This year, changes are the rule

September 02, 1994|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,World Features Syndicate, Inc.Sun Staff Writer

Rarely has an American institution tinkered with a successful product the way the NFL has this year.

As it celebrates its 75th anniversary season, the league seemingly has changed everything but its name. And with the season ready to open Sunday, it hopes that fans won't soon be clamoring for the old NFL.

"The NFL's future promises to be as exciting as its past," said commissioner Paul Tagliabue to promote the beginning of the new year.

That remains to be seen. The one thing that's certain is that it will be different.

The changes -- on and off the field -- have shaken the game to its foundation and given it a new look as dramatic as the "throwback" uniforms the teams will wear the weekend of Sept. 18.

Among other things, the game has a new salary cap, a new television network (goodbye CBS, hello Fox) and a bunch of new rules designed to revive offense, including the two-point conversion.

Even the Super Bowl champion Dallas Cowboys have a new coach (Barry Switzer), after Jimmy Johnson became the first coach to depart after winning back-to-back Super Bowls since Vince Lombardi stepped down after winning the first two Super Bowls.

Lombardi did it because he was worn down by the grind of coaching. Johnson was worn down by the tension of dealing with owner Jerry Jones. Their egos weren't big enough for one team, so Jones paid Johnson $2 million to leave.

The most far-reaching change was the implementation of a salary cap tied to free agency that was part of the collective bargaining agreement hammered out almost two years ago.

Its ramifications were huge and also are being felt in baseball, where the salary cap debate caused the current strike. Baseball owners want a salary cap and the players -- seeing the effects in pro football -- are balking.

The baseball strike is likely to be a positive development for the NFL. This may be the first time since George Halas and a group of buddies founded the league in 1920 that football doesn't have to share the spotlight with baseball in September and October.

The NFL doesn't have to worry about a strike -- except the one that game officials are threatening in midseason. However, the NFL used replacement players in 1987 and will have no problem playing with replacement officials.

Whether free agency and the salary cap are positives for the league is a subject of fierce debate throughout the league.

There was so much complaining by league executives about the effects of the cap -- Charley Casserly, general manager of the Washington Redskins, called his team the "first victim of the salary cap" -- that Tagliabue issued a gag order forbidding league executives from criticizing it.

That hasn't stopped the players from complaining that the cap -- each team is allowed to spend no more than $34.6 million on player salaries -- has forced teams to cut salaries and release players.

Gene Upshaw, the players'union head, argues the agreement was a boon to the players because they're getting 64 percent of the designated gross revenues and free agency for four-year veterans.

Phil Simms would beg to differ.

He became the most dramatic victim of the cap when the New York Giants waived the veteran quarterback in June. Even owner Wellington Mara was in tears when the announcement was made.

Since Simms, 38, was coming off shoulder surgery and his status was uncertain, the Giants couldn't risk paying him $2.5 million.

The cap also strips teams of cohesiveness and chemistry because ofall the switching around.

Buffalo Bills coach Marv Levy, who lost both of his offensive tackles and a cornerback in the past two years because the Bills couldn't afford to keep them, said, "You never replace the players you lose. Even when you bring in a player of equal ability, you lose because he has to learn your system."

Teams have approached the cap in different ways, but one of the most interesting was the one used by the San Francisco 49ers. They sacrificed depth to spend money on keeping their starting unit intact and bring in such big names as Richard Dent and Rickey Jackson.

If the 49ers get hit by a rash of injuries, the strategy could backfire.

"It could all go up in smoke very quickly," said Carmen Policy, president of the 49ers.

When the fans tune in to get a look at the new NFL this Sunday, they'll find another big change.

The NFC games will be on Fox, which paid $1.58 billion to wrest the NFC contract from CBS, which had telecast NFL games for 38 years. The Fox network will lose millions on the deal, but it views the payments as an investment in the future.

For fans with cable TV in metropolitan areas, watching the games on Fox means they only have to make a simple switch of the clicker.

For fans in rural areas, it may mean they can't see the NFC games or not the ones they want to watch.

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