Free agency can mean reversal of fortune

ON THE NFL

December 01, 1996|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

It's just a coincidence that Neil O'Donnell is returning to the New York Jets' starting lineup after a six-week absence the same week Jerome Bettis qualified for free agency by surpassing the 1,200-yard mark for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

But O'Donnell and Bettis have something in common.

O'Donnell was the Steelers' most coveted free agent last year. Bettis will be their most coveted free agent this year.

O'Donnell departed Pittsburgh for a $25 million deal that including a $7 million signing bonus.

He left behind a Steelers deal for slightly less than $20 million that included a $4 million signing bonus.

Although the Steelers' offer would have left O'Donnell set for life, it's not surprising he left for an even bigger offer. Players usually go for the gold.

Yet the fate of the Maryland quarterback is a cautionary tale about how free agency can be a two-edged sword for players.

If O'Donnell had stayed, he'd be in Baltimore today leading a Steelers team that seems to be heading toward a Jan. 12 date in Denver in the AFC title game and a shot at another Super Bowl.

Instead, he sat out six weeks with a shoulder separation and will be quarterback for the 1-11 Jets against the Houston Oilers today.

"We're not proud of 1-11," O'Donnell said last week. "I went from a Super Bowl team to 1-11, so I'm not too happy myself. It's been a frustrating year, but there are four more games left to try to

accomplish something."

What he won't accomplish is making a run at the Super Bowl.

Bettis, meanwhile, will be facing the same question this off-season that O'Donnell faced last year.

The Steelers likely will offer him a multimillion-dollar deal that would leave him set for life. But it's also likely he can get more elsewhere.

That's because the Steelers are one of the few teams that actually operates by the salary cap deal that the owners originally thought they negotiated before the agents found all the loopholes in it. They're not going to mortgage the future for one player and they don't believe in going into debt.

They win by coaching well, drafting well and plugging in new players when they suffer losses.

For his part, Bettis seems to understand how good he has it in Pittsburgh running behind the Steelers' big offensive line on a team that lives by the run. He was in a bad situation with the St. Louis Rams a year ago and he knows how the other half lives.

"I think if you look at it just for the money, you could put yourself in a bad situation," he said.

When asked about O'Donnell's decision, he said: "A running back is a little bit different. I can't just go out there and get the most money. I may not be in a system that really fits me."

Davis speaks out

Al Davis, the embattled owner of the Oakland Raiders, conducted a rare 90-minute news conference last week in which his ramblings resembled Humphrey Bogart playing Captain Queeg. All that was missing was Davis asking who ate the strawberries.

Instead, he was asking why permanent seat licenses aren't selling and took no blame for the problem.

"I was greatly concerned that Oakland couldn't handle this deal economically," he said.

If that's true, he shouldn't have gone back to Oakland.

They needed to sell 45,000 PSLs to finance a $197 million renovation of the Oakland Coliseum but have sold only 35,000, and the renovation is running $29 million over projections.

"I was told there was no way we could not sell out," Davis said.

If they can't sell them, taxpayers will have to make up the shortfall.

L But Davis said it's still a good deal for Oakland taxpayers.

"They have profited because [without the Raiders deal] they wouldn't have had the money for [improvements for] the A's," he said.

He also had an explanation for why the Raiders have won only two playoff games since 1983.

"The Raiders never get a chance to recycle or rebuild. There is no other team in pro sports that has to win every year," he said.

Davis didn't identify the people who are stopping him from rebuilding.

Meanwhile, a civil grand jury in Oakland is investigating the deal, but Alameda County supervisor Gail Steele says she knows the conclusion that will be found.

"I'm sure they think they're going to find a big scandal, when what they probably will find is incompetence," she said.

Davis wouldn't comment on reports that Oakland would like to renegotiate the deal.

The Irsay saga

Bob Irsay as a nice guy. Now that's a concept Baltimore fans may have trouble accepting.

But according to his second wife, Nancy, the Colts' owner, who suffered a stroke last year, arranged for a jeweler to visit his estate before their seventh wedding anniversary June 17.

He picked out jewels costing $104,035 and presented them to her at a party where Indiana governor Evan Bayh was among the guests. Irsay, who has trouble speaking, spent weeks memorizing a brief speech with the help of his nurse.

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