PHOENIX -- The confusing saga of the financially troubled New England Patriots took another strange twist last night when the money man behind the St. Louis expansion effort offered to buy the team on an interim basis.
James Busch Orthwein, a member of the board of directors and a major shareholder of Anheuser-Busch, issued a statement in which he offered to buy Victor Kiam's 51-percent interest for "an amount that will provide him with enough cash to satisfy his bank."
Orthwein said he didn't want to own the team indefinitely and said his "primary goal continues to be obtaining an expansion franchise for St. Louis."
He added, "Until St. Louis fields a team, there should be no conflict with league rules. I would anticipate that the league would be flexible due to the unique nature of the situation."
Orthwein said that under his plan, minority owner Fran Murray, another member of the St. Louis group, would concentrate on "finding a buyer who is dedicated to continuing the rebuilding of the Patriots, and keeping the franchise in New England."
Orthwein also said he had loaned "a substantial amount" of money to Murray in July of 1990 and this offer was an attempt to prevent him from being forced to go to court to get the $38 million that Kiam owes him.
Since Florida businessman Malcolm Glazer, who is heading one of the three Baltimore expansion groups, pulled out of negotiations, the league has been unable to find abuyer. The league also has had second thoughts about taking over the team itself.
Although the St. Louis officials see this move as bolstering their expansion hopes, Herbert Belgrad, the head of the Maryland Stadium Authority, said it could help Baltimore because Orthwein couldn't be awarded an expansion team while he owns the Patriots.
Even before the Orthwein offer, the owners were scheduled to tackle the issue of the Patriots today in an attempt to get it resolved.
Meanwhile, the owners began to consider a proposal that the clubs take less money in the final year of the television contract than the league originally negotiated.
The TV networks, which are losing money on the four-year, $3.6 billion contract negotiated in 1989, are supposed to pay each NFL team $34.2 million this year and $39.5 million next year.
The networks want the NFL to accept reduction to $34 million next year and two more years at the same figure. The schedule would remain at 17 weeks with one bye instead of going to the previous plan of an 18-week schedule with two byes.
Art Modell, the Cleveland Browns owner who heads the television committee, and commissioner Paul Tagliabue decided to try to sell the owners on the idea.
Modell outlined the plan yesterday when the meetings opened, but the owners delayed a vote until later in the week. Although the majority of the owners supports the idea -- notably such old-line owners as Ralph Wilson of the Bills and Dan Rooney of the Steelers -- it will take 21 votes to approve the measure.
"It's a very close call," said Joe Browne, the league's director of communications and development.
John Kent Cooke, who is representing his father Jack Kent Cooke and the Redskins at the NFL's annual March meeting, suggested the league was rushing into it and said the owners shouldn't even vote on the matter at this meeting.
"I want to hear all the facts," Cooke said. "I think we should have ample time to have all the facts gathered. We need to know all the ramifications involved."
Norman Braman, the owner of the Philadelphia Eagles, said he was attending a briefing for owners like him who were "confused" about the issue.
Meanwhile, the Baltimore contingent arrived at the meetings yesterday to lobby for an expansion team for the city. Belgrad invited the heads of the three ownership groups -- Glazer, clothing magnate Leonard "Boogie" Weinglass and author Tom Clancy -- to dinner last night.