Teams gamble on free agents, and lose

ON THE NFL

July 14, 1996|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

Buyer beware was the message to NFL teams last week when Eric Green and Andre Rison were sent to the unemployment line on the same day.

Both cases prove how risky it can be to spend big money on free agents.

Just a year ago, Green got a record six-year, $12 million deal for a tight end, and Rison got a record five-year, $17 million deal for a wide receiver.

The Miami Dolphins and the Cleveland Browns both gambled that the players would be the last pieces of a Super Bowl puzzle.

What they overlooked is that top-line players rarely become free agents in the first place. The Dan Marinos, John Elways and Junior Seaus are signed by their own clubs.

If a team isn't willing to keep a front-line player, that's a red flag. It turned out they weren't worth the big contracts.

Green was the same underachieving, injury-prone player in Miami he was in Pittsburgh, missing 39 practices last year, and Rison couldn't click with Vinny Testaverde because he free-lances too much on patterns. His reputation of being late for meetings doesn't endear him to coaches, either.

The minute Jimmy Johnson was hired as the Dolphins coach, it was obvious Green was gone. Johnson doesn't put up with players who miss practices.

Green tried to beat Johnson to the punch by insisting he was injured in minicamp and can't be cut. He'll now file a grievance.

Either way, he won't be back in Miami.

"I didn't want him on our football team," Johnson said. "We did not feel like he warranted the salary he was going to make."

The Rison move was a little more surprising because Ravens coach Ted Marchibroda isn't as outspoken as Johnson is.

It was a similar case, though. A new coach comes in and sees a high-priced player isn't contributing. It was obvious to Marchibroda that Rison wasn't a good fit with Testaverde.

Testaverde may not be the answer, either, unless he's this year's Jim Harbaugh. But there was no point in keeping Rison around at a big salary when the Ravens could find cheaper receivers who could run precise patterns.

Now the two teams have to face the salary-cap ramifications of cutting players a year after they sign big deals.

In Miami, it won't bother Johnson as much because he likes to build with young, cheaper players anyway. But when the Ravens were the Browns, they dug themselves into such a salary-cap hole that it may take them two years to dig their way out.

Now that Rison, Pepper Johnson and Don Griffin have departed, the Ravens have shipped out 19 players since the end of last season -- 13 of whom have signed with other teams -- to stay under the cap.

They're down for $4.5 million next year for departed players and still have some big salary-cap numbers coming up. Testaverde jumps from $1.3 million to $4.6 million next year, and Eric Turner goes from $3.3 million to $3.9 million.

Unless the Testaverde and Turner figures are lowered in 1997, the Ravens will have $13 million committed to Testaverde, Turner and departed players and will have only $27 million for the rest of the team.

Roasting Modell

The ears of Ravens owner Art Modell may be ringing today.

The Cleveland Browns alumni -- Jim Brown, Lou Groza, Dante Lavelli and the rest of the old gang -- will have a reunion at their old training camp site at Hiram College in Ohio. They figure to be roasting Modell.

Just as Baltimore fans have enjoyed the Colts' pratfalls over the years, the fans were chortling in Cleveland last week when Rison was cut.

One Cleveland Plain Dealer columnist wrote, "For Clevelanders, the good news keeps belching out of Baltimore like smoke from David Modell's cigars."

When the new uniforms were unveiled last month and Modell said he had been "saddled" in Cleveland with a name that didn't lend itself to a logo, another columnist wrote:

"Is Baltimore buying this act? Maybe when you've lived through the incredulous days of Bob Irsay, whatever the next owner says sounds like scripture. . . . And day by day, the realization grows clear that Cleveland is lucky he's in Baltimore."

Modell, meanwhile, can't forget Cleveland, either.

"I'm watching the Cleveland situation with passive but great interest," he said. "Very simply put, had the politicians offered me one half of what they gave Paul Tagliabue [for a new Cleveland team], I'd still be in Cleveland."

He then questioned whether Cleveland can sell the $9 million worth of luxury boxes and club seats by next January for the new deal to kick in.

"I don't know whether PSLs will go in Cleveland to existing season-ticket holders who have been there 40 years. I don't know how responsive the Cleveland community will be buying things without knowing what the team will be," Modell said.

Assuming Cleveland does get a team in 1999, that first Ravens-Browns game in Cleveland will be interesting.

It'll be better than the Ravens' visit to Indianapolis because the passion will be much fresher in Cleveland.

Meanwhile, Cleveland still gets all the sympathy from the national pundits who seem to have forgotten Baltimore lost a team, too.

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