Change quick out of league's backfield Free agency, expansion lend new look to game

September 05, 1993|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,Staff Writer

The NFL is right in tune with the president. It is selling change this year.

As the league prepared to kick off its 74th season today, commissioner Paul Tagliabue said last week, "I've called this year a season of firsts.

"We have our first national kickoff weekend celebration on the Washington Mall," Tagliabue said. "We have our new free agency rules. We have two rookie quarterbacks [Drew Bledsoe and Rick Mirer] opening the season as starters for the first time in two decades. We have our first Super Bowl in Atlanta, and expansion for the first time since 1976."

That last change is the one that matters most to Baltimore fans.

The NFL is scheduled to add two new teams next month to play in 1995. The expansion finalists besides Baltimore are St. Louis, Charlotte, N.C., Memphis, Tenn., and Jacksonville, Fla.

For the first time since the moving trucks rolled out of Owings Mills nine years, five months and eight days ago (not that anybody is counting) on March 28, 1984, Baltimore is in striking distance of getting back in the league.

And the league is getting back its focus after the owners and players finally ended their long labor war and agreed to a seven-year deal.

"It was a welcome departure from a year when I spent a good deal of the summer on a hard bench in a federal courtroom in Minneapolis," said Tagliabue, who spent this summer visiting training camps.

The new deal could very well turn the NFL upside down.

"This is the biggest change since I've been connected with the league," said New York Giants general manager George Young, who has been in pro football for almost a quarter of a century.

The players got free agency after four years of service in exchange for a salary cap that likely will end the domination of the free-spending teams such as the San Francisco 49ers and the Washington Redskins.

"I think the league is going to be well-balanced for the next half-dozen years or more," said general manager Mike Brown of the Cincinnati Bengals, who have the lowest payroll in the league. "No team or group of rich teams can come in and take a disproportionate number of the very best players. Teams are all going to be paying more or less the same amount, and that should mean we will all have competitive talent on our teams."

The 49ers and the Redskins, who have the top two player payrolls in the league and have combined to win seven Super Bowls since 1981, will have to pare their payrolls under the cap.

All that won't happen, though, until the cap kicks in next year.

That's why it's almost appropriate that the 49ers and the Redskins appear to have the best chance of winning the Super Bowl this year.

That's assuming that the defending champion Dallas Cowboys have the usual problems that plague Super Bowl champions. The holdout of Emmitt Smith could be a bad omen for the Cowboys.

Whether all this change is going to be a plus or a minus for the NFL is a matter of debate.

Although it could lead to more wide-open races, the NFL has done well featuring a small number of glamour teams on national TV.

The Redskins, for example, play six of their 16 games on national TV -- three Monday night games, a Sunday night cable game, a Saturday night and a New Year's Eve Friday special.

If the Redskins are sapped by a new system and become less of an attraction, the NFL has to hope that different teams can fill the void.

Baltimore fans will be interested in the belief that expansion teams could get good in a hurry because they'll start off with a low payroll and will have a lot of money to spend.

"They could buy the best quarterback one year and the best running back the next," said one owner.

Although the new deal will lead to huge salaries for superstars, it's still unclear whether it's good for the rank-and-file players.

Redskins tight end Terry Orr said he thinks a lot of players don't understand the ramifications of the deal.

"It's an egotistical thing," he said. "Everybody thinks they're worth more than what they're getting paid, and everybody says when my contract is up, I'm going to get a chance to be out there on the free market and do a bunch of things, but it's not going to be that way. This year, you didn't have a limited amount of dollars to deal with. You're going to have a limited amount [next year]."

But this year, the most talked about change has nothing to do with free agency.

It's a familiar story of a veteran who was injured and lost his job and had to move on to get a starting job.

The veteran happens to be Joe Montana, the best quarterback of his time and maybe of all time.

After missing all but one half of the last two seasons with an arm injury, Montana lost the starting job with the San Francisco 49ers to Steve Young.

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