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Rams Beat Deadline With Gary : Pro football: Team signs running back to one-year contract with right of first refusal for next season.


FULLERTON — The Rams, while continuing to say no Friday to Dallas' trade overtures for Cleveland Gary, beat a midnight deadline and signed the running back to a one-year contract with a right of first refusal.

"He's on the way," Coach Chuck Knox announced at 10 p.m. "We've said from Day 1 that we wanted Cleveland Gary on our football team.

"He would have been No. 1 on our depth chart coming into training camp had he been signed. We'll have to see what kind of shape he's in and proceed from there . . . he had his most successful year last year and there isn't any reason why he can't come in here and pick up where he left off."

The Rams informed Gary by letter earlier in the week that under the terms of the new collective bargaining agreement he had until Friday midnight to sign or he would be required to miss the regular-season opener.

"Cleveland wanted to play," said John Shaw, Ram executive vice president. "And I feel the letter was something that put pressure on both sides."

Tight end Jim Price, who also received a letter and faced the same deadline, failed to come to terms and said he is willing to sit out the season.

"I wouldn't expect me to be in there at all," Price said.

Gary earned $350,000 last season and was the Rams' leading receiver and rusher. He had been asking for $1.2 million this season, while the Rams had countered with $485,000.

"I'd say both sides moved substantially," Shaw said, while declining to reveal the terms of the deal.

As part of Gary's agreement, the Rams reserved the right to match any offers he receives next season. If the Rams choose not to match an offer, he will be free to depart and the Rams will not be entitled to compensation.

Gary's signing before the midnight deadline, however, as Cowboy owner Jerry Jones said Friday evening, "certainly does keep the possibility open" of a trade with the Rams before the start of the regular season.

Jones told the Dallas Morning News that he worked all day Friday trying to acquire Gary, but was informed by Shaw later that there would be no trade.

The Cowboys have been unable to sign running back Emmitt Smith and are concerned that he will not report in time for the regular-season opener.

The Cowboys offered the Rams wide receiver Jimmy Smith and a fourth-round pick for Gary, tight end Travis McNeal and a third-round pick.

"Basically, would you trade Cleveland for Smith?" Shaw said. "I leave that up to the coaches, and the coaches were saying no to that."

The Rams might have been inclined to continue trade talks with Dallas Friday, but on Thursday they learned an ankle injury to running back Jerome Bettis would keep him sidelined for two to three weeks.

"Obviously with two backs down (Bettis and David Lang) it would be naive to think there wasn't a concern there," Knox said. "I mean who's kidding who? Now how much that had to do with getting this situation resolved, I don't know."

If Bettis recovers in time for the start of the regular season and Smith remains a holdout in Dallas, might trade talks be renewed?

"I think there's a chance that Dallas will have a renewed interest in Cleveland," Shaw said, "particularly if he's eligible to play in the first game and up to and until they sign Emmitt Smith."

Did Bettis' injury also push the Rams into changing their negotiation stance with Gary at the last minute.

"Not really, but if so minimally," Shaw said. "I think we made it clear, as the coach has, that it was always our intention to sign him.

"We were hoping that the letter would cause Cleveland to adjust his expectations. Once we saw a realistic adjustment of his expectations I felt that we were going to try and negotiate a deal."

While the Rams showed a willingness to negotiate with Gary on deadline day, they made no further adjustments to their offer of $175,000 to Price.

"I'm not going to be there," said Price, who was paid $150,000 last season. "I just made a decision I'm going to stick with what I asked for ($275,000). I'm not coming for less.

"I guess I am ready to sit out the season. I didn't think I was, but this is about what I'm worth and if that's what's going to happen . . ."

If Price does not sign by next Friday he will be required to miss the first two regular-season games. Price, who figured to have a tough time making the final roster before he began his holdout, faces a similar deadline the following week.

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