Ask Rice: Free agency doesn't work

April 01, 1992|By Gary Myers | Gary Myers,New York Daily News

Mark Rypien, Super Bowl MVP: three phone calls, no offers. Jerry Rice, best receiver ever: no phone calls, no offers. Cornelius Bennett, best defensive player in the '91 playoffs: no phone calls, no offers.

The NFL's annual embarrassing attempt at restricted free agency ends at midnight tonight along with the Plan B(oring) period. The scorecard for elite players shows, as Ken Staninger, Rypien's agent said, "This really isn't a free-agency system."

The current right-of-first-refusal/compensation program was put into effect in 1977. In 15 years, five players have received offer sheets.

And it appears that either through an out-of-court settlement, or as the result of the McNeil antitrust lawsuit, which is scheduled to begin June 15 in Minneapolis, it is likely that a much more liberal free-agent system will be in place for the class of 1993.

Ten days ago, New Orleans Saints linebacker Pat Swilling signed a very matchable three-year, $5.475-million offer sheet with the Detroit Lions. It was a no-brainer for the Saints to match Monday, even though Swilling becomes the highest-paid defensive player NFL history. He will make about $3 million in 1992, which includes a signing bonus of $1.775 million. The Lions were hoping the 1992 payout and the insertion of a no-trade clause -- prohibiting New Orleans from matching and trading -- might be enough to get them to take the two No. 1 picks. But the Lions

would not guarantee the deal or salaries that would have thrown their own structure out of whack.

The Saints ought to thank the Lions. Swilling's numbers are impressive (a nice raise from his $775,000 base last year) but certainly not outrageous. He gets an average of $300,000 a year more than Reggie White and Lawrence Taylor on deals that were signed a few years ago.

If Swilling hadn't come back with an offer sheet, he certainly would have had a drawn-out negotiation with the Saints. Now, the Saints get Swilling at numbers that could become outdated in a year and they didn't even have to go through the negotiation process.

And when Rickey Jackson or any of the nine Saints who are free agents say, "Where's mine?", GM Jim Finks can say these weren't his numbers, but he had no choice but to match them.

Here's why the NFL system has not been player friendly:

* In the mid-'80s, teams backed off free agency because they were reluctant to give up the two No. 1 picks as compensation. First-rounders were overvalued like Texas real estate. But with long and eventually costly negotiations rendering many No. 1s useless until midseason, the thinking changed. That's why, in the last four years, Wilber Marshall, Bruce Smith, Ray Childress and Swilling received offer sheets. The two No. 1s would have cost the Lions more than Swilling's $1.825 million average.

* So why haven't teams made a run at Rice, Rypien and Bennett, the three other prizes in this free-agent class? They believe their teams will match any offer.

Imagine Rypien, Rice and Bennett on the open market. One would be the first $5 million NFL player.

Instead, Richard Woods, Bennett's agent, gets on the phone once a week with the Buffalo linebacker and tells him no team has called.

"I told Cornelius in advance that I did not think that anybody would make us an offer, so don't be surprised," Woods said.

"Three teams called about Mark," Staninger said. "I got one phone call from each team, but it never got to the point where they submitted a qualifying offer. Obviously, what they were thinking is that the Redskins would match any offer."

Salaries could escalate so quickly in the next year with a new form of free agency that Swilling could be left behind. But he did the smart thing because football is an injury sport and the money was too much to pass up with the possibility of a career ending on one play.

What's the answer for players whose contracts are up this year? One-year contracts, perhaps. Or built-in escalators if free agency arrives. Or hope for a second-look period if free agency arrives this summer.

Can owners handle it financially? They met today in Dallas to discuss whether to cut network partners a break and reduce the 1993 TV payout from $41 million to $34 million for a two-year extension for 1994-95. Indications are the 21 votes needed to pass it are not there and it could be tabled until another meeting.

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