NFL bids farewell to a year full of bad news

PRO FOOTBALL

January 03, 1993|By VITO STELLINO

The NFL was more than happy to ring out the old year last week. The new one figures to be better simply because things can't get much worse than they were in 1992.

On and off the field, it was a nightmarish year.

For the second straight year, a player was paralyzed in a collision (Dennis Byrd). The season ended with the NFL investigating a charge that a referee, Larry Nemmers, directed a racial epithet at Eric McMillan of the New York Jets, a charge corroborated by a teammate. The AFC failed to produce a credible challenger for the Super Bowl, so there's not much anticipation for the game's showcase event. For the first time since 1972, all the teams from the nation's three largest TV markets -- New York, Los Angeles and Chicago -- failed to make the playoffs.

Meanwhile, off the field, things weren't any better. It was the year of the non-agreement.

At his Super Bowl news conference last January, commissioner Paul Tagliabue said he wanted to delay the start of the Plan B signing 18l

period for a month in hopes of getting a labor settlement. He not only didn't get a settlement, he couldn't even get an agreement to delay the signing period.

During the annual meetings in March, Tagliabue announced that Art Modell, the Cleveland Browns owner who heads the TV committee, had negotiated a two-year extension of the TV contract in exchange for a rebate in 1993. Tagliabue couldn't get 21 votes for the contract, and it was rejected.

He also announced he was in favor of instant replay, but it was tossed out when he couldn't get 21 votes to save it, although the league may be better off without it.

On Dec. 22, Tagliabue made a joint announcement with the NFL Players Association that they had reached a tentative agreement on a new labor deal. That fell apart Wednesday night when Tagliabue couldn't get a four-man majority on the seven-man management council to ratify it.

The deal could be put back together again when federal judge David Doty brings in the two sides Tuesday, but the larger issue is that it's obvious there's nobody in charge in the NFL.

Whether the negotiations are with the players or the TV networks, Tagliabue can't guarantee he can get the owners to approve any deal.

Instead of a league, the NFL is a loose confederacy of 28 fiefdoms all looking out for their own interests.

The problems date to Tagliabue's election in 1989 when a five-man committee unanimously recommended the election of Jim Finks, the general manager of the New Orleans Saints, as commissioner to replace Pete Rozelle. A group of minority owners blocked the election of Finks, not because they disliked him, but because they wanted to demonstrate their power.

The result was that Finks was tossed overboard and Tagliabue elected the commissioner of a divided league. The divisions have grown larger. It has become more and more difficult to get a consensus on any issue.

All of this has ominous overtones for Baltimore's hopes of getting an expansion team. Even if the latest snag on the labor deal is ironed out, 21 owners will have to agree to expand.

Then comes the problem of getting 21 owners to agree on two cities. Each of the five finalists -- Baltimore, St. Louis, Charlotte, N.C., Jacksonville, Fla., and Memphis, Tenn. -- figures to have its group of supporters, so it won't be easy to get a consensus.

It has the makings of another three-ring circus, which is about the way the way the NFL is being run these days. The only problem is it can't find a ringmaster.

Waiting for the judge

The next week or two figures to be a critical point in the five-year labor fight. Either Doty gets the two sides to make a deal or he'll have to make a ruling.

If he has to make a ruling, the two sides could spend a few more years in court, going all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Doty's ruling has to make one side happier than the other, and that side will be in no mood to make a deal.

As it is, the players are in no mood for more talks. They feel they made several critical concessions -- including a salary cap, a franchise player, three exemptions and a reduction in the draft -- to reach a deal that the owners shot down. If the owners aren't ready to take the deal (a signing period doesn't seem to be a big enough issue for them to reject the deal) this week, the two sides also could wind up in court this spring over the draft.

This may be the last chance to get labor peace for a long time.

The playoff picture

The four teams that have byes in the playoffs -- the San Francisco 49ers, the Dallas Cowboys, the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Miami Dolphins -- will be at home and favored next weekend.

If they all go on to the conference championship games, it could indicate the new three-year-old playoff system is weighted too much toward the four division champions with the best records.

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