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Improving Easy as A, Plan B, C : NFL: Talent scouts, Chargers' Bobby Beathard among them, look to upgrade teams in second year of free-agent program.


SAN DIEGO — To find proof of the value of the National Football League's limited free-agent program, known as Plan B, look no further than today's Super Bowl.

Both the Denver Broncos and the San Francisco 49ers have on-the-field results to show for off-season ventures into the Plan B pool. Nine players joined the teams during the first year of the program in 1989.

Two--defensive end Alphonso Carreker and cornerback Wymon Henderson--will start for the Broncos.

No wonder teams are making lists and checking them twice in anticipation of Thursday's league deadline for submitting a roster of 37 players they will protect in Plan B. Unprotected players will be free to negotiate with other teams until April 1.

For teams such as the Chargers who are trying to break back into the playoffs, Plan B provides an ideal opportunity to upgrade talent. Working this market to advantage might be the most important task facing Bobby Beathard in his new job as Charger general manager.

"We're going to be active and aggressive in seeking players who can help us," Beathard said.

Before he resigned last May as the Washington Redskins' general manager, Beathard was one of the most active participants in the Plan B market. The Redskins signed 15 players, including two starters--defensive end Fred Stokes from the Rams and cornerback Martin Mayhew from Buffalo.

Beathard seems just as interested this year. He said he particularly wants to improve the Chargers' makeshift offensive line. But he will have to wait until Friday, when the league releases the lists of protected players from the 27 other teams, to know what kind of help will be available. Until then, he is left to tinker with his own list.

Plan B has become an important area of attention for NFL personnel departments. But its history has more to do with the courtroom than the playing field.

Plan B was born out of the owners' interest in addressing some of the issues raised in a federal suit brought against the league by the National Football League Players Assn., the Washington, D.C.-based union that has served as the players' collective bargaining agent.

The suit, filed after the strike of 1987, challenged on antitrust grounds the rules governing the players' ability to move between teams. The union contended they were too restrictive.

The owners tried to blunt the suit's attack with Plan B. According to John Jones, spokesman for the NFL Management Council (the owners' bargaining arm), it was known during negotiations with the union as Proposal B, which led to the current name.

Teams submit, from a list of all players they hold the rights to, a roster of 37 they want to protect by Feb. 1. They may be players under contract or those whose contracts have expired (Feb. 1 is the annual expiration date for NFL contracts).

If a player is protected, and his contract has not expired, no other team may negotiate with him.

If the player is protected and his contract has expired, the team must present him with a qualifying offer by Feb. 1 to retain his rights, but the player still can negotiate with other teams. These players are known as conditional free agents.

If a conditional player signs an offer sheet with another team, the original team has seven days to match it. If the original team declines, the player is free to go, but the original team receives compensation from the other. In the case of most top players, that is two first-round draft picks.

Only two of 254 conditional free agents were presented offer sheets last year--defensive ends Bruce Smith of Buffalo by Denver and Ray Childress of Houston by Chicago. Both were matched, and the players stayed put. The last player to change was linebacker Wilbur Marshall, who two years ago moved to the Redskins from the Chicago Bears. The general manager who pulled off that rare move: Beathard.

The Chargers have 19 players whose contracts expire Feb. 1. Beathard said he expects most, including quarterback Jim McMahon, to be among those the team will protect.

Unprotected players are unconditional free agents and may negotiate with any of the other 27 NFL teams until April 1. They may not negotiate with their former team during that time.

If an unprotected player signs with another team, whether he is under contract or not, his former team does not receive compensation. If a player is unsigned by April 1, he may negotiate with his former team.

Of 619 unconditional free agents eligible to move under Plan B last year, 229 changed teams and 133 were under contract at season's end, 115 of those on the active roster, according to Management Council figures.

According to the council, the average salary of the players signed under Plan B increased 40.3%, to $198,321 from $141,354, not including the average $35,000 signing bonus (the league-wide average salary for 1989 was $305,000).

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