Dropped O'Donnell lands on his wallet

On The NFL

July 12, 1998|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

Neil O'Donnell should put a dollar sign instead of a number on the back of his jersey.

O'Donnell will be on his third team in the past four years this fall, but the former Maryland quarterback has a knack for being in the right place at the right time to make a lot of money.

When he left Pittsburgh's Super Bowl team after the 1995 season to sign a five-year, $25 million deal with a Jets team that had just gone 3-13, skeptics argued he'd never last five years in New York to collect all that money.

Sure enough, after two frustrating seasons in New York, he was recently waived by coach Bill Parcells after refusing to take a pay cut. He had earned $11.75 million in two years.

O'Donnell managed to turn that firing into a raise. He got an astounding four-year, $17.25 million deal from the Cincnnati Bengals that includes a $3.75 million signing bonus and a $5.25 million payout this year.

It means he'll make $17 million in three years since throwing two interceptions into Larry Brown's arms in the Super Bowl.

By comparison, Ravens quarterback Jim Harbaugh, who came within a Hail Mary pass of beating O'Donnell and the Steelers in the AFC title game in January 1996, will make $2.5 million this year and $11.75 million from 1996 to '98.

O'Donnell also tops Dallas' Troy Aikman's $14.7 million in earnings those three years and is only $3.3 million behind the $20.3 million Green Bay's Brett Favre is making from 1996 to '98.

It could be argued that no player has ever made so much for doing so little. O'Donnell played in only six games during the Jets' 1-15 season in 1996, and his quarterback rating of 80.3 ranked 14th in the league last year.

But there always seems to be a team willing to throw more money at O'Donnell. The Bengals have lost confidence in Jeff Blake and were willing to get O'Donnell at virtually any cost.

Coach Bruce Coslet said Blake has the edge, especially if he plays the way he did in 1996 before giving way to Boomer Esiason last year.

"I told Neil it's going to be an uphill battle," Coslet said.

Bonanza

Flunking an NCAA steroids test at Navy has turned into a windfall for offensive lineman Mike Wahle.

After flunking the test, he was dismissed from the team. He resigned from the academy and was taken in the second round of last week's supplemental draft by the Green Bay Packers.

That means he'll earn more than $1 million the next three years and could well play in a Super Bowl or two.

If he'd passed that test, he would have played at Navy this fall and then would have had at least a two-year military obligation that would have kept him out of the NFL until 2001. He'll now probably have to pay the Navy the cost of his three years of schooling, but he'll easily be able to afford that.

Ron Wolf, the Green Bay general manager, said he's not worried about Wahle's failed test.

"He's had [subsequent] examinations under much stricter guidelines than the NCAA's, and he's passed them all," said Wolf. "We think he can play and we demonstrated our belief in him where we selected him."

Deadline

When the owners and players were hammering out the free-agency agreement, one of the last sticking points was when to end the signing period. The players wanted it to be as late as possible to give them more time to shop their wares. They finally agreed on July 15 as the deadline.

What they didn't realize was that all the big deals would be signed early, so Wednesday's deadline will go virtually unnoticed.

There are 109 unrestricted free agents who changed teams, and that number isn't expected to change much by the deadline.

Atlanta and Carolina lead with eight new players, although one player the Falcons signed, quarterback Mark Rypien, may retire because of illness in his family.

Six teams, including the Ravens, signed just one. The other five are the Bengals, Cowboys, Jaguars, Chiefs and Buccaneers.

The only unrestricted free agent the Ravens signed was fullback Roosevelt Potts. The league doesn't count cornerback Rod Woodson because he'd been waived by the San Francisco 49ers.

Noting they traded for Harbaugh and Errict Rhett, Ozzie Newsome, the team's vice president of player personnel, said the team was following its "right player, right price" philosophy in signing only one player.

"If it's a good player at a good price, we will nab the player. The worst thing you can do is overpay someone, and we have done that [in the past]," Newsome said.

Franchise players

Another facet of the deal that's not working the way it was designed is the franchise designation, in which a player gets the average salary for the top five players at his position.

There are six players, including Wally Williams of the Ravens and Dorsey Levens of the Packers, with the tag, and they are all balking at playing for the franchise number. They want long-term deals instead.

But Ravens owner Art Modell said he has no apologizes for paying Williams $3 million this year.

"It's no secret he's going from $900,000 to $3 million. It's not exactly a case of destitution," Modell said.

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