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Brian Jordan Leaves Falcons in a Bind : Football: Loss of all-pro defensive back to a baseball contract with the St. Louis Cardinals leaves Atlanta with a big hole to fill in the secondary.


June has never been quite so active in the NFL as it has this year -- and things are just heating up.

In Minneapolis, there is a trial under way in U.S. District Court that could reshape the league.

Reporters in Philadelphia were tracking Herschel Walker's courtship with the Eagles, until he signed Monday.

Down the Amtrak line, the Washington Redskins are dealing with the runaway ego of agent Leigh Steinberg, still upset over losing the sweepstakes for top draft pick Steve Emtman, and then over-promising what he can deliver for Heisman Trophy winner Desmond Howard.

But all of these problems are nothing compared with the month the Atlanta Falcons are having.

"It hasn't been much fun," Falcons Owner Rankin Smith Sr. says.

Last Tuesday, strong safety Brian Jordan signed a three-year, $2.4-million guaranteed contract with the St. Louis Cardinals to play baseball exclusively. The contract is airtight -- Jordan can't play football. The Cardinals gave him a $1.7 million (part of the overall package) signing bonus as incentive to stick to baseball exclusively.

Jordan led the Falcons in tackles last season and was voted as an alternate to the National Football Conference Pro Bowl team. Still, the Falcons chose to not compete for Jordan; this, by the way, is an example of how ownership can exercise its own business judgment without being held up.

Though it happened overnight, Jordan's football agent Jim Steiner understood the NFL team's plight and dealt forthrightly. The Falcons were thinking more of offering Jordan somewhere between $400,000 to $500,000 annually on a series of non-guaranteed contracts.

"The (Falcons) sensed the urgency," Steiner says. "They knew what the numbers (for the Cardinals) were, and there was no way they were ever going to offer Brian the type of money it would take to keep him in football. There are no hard feelings."

Actually, the only one who seemed to have hard feelings was Jordan's defensive backfield partner Deion Sanders, another two-sport star who suggested that Jordan's agents "sold him short."

"I can't believe he gave up football," Sanders said. "Doesn't he realize there are baseball and football players who make $6 million a year?"

Wrong, Deion. Dan Marino is the only football player who makes more than $4 million. There isn't a non-quarterback who makes $2 million. Most of the great defensive backs, like Sanders, make about $1 million. Jordan has reaped this windfall having played only a couple of months in the major leagues, so the baseball comparison is ridiculous.

"If Deion could get $6 million for Brian, I think I'll ask him to be our Southeast representative," cracked Steiner, who has offices in St. Louis and Los Angeles.

Back to the Falcons' predicament. Jordan struck out four times in a Triple-A game at Louisville on a rehabilitation assignment on the night he agreed to terms with the Cardinals.

The same week, Sanders was still playing at an All-Star level for the Atlanta Braves. In a sold-out series against the Los Angeles Dodgers, Sanders had a dramatic pinch-hit home run. ("I'm going deep," he told the on-deck batter as he headed to home plate).

Then in the opener of a crucial series against the Cincinnati Reds, Sanders went 3 for 3. The next night, he came off the bench again to walk as a leadoff hitter; he scored the winning run in an extra-inning game. He was batting .355 and drawing legitimate comparisons to Rickey Henderson.

This was all happening across town from the Falcons. Remember, baseball was supposed to be the hobby for Sanders.

"He's unbelievable," says Smith Sr. in painful admiration of Sanders. "I mean, he's phenomenal, really phenomenal."

Sanders is also a phenomenal football player as a cornerback and return man.

In spite of the Jordan bombshell, there was good news for the Falcons. Sanders rejected a recent contract offer from the Braves that would have paid him more money than he's making in both sports (about $1.6 million) to make him a full-time baseball player and part-time football player.

So the Falcons know Deion is returning to the NFL. He's got a new Nike campaign (Bo, move over) that no doubt plays off his two-sport talents.

But just as the Falcons took a stand on Jordan, they must take one with Deion. Sanders is definitely marquee in Atlanta. And the Falcons are a team on the rise, with a new Georgia Dome facility to show off. Deion is worth $3 million in football, even if it would upset other NFL owners.

That kind of contract wouldn't tilt the NFL's salary structure. The argument could easily be made that Sanders is being compensated above the norm because he obviously has greater leverage. The Redskins can tell All-Pro cornerback Darrell Green to earn a starting job with the Baltimore Orioles and then come back for more money.

Credit the Falcons with knowing that baseball is a threat to keep Sanders away until late October.

"I think our coach (Jerry Glanville) has said it best," Smith Sr. says. "He'd be ticked off for about 10 minutes ... and then put him in the lineup."

Smith Sr. was awaiting the return of team President Taylor Smith, who happens to be his son, to discuss how to extend Sanders' contract with the Falcons.

"Deion's a little more in control and those are the facts," Smith Sr. says. "He's calling the shots pretty well. Myself, Taylor and the rest have to figure out what to do."

Taylor Smith was on vacation. It's nice to know somebody can relax this month.

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