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NFL Could Have a Lively Ball of Its Own Unless It Strikes Out

July 28, 1987|GARY POMERANTZ | Washington Post

Lift the lid on the National Football League's 68th season, which five teams did last week with the opening of training camp, and you'll see a kaleidoscope of colorful characters and some prickly possibilities.

This includes the most deflating possibility of all--a players' strike.

Go ahead, take a peek. There's Vinny, Bo and The Boz, a new network that joins the television crew (cable's ESPN) and an estimated 200 players on summer camp rosters who, at one time or another, played in the USFL.

There's more protection for quarterbacks, a one-year reprieve for the instant replay and the first testing of players for steroid use in league history.

There's a new stadium and an underdog status for Don Shula of Miami, a coach known for making losing unbearable for his players.

The bottomed-out Raiders (8-8) have been slyly plucking every available gem in sight in the off-season, from St. Louis (cornerback Lionel Washington), from Green Bay (wide receiver James Lofton), from Canada (wide receiver Mervyn Fernandez) and even from major-league baseball (running back Bo Jackson). Now if the Raiders only had a quarterback.

There's the reassurance in Dallas that Coach Tom Landry, who is a fit 62 going on 40, has been contracted to stay around for three more years. Landry will try to keep the dried-up Cowboys (7-9) from going the way of the oil business or, worse still, the way of the Houston Oilers.

There's a resolute hope in Chicago that the body of Jim McMahon, Honda's favorite punky quarterback, will hold up for an entire season, just this once. In Seattle, the Seahawks' Steve Largent, a veritable Fred Astaire with pads and cleats, prepares to break Charlie Joiner's NFL pass-catching record.

Meanwhile, they're willing to bet you 50 pounds of biscuits in the Dawg Pound in Cleveland that Bernie Kosar is better than Boomer Esiason and that the Browns will make up the 98 yards (which Denver's John Elway traversed in a blink) that separated them from Super Bowl XXI.

On a different level, Frank Gansz (Kansas City Chiefs), Marion Campbell (Atlanta Falcons) and Ray Perkins (Tampa Bay Buccaneers) try to prove that a new head coach can mean a new direction for teams that have a propensity for finding dead ends.

And as always, there is another defending league champion that heartily insists its ego doesn't resemble the name stamped on its helmet: the New York Giants. The media Monsters of the Meadowlands will come to camp under a microscope replete with six new books hot off the presses and a wide receiver, former Navy man and Super Bowl hero Phil McConkey, who has hustled around the rubber-chicken circuit during the off-season plugging positive thinking, Jack Kemp, MIAs and, quite naturally, himself.

"I can tell you this. I know all of the guys on this team who wrote a book, and all of them took part in our off-season weight program," said Giants' safety Kenny Hill. He said the Giants won't get fat and sassy, as some insisted the defending-champion Chicago Bears did last season.

Hill said, "The Bears won 14 of 17 games last year, a record that would have been acceptable to any other team in the league. If we go 14-2 with the opportunity to play for the championship, we'll be quite happy. So much is being written about how difficult it is to repeat, more people should look at how difficult it is to win once."

So, on the surface, everything seems smooth for the NFL. The league almost seems like the proverbial Man Who Has Everything.

Everything, that is, except perhaps a season.

Is there ever an NFL season in this era when some danger doesn't loom on the horizon? If not in the courtroom, in the board room; if not in the board room, in the bargaining room.

The most immediate danger to the NFL is that few draft picks have signed and the probability for numerous training camp holdouts looms. As of Friday, only about 50 of 333 draftees were signed, including just three No. 1 picks and eight players who were drafted in the first five rounds. This signing pace puts the league markedly behind last year's snail's pace.

The crux of the problem is this: Management is making a concerted effort to roll back rookie salaries, and the players union and player agents have united to turn down any offers below the rookie standards set last year. Similarly, there are an unprecedented number of unsigned veteran free agents around the league, including 14 Redskins (Jay Schroeder, Joe Jacoby, Dave Butz, Rich Milot, Mel Kaufman and others).

General Manager Jim Finks, whose New Orleans Saints are among the 10 teams that hadn't signed any draft picks as of Friday, said, "There are so many players and agents who are stonewalling our offers. They are taking the position that the clubs are trying to roll back prices, and that's exactly right."

The long-term danger facing the NFL is that the five-year collective bargaining agreement expires Aug. 31 and, as always, there exists the possibility of a players' strike.

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