PALM DESERT, Calif. -- Al Davis, the managing general partner of the Los Angeles Raiders, thought he'd seen everything in more than three decades in the NFL.
Wednesday at the NFL meetings, he saw something new: The San Francisco 49ers' decision not to match the three-year, $7.5 million offer the Atlanta Falcons made to Pierce Holt.
"You would never have believed a year ago that if the 49ers were faced with a $2.5 million tab -- even though it was guaranteed -- they would pass," Davis said. "To me, it was a new adventure in the world of professional football. It was extraordinary. It was a new beginning for the NFL."
Welcome to the salary cap era in the NFL.
The 49ers were the highest-paying team in the league in the last decade. It's one of the reasons they won four Super Bowls.
That was then. This is now. On Jan. 6, the owners and players agreed to a settlement that gave free agency to players with five years of experience in return for a salary cap once revenues hit 67 percent of the gross revenue.
The result is that the NFL teams have been throwing money around as if they were printing it. Thirty-one players already have changed teams, and two obscure players, Brian Habib ($1.4 million) and Harry Galbreath ($1.55), became the highest-paid offensive linemen in the history of the NFL.
The flip side of the coin is that some teams -- such as the 49erand the Washington Redskins who used to be big spenders -- have become more cautious because they're worried about the cap.
If anybody was more surprised than Davis by the 49ers' decision to pass, it was Holt.
Although he has denied it, NFL sources say Holt was just driving up the price by signing the Atlanta offer. He assumed the 49ers would match it and he'd remain in San Francisco. Once he realized the 49ers weren't going to match the offer, he even checked to find out if he could rescind his decision to sign with Atlanta. He found he couldn't.
That's how upside-down everything is now in the NFL. The 49ers, who passed on Holt because his contract was guaranteed, immediately jumped into the bidding for Reggie White with the money they saved when they passed on Holt.
"It's a new way of trading," Davis said. "It's not trading wit teams. It's like trading with agents. They're taking a salary from their team and they've opened up some room for someone else they have in mind."
They may not get White, but they figured it's worth a shot as long as they don't have to guarantee it. Guaranteed money is now risky because it'll count under the cap even if a player suffers a career-ending injury.
Another team that has done its share of passing is Washington, noted for its free spending.
General manager Charley Casserly said: "What you have is a situation where teams that didn't used to spend money are spending money. Some of them have to [because teams must spend 50 percent of their revenue on players]."
One example is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. They were noted for being frugal, but offered Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Neil O'Donnell an $8.2 million deal. The Steelers have a week to match it.
Meanwhile, Casserly had to pass on four players -- wide receiver Gary Clark, defensive linemen Jumpy Geathers and Fred Stokes and cornerback Martin Mayhew -- because he was concerned about the cap that probably will kick in during the 1994 season.
The next question is whether this is changing the balance of power in the league. Will the Cardinals, who snatched Clark, start to move up while the Redskins start to decline?
Naturally, Joe Bugel, the coach of the Cardinals, says his team -- which hasn't won a playoff game since 1947 -- will see better days.
"I think it sends out a message to just about everybody that we're serious about improving our team," Bugel said of the Clark signing.
But Casserly doesn't think the loss of four players means the Redskins are in trouble. Except for Desmond Howard replacing Clark, the team's offense is intact, he says.
On defense, if he signs Kurt Gouveia, Andre Collins and Danny Copeland, the starting defense that ended last season (when Mayhew was injured) will be intact. The Redskins still may trade Wilber Marshall, but they'd get value for him.
Casserly said his goal is to avoid being forced to dump players because his payroll is too high in 1994 when the cap kicks in.
"We have a real good chance of going into next year without having to dismantle the team," he said.
It's too soon to say how it'll all work out, but Davis -- who opposed free agency -- doesn't like all the player movement.
"The tradition, history and nostalgia may be -- not immediately -- a thing of the past," Davis said.
But even he sees the advantages of the cap.
"I think the game has been preserved. It gives every team an opportunity to compete without going into debt," he said.
Free agents signed
tlanta Falcons E Pierce Holt
DB Melvin Jenkins
Chicago Bears LB Joe Cain
Cleveland Browns G Houston Hoover
Denver Broncos RB Rod Bernstine
T Don Maggs
Green Bay Packers
DE Bill Maas
T Tunch Ilkin
Los Angeles Raiders T Gerald Perry
Los Angeles Rams
T Irv Eatman
Minnesota Vikings QB Jim McMahon
New England Patriots DT Leon Seals
G Steve Trapilo
DE John Washington
DE Aaron Jones
New York Giants LB Carlton Bailey
` New York Jets DB Ronnie Lott
Philadelphia Eagles TE Mark Bavaro
Phoenix Cardinals WR Gary Clark
Pittsburgh Steelers LB Greg Clark
Seattle Seahawks TE Ferrell Edmunds