Cinderella quarterback who went on to become the
league and Super Bowl MVP last season, could be a holdout when
the Rams report to training camp next month.

A source close to the contract talks between St. Louis and
Warner's agent, Mark Bartelstein, says that the passer is asking
for a signing bonus in excess of $10 million and that the Rams
have no intention of giving him that kind of money after just one
great season. (Another source says Warner wants close to $15
million, or what Cardinals quarterback Jake Plummer got as part
of a four-year, $25 million extension he signed after his second
season, in 1998.)

Fact is, St. Louis doesn't have to shell out that much. While
Warner, who played in the Arena League before catching on with
the Rams, is not under contract, he has no free-agent rights
because he's only a two-year veteran. According to the league's
collective bargaining agreement, a player is eligible for
restricted free agency after three seasons, giving him the
opportunity to solicit offers from other teams, and can become an
unrestricted free agent after his fourth year. Though obligated
to pay Warner only the very mortal sum of $358,000 this season,
St. Louis would like to hammer out a long-term deal.

At week's end the Rams were $1.57 million under the salary cap,
but they hadn't signed any of their seven draft picks. And like
any Super Bowl champ, they have contractual clouds hanging over
their roster. Pro Bowl cornerback Todd Lyght is unsigned. Two of
St. Louis's five best players--wideout Isaac Bruce and 1999 NFL
sack champion Kevin Carter--are eligible for unrestricted free
agency after the 2000 season, as is starting corner Dexter
McCleon. Two other young stars, middle linebacker London Fletcher
and wideout Az Hakim, can become restricted free agents next

Other factors may have an impact on Warner's next contract. Late
last season, when he was playing for the second-year minimum of
$254,000, the Rams paid Warner a $500,000 bonus. Also, St. Louis
has already doled out starter's money to quarterback Trent Green,
who is entering the second year of a four-year, $16.5 million
contract; Green was spectacular during the '99 preseason before
tearing ligaments in his left knee. That opened the door for
Warner, who, after attempting only 11 passes during his first
season in St. Louis, threw for 41 touchdowns and 4,353 yards
while leading the Rams to their first Super Bowl title. Now
Warner wants to be paid like a top-notch quarterback.

"We're in a quandary," says Rams general manager Jay Zygmunt.
"You have to have some respect for the system, and the system
says Kurt owes us two years. If Kurt is as good as they think he
is, as he thinks he is, he's going to get his money. The
question is when."

Counters Bartelstein, "The system never contemplated what Kurt
Warner did. If you are not going to take care of Kurt, who are
you going to take care of? And when?"

On the prospect of holding out of camp, Warner says, "I haven't
even thought about that yet. I'm confident something will get
done before it gets to that point."

In all likelihood he will be in uniform when the Rams open
against the Broncos on Monday night, Sept. 4. But the fairy tale
of the grocery stocker turned Super Bowl hero is about to get a
dose of hard reality.

Strahan's Lost Season
One Giant Eager For a Fresh Start

When Giants veterans gathered for a minicamp last week, left
defensive end Michael Strahan faced his nightmare of a 1999
season for the first time in 2000: He watched film of the
debacle. "I've been wondering how in the world I could have gone
from being a good player to stinking," Strahan said last Friday.
"Then I watched the film. I remembered how teams played me--two
blockers, sometimes three, a guard always looking over to see if
I was free. Plus, I just never felt right."

Also, Strahan's new four-year, $32 million contract had made him
a marked man; he went from 14 sacks in '97 and 15 in '98 to 5
1/2 in '99. His litany of injuries reads like an E.R. report:
hyperextended left elbow, burst bursa sac in right elbow, torn
ligaments in left thumb, torn ligaments in right wrist, sprained
right shoulder, cyst behind left knee. "I hyperextended my elbow
in the first game," Strahan says, "and from that point on, I
never did a bench press. You can't play this position without
strength. I didn't bench-press a pound until a month ago."
To spring the 28-year-old Strahan, the Giants plan to switch him
with right end Cedric Jones at times and run more stunts with
left tackle Christian Peter. "I want to prove this season I'm the
best and most complete defensive end in football," says Strahan,
who two years ago was just that. If he can't, the Giants, 7-9
last year, may be headed for a second straight losing season.

The Coles Contract
Jets Draw Up A Smart Deal

Now we know why the Jets overpaid in signing troubled wide
receiver Laveranues Coles, their third-round draft choice who was
kicked off Florida State's team last October for defrauding a
department store. The 78th pick in the draft, Coles received a
$450,000 signing bonus; last year's 78th pick, wideout Marty
Booker, got $406,000 from the Bears.

It turns out the Jets bought some insurance. According to
language in the contract, Coles must return $100,000 each time
he's found guilty of a crime--or pleads no contest, or is
suspended by the league--during the three-year life of the deal.
"For example," the contract says, "if player is arrested [and is
found guilty] once and suspended by the league once, then player
must immediately repay $200,000 to the club."

Bottom line? By about $25,000, the Jets overpaid for a receiver
with blazing speed whose stock dropped because of his off-field
history. If Coles produces on the field and remains a good
citizen, the Jets will get a nice return on their investment. But
if he runs afoul of the law, the club can cash in its insurance

COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES Despite his league MVP status, Warner is a second-year man with limited contract leverage.

COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON Coles will have to be on his best behavior to keep his entire bonus.


Make no mistake about it: Redskins starting quarterback Brad
Johnson feels the hot breath of pricey free-agent backup Jeff
George on his neck. George was imported by Washington owner
Daniel Snyder because of concerns about Johnson's durability:
Though he didn't miss a start last season, he missed 15 games
total in 1997 and '98 because of injuries. "Brad went through a
period recently that was really hard on him," Washington coach
Norv Turner says of Johnson's reaction to the George signing.
"But I told him, 'You do your job, and he'll never get on the

Of the Redskins' signing thirtysomething veterans Bruce Smith
($25 million over five years) and Deion Sanders (a reported $55
million over seven years), who joined the club on Monday, one
AFC coach says, "There's a reason why the Redskins didn't have
much competition to sign Bruce and Deion. Those guys don't have
much left in their tanks. Daniel Snyder's going to look at his
cap in two or three years and say, 'What have I done?'"...

The Eagles, league leaders in available cap money ($7.59
million) on June 1, want to add an offensive and a defensive
lineman. Look for disappointing 49ers defensive end Gabe Wilkins
to land in Philadelphia....

The buzz from Dick Vermeil's friends in St. Louis is that he may
try to get back into coaching in 2001....

Buccaneers rookie Chris Daniel smacked into fellow wideout
Keyshawn Johnson while the two were running a route during a
minicamp last week; Johnson was forced to the sideline with back
spasms. Asked what it felt like to level Johnson, Daniel said,
"It felt like hitting a lot of money."