The Washington Redskins are the NFL's best football team, but their real game seems to be Moneyball.
As the Redskins attempt to become the second team since 1979 to repeat, the real theme for this season seems to be the Dash for Cash.
Owner Jack Kent Cooke has set the tone. Since the end of last year, he has raised ticket prices $5 across the board for the second straight year, and he has switched radio stations, even though the new one isn't on the air yet.
He also was one of the owners who shot down the plan to give the TV networks an $8.5 million rebate next year in exchange for a two-year extension. When the owners did vote a $1 million rebate to keep the 17-week schedule, the Redskins were one of two teams (the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were the other) that voted no.
Now, Cooke wants the D.C. Armory Board to give him a $900,000 break on his lease, even though he's threatening to build a stadium in Virginia. If Cooke doesn't get the break, he's threatening not to play his games at RFK Stadium this season.
The one flaw in this threat is that there's no other stadium in Washington. Cooke has floated the idea of playing at Memorial Stadium, but nobody is taking that idea seriously.
Meanwhile, the players, who gathered at Redskin Park for mini-camp Friday, are on the verge of doing some hardball negotiating.
Cooke has been spoiled because general manager Bobby Beathard usually didn't draft players on the first round and coach Joe Gibbs was successful with so many no-name players. Gibbs won the Super Bowl last year without having a player among the NFL's 25 highest-paid.
That's going to change this year. The Redskins traded up to get Heisman Trophy winner Desmond Howard with the fifth pick in the draft, and Howard is going to want a bundle of cash. Then there's quarterback Mark Rypien, whose agent, Ken Staninger, said Rypien would be worth $8 million a year if the NFL had free agency.
You can bet Rypien will want to top Dan Marino's $4.43 million salary and become the highest-paid player in the league.
Then there's Darrell Green, who will want to become the highest-paid defensive player in the league, and Jim Lachey, who will want to become the highest-paid offensive lineman in the league.
They are among the unsigned. Then there are those such as Gary Clark and Wilber Marshall, who have a year left on their contracts, but have said it's time to renegotiate.
Clark said he will settle for being among the top five highest-paid wide receivers and recently said: "I think management knows the players will have some bitterness if they don't take care of the players who got them where they want to go."
Cooke is not likely to be amused by all this. Remember, this is the owner who let Hall of Famer John Riggins sit out the 1980 season in a contract dispute.
Cooke lets Gibbs spend money to stockpile players on the injured reserve list and bring in Plan B players, but he watches the payroll closely. In Evan Thomas' biography of the late Edward Bennett Williams, "The Man To See," Beathard, who was hired by Williams as Redskins general manager, is quoted as saying: "Williams was first-class. Cooke was nickel-and-dime cheap."
The man caught in the middle this year will be Gibbs. He doesn't handle negotiations, but he's the man the players talk to.
Gibbs even could laugh last week when he was asked if Howard's big rookie contract will cause problems with the veterans. Gibbs will have so many problems that one more won't make any difference.
"I've quit worrying about it," Gibbs said, with a smile. "I took two weeks off after the Super Bowl, and I came back in here and everybody who came in the door was mad. There wasn't a guy who came back there who got paid enough, who had enough bonus [money]. Everybody was upset. I figure, 'Go ahead, draft whoever you want. Nobody is happy, anyway.' "
Gibbs can laugh about it now. It may not seem so funny in Carlisle, Pa., this summer.
Was the price right?: The Redskins got the glamour player of the draft when they traded up to get Howard, but it's difficult to tell if they paid too high a price for him by trading away their second first-round choice.
In the first place, they might have gotten Howard with the sixth pick. Although the Redskins were convinced the Green Bay Packers were going to take Howard, the Packers also liked cornerback Terrell Buckley. Because teams routinely try to disguise their real intentions -- Diogenes would not be welcome in any NFL draft room -- nobody really knows whether the Packers would have taken Howard.
Even if they had, the Redskins could have drafted tight end Derek Brown, who was taken by the New York Giants, and gotten a cornerback at the end of the first round.
Because the Redskins didn't get a cornerback high in the draft, assistant coach Richie Petitbon will spend another season trying to hide Martin Mayhew in the secondary.