More teams will keep caps on in free agency Fiscal responsibility may close some doors on NFL's open market

Pro Football

February 14, 1997|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

Creative accounting is out. Fiscal responsibility is in.

That's the message from NFL executives as they warily prepare for the start of the free-agency signing period today for the fourth season since it was introduced in 1993.

With the salary cap going up only from $40.7 million to $41.454 million and with many teams already saddled with expensive contracts from past years, most appear to be reluctant to pass out huge signing bonuses to free agents.

There's also more emphasis on team chemistry and keeping a squad together.

Although 105 veteran free agents changed teams last year, Bill Kuharich, general manager of the New Orleans Saints, predicted only 45 to 55 will switch this year.

"The trend I'm seeing is that a lot of teams are taking care of their own players," Kuharich said.

Art Modell, owner of the Ravens, said: "People are a little more hesitant than they have been in the past. People have gotten burned, and you're talking to one right now."

Modell was burned two years ago by the $17 million Andre Rison contract that will cost him $3 million against this year's cap even though Rison is long gone.

Last year's version of the Rison deal was the $25 million the New York Jets gave Neil O'Donnell, which included a $7 million signing bonus.

The Jets signed seven free agents to contracts worth more than $70 million and finished 1-15. By contrast, the Green Bay Packers signed one unrestricted free agent, defensive tackle Santana Dotson, and won the Super Bowl.

"Ron [Wolf, general manager] really feels he wants to build a team through draft choices and pick up a couple of free agents here and there," said Packers president Bob Harlan.

"I'm convinced now more than ever that you build through the draft," Modell said.

That doesn't mean that some teams still won't be tempted to spend big bucks in free agency as they sort through the more than 300 players available. The league won't announce the official list until today.

There's also a domino effect when teams replace players they lost in free agency.

George Young, general manager of the New York Giants, who has been criticized for not being aggressive in free agency, sounds skeptical that there'll be a slowdown in the bidding.

"When the fans are all screaming they want new faces and the media is screaming you're not doing anything, what happens?" Young said. "The writers judge you by how many free agents you sign. They have charts on it, and the dunce charts are for the guys who don't sign free agents.

"I don't do too much of it. What you have to do is plug holes. But it's not a panacea."

There are some teams, though, that think they are only a player or two away from a championship and that they can get that

player in free agency.

"If you think you can make a run for it, you probably won't [show fiscal restraint]," Young said. "If you think you can't, you will. The problem is that most everybody thinks they can make a run for it. They start competing and want to go to the Super Bowl and get illogical. Sports is not necessarily a logical business."

Free agency hasn't enabled teams to make dramatic improvements, either. Only 12 of the 30 teams were better in 1996 than the previous season, and only seven got more than one game better.

How this free-agency signing period goes may determine how long the teams continue to operate under the current agreement.

The league already has extended it one year, through 2000, and can extend it another year in December if both sides agree.

But there could be resistance to continuing the agreement if teams continue to pass out huge signing bonuses that defeat the spirit, if not the letter, of the salary cap.

"We want some modifications," Modell said. "We'll see how it works out. I'm sure there'll be a lot of conversation about it at the league meetings next month."

Since 1992, the average team payroll has jumped from $28 million to $47 million, according to the NFL Players Association. Teams are spending more than the cap because of the prorated signing bonuses.

Meanwhile, the spending continues to skyrocket even for players who don't go to free agency. For example, quarterback Scott Mitchell of the Detroit Lions got an $8 million signing bonus in a four-year, $21 million deal to stay with the team. It came on the heels of the $15 million deal Brad Johnson got from the Minnesota Vikings in December. "Frankly, I can't understand some of these contracts," Modell said. "I'm not going to disparage any owner, but some of these contracts being given out are ridiculous."

There are no marquee quarterbacks available to get $8 million signing bonuses (Jeff George doesn't count as an unrestricted free agent, because he was released), but there are players who are likely to draw a lot of interest.

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