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Pro Football / Bob Oates : The Line Is Drawn at Free Agency, and Players Say They've Crossed It

September 02, 1987|Bob Oates

National Football League players, seeking new status as free agents, might have won it already--if their view of U.S. law is sustained.

The last remaining barrier was their old bargaining agreement with NFL club owners, which expired Monday.

The players' executive director, Gene Upshaw, and legal counsel, Dick Berthelsen, were in agreement on that Tuesday.

"Starting (now), we've got free agency," Upshaw said. "They'll have to come to us now."

Said Berthelsen: "Absent a collective bargaining agreement, anyone in pro football who plays out his contract is a free agent.

"As a practical matter, it won't happen until Feb. 1. No player with an NFL contract can become a free agent until then, when the 1987 contracts expire."

The Upshaw-Berthelsen reasoning:

--Federal courts have held consistently that restrictions on player movement in baseball are violations of federal antitrust law, and would likely issue similar decisions concerning pro football. The only reason these restrictions exist is because of the approval of the NFLPA. This approval lapsed with the 1982-87 bargaining agreement Monday night.

--Football players' salaries are high, averaging $200,000 annually, but their careers are short--averaging 3 1/2 to 4 years--and the players need free agency to balance the economic power of the owners.

"Obviously, we can't afford that," Jack Donlan, executive director of the owners' management council, said this week.

For Cris Carter, the Ohio State All-American who can't go back to the Buckeyes after taking money from an agent, the next question is whether any NFL team will take him in Friday's supplemental draft.

"I'll be shocked if Cris isn't drafted," his agent, Mitch Frankel, said from Boston. "I'm optimistic that (some team) will."

Numerous college coaches, apparently wanting Carter punished with a one-year exile, have implored the pros not to draft him.

And numerous NFL coaches have announced that they won't take part in the supplemental draft.

Those teams appear to be in conflict with NFL headquarters, where Jay Moyer, the No. 2 man under Pete Rozelle, said:

"(It isn't) feasible, legally or practically, for the league to act as the enforcement arm of the NCAA."

It was an NCAA rule that Carter broke when he accepted money from agent Norby Walters.

"One team has worked Cris out," Frankel said, identifying the St. Louis Cardinals. "They timed him in 4.54 (seconds for the 40-yard dash)."

Assessments of Raider quarterback Rusty Hilger probably would be much different this week if wide receiver Jessie Hester had held Hilger's long throw on a potential 65-yard touchdown play at Dallas Sunday.

Those assessments also might have changed if wide receiver James Lofton had caught Hilger's next bomb a moment later.

Though single-covered, Lofton, a great receiver in his Green Bay days, couldn't get the ball away from the Dallas cornerback stalking him.

Hilger is making progress as the Raiders' new quarterback, but he needed either Hester's catch, or Lofton's, to prove it--to himself, perhaps, more than to anyone else.

"Plays of that kind are extremely important to a young passer," Raider executive Al LoCasale said.

Particularly a young Raider passer. The Raiders don't want statistics from Hilger or any other quarterback. They want the big completion. It's Al Davis' way of intimidating defenses.

The Chicago Bears had Doug Flutie rolling out against the St. Louis Cardinals Monday night--throwing on the run or after running--and it made him an effective quarterback.

Playing only part of the second half after St. Louis had charged in front, 20-2, Flutie drove the Bears to the two touchdowns that made it 20-16 before giving way to rookie Jim Harbaugh.

The Chicago starter in Jim McMahon's absence, Mike Tomczak, the undrafted free agent from Ohio State, has become technically adequate, but he is still hampered by defense-reading difficulties.

Tomczak threw completions against St. Louis mostly when he was watching the intended receiver all the way and found him open.

"Reading is where we miss McMahon," wide receiver Willie Gault said the other day. "Jim is the best reader in the league."

Pending McMahon's return, Flutie would seem to be the best the Bears have, provided they let move him around. At 5 feet 10 inches, he can't work regularly out of a pocket.

Quarterback Ken O'Brien returned Saturday night, leading the New York Jets impressively for the first time since last November.

O'Brien had led the Jets to a 10-1 start last season, but the team lost its last five games in the regular season and O'Brien was replaced by Pat Ryan in the AFC playoffs. The Jets were eliminated by the Cleveland Browns, 23-20, in overtime.

"It was about time," O'Brien said after the Jets beat the New York Giants, 30-23, in Saturday's exhibition.

Here is what happened on successive plays in the third quarter, after quarterback Phil Simms had failed to move the Giants' first team:

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