The NFL moves in mysterious ways


July 26, 1998|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

As Baltimore found out when it got snubbed in the 1993 expansion derby, the NFL usually gets what it wants in expansion.

The NFL wanted banker Al Lerner and his billions to be the owner of the Cleveland expansion team, but faced two problems.

Lerner wasn't keen on the idea because of the backlash against him in Cleveland after he helped facilitate the Browns' move to Baltimore. He also wanted the league to come to him and virtually anoint him as the owner.

At the same time, 49ers president Carmen Policy was looking for a job because Eddie DeBartolo was going to fire him if he regained control of the team.

The result was a marriage of convenience.

Television executive Dennis Swanson was the liaison who encouraged Policy to call Lerner. Commissioner Paul Tagliabue gave Lerner a glowing recommendation.

As a result, Policy contacted Lerner and Lerner agreed to bid for the team and let Policy run it. Lerner also gave Policy 10 percent.

All that was left was for the reclusive Lerner to hold what he called "my first, and hopefully last, news conference in the rest of my life" on Thursday.

The point of the news conference was to distance himself from the Baltimore deal that was signed on his plane. He also sat on the dais when the deal was announced.

"The price [for the Cleveland team] is not money. The price is answering these kinds of questions," he said.

The questions were about his involvement in the Baltimore deal, and he did his best to minimize his role. The decision, he said, was not his, but Art Modell's.

"If I'd been hit by a bus at the start of the [1995] season, nothing would have changed," he said.

He added, "I don't feel guilty [that the team moved]. I just feel stupid [that he was on the dais]."

Former quarterback Bernie Kosar, a local favorite fired by Modell in 1993, and Mayor Michael White were on hand to signal to the community that all is forgiven.

"Al Lerner is not guilty of selling out the community. If he's guilty of anything, it's helping out a friend," White said.

The mayor seemed reluctant to mention the friend's name. Most of the time, he simply called him the "former owner."

Of course, Lerner made it clear he's no longer friends with Modell. Being a friend of Modell's is no longer acceptable in Cleveland.

"As time went on, we spoke more and more infrequently. We found ourselves with less and less to talk about," Lerner said.

It has been no secret that there's been a rift between the two, but Modell doesn't want to discuss Lerner.

After giving a "no comment" to three questions about Lerner, Modell said, "Go on to something else."

Modell added, "I have nothing to say about Cleveland."

Modell had hoped brothers Larry and Charles Dolan, along with Don Shula, who are still his friends, would get the franchise.

Instead, Lerner and Policy will get it and Modell will be rubbed out of Cleveland's history like one of those airbrushed Kremlin photos.

49ers' future

When DeBartolo Corp. executive Larry Thrailkill was named interim head of the 49ers after Policy suddenly resigned, he said, "We've got to be one of the most stable organizations in professional football."

In two years, the "stable" 49ers have changed head coaches, offensive coordinators, defensive coordinators and now club presidents.

They've managed to survive the changes so far, but the team is now in limbo.

Nobody knows who'll run it in the future because nobody knows if DeBartolo or his sister, Denise, will be in charge.

DeBartolo's future is up in the air until a grand jury decides whether to indict him in a Louisiana gambling probe.

Dwight Clark, the 49ers' executive vice president/director of football operations, doesn't know where he stands. Clark was originally considered a DeBartolo guy, but he may have become too close to Policy for DeBartolo's tastes.

"When you start thinking about the big picture and what does this mean, it's a little scary," Clark said. "I don't know where I stand with Mr. D."

Since this year's team has been put together, the 49ers can operate on automatic pilot until January, but things are going to get confusing if the grand jury hasn't made a decision on DeBartolo by then.

The franchise six

It's no surprise that all six players with the franchise tag, including Dorsey Levens of Green Bay and Wally Williams of the Ravens, are still refusing to report to camp.

Since the paychecks don't start until the regular season begins, the players can skip camp the way Williams is and then arrive before the first game and start collecting on the guaranteed contract that comes with the franchise tag.

Meanwhile, the players seem to have increased their demands because they have the tag. Defensive tackle Joe Johnson of New Orleans has turned down $21 million for five years. He wants $25 million. Joe Johnson?

In Miami, coach Jimmy Johnson has conducted public negotiations with Tim Bowens, offering the defensive tackle $6 million for two years even though his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, wants one of those $25 million deals.

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