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Sneaking In Under the Cap : Although Conlan Has Benefited, He Dislikes Free-Agent System

April 16, 1994|T.J. SIMERS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ANAHEIM — The system freed him, made him rich, and upon reflection, he said, "It stinks."

A year ago this week, the Rams paid linebacker Shane Conlan $5.4 million for three years to leave behind the cold winters in Buffalo.

No regrets, he said. Conlan profited from NFL free agency, but in Year 1 of the new collective bargaining agreement between NFL players and management, there was no salary cap.

"Perfect timing," Conlan said. "Obviously, it was great last year--especially for me. I was talking to my wife the other day about how lucky I was."

With no salary cap, teams were not limited on what they could spend to sign a player. By this time last year, 80-plus players had signed, and in most cases, they got substantial raises. A little more than 50 have signed this year, and they are being asked to take pay cuts in increasing numbers.

"Take a look, there are a lot of good players out there still unsigned," Conlan said. "I'm sure I would have signed someplace but probably would not have gotten near the money I got from the Rams."

Conlan will begin playing his eighth NFL season, and while he has made many friends over the years, fewer and fewer remain on the field.

"I know it's kind of hypocritical for me to complain about free agency," Conlan said. "But I've got buddies who are free agents, and they are just going through hell. What do you tell a guy who's gotten screwed by the system? There are a lot of great football players out there, but management can't do anything because their hands are tied by the cap. And we're going to see more players on the street in the next few months.

"This is not what we had in mind when we went on strike in 1987. The way things are now it's going to shorten some guys' careers. The middle guys are either going to take a pay cut or be released, and that's bad for the game."

The game is important to Conlan, as evidenced by his off-season presence at Rams Park. There were only five players working out on the practice field Wednesday, and Conlan was one of them.

Free agency bothers Conlan, but playing football for a team that loses more games than it wins is unacceptable.

Last season, he arrived heralded as the Rams' top free-agent acquisition, then drew immediate attention for injuring a knee on the first day of training camp. He recovered, was hurt again, recovered, and then went unnoticed playing for a team that did little to excite.

The Rams finished 5-11, and Conlan sat at home on Jan. 30 watching his former teammates battle the Cowboys in the Super Bowl.

"I was happy for them, but I was also hoping they wouldn't get that far," Conlan admitted with a smile. "In the back of your mind you'd like to think they aren't as good as they were because you're not there anymore.

"After the first half, they were winning, and I was saying, 'Can you believe this: I go to three straight Super Bowls and we get killed, and now they're going to get a ring the year after I leave.' "

The Bills went on to lose their fourth consecutive Super Bowl, and while Conlan didn't have to live with the image of his former teammates celebrating, he was still stuck with a losing team for the first time since his rookie season in 1987.

"We very rarely lost in Buffalo after my first year, and when we did, everybody was down and out," Conlan said. "But here it was a different atmosphere. It was like it's a job, I tried hard, I get paid.

"The thing is we just got to learn how to win here."

Conlan played like a winner last season, and finished third on the team in tackles despite missing four games and being limited in playing time against run-and-shoot offenses.

"He brings an awful lot to our defense," said George Dyer, Ram defensive coordinator. "I couldn't be happier with the way he played last season. When he hits a guy, you know he's been hit. He plays hurt, runs like a deer, just loves the game, and as a result, our football team loves to play around him.

"Anytime you pay big bucks to get a guy, you expect you're getting a King Kong type of player. This guy did exactly what we thought he would, and more. It's just not his fault if we're matched against a run-and-shoot team; there isn't a middle linebacker in the league who is going to play."

The Rams' plan for an overnight turnaround in 1994 begins with the team's defense. They say they have budding superstars in defensive end Robert Young, linebacker Roman Phifer, defensive tackle Sean Gilbert, cornerbacks Steve Israel and Todd Lyght and have added defensive tackle Jimmie Jones via free agency.

"This reminds me so much of what we had going in Buffalo," Conlan said. "We had an all-pro guy in Bruce Smith in Buffalo and we have Gilbert. Phifer and Cornelius Bennett are alike. We had Nate Odomes in Buffalo and here we have Israel. They drafted Thurman Thomas and we have Jerome Bettis.

"Now it's just a matter of turning the corner, and there's no doubt in my mind that this organization is committed to winning. They're bringing guys in like Jones and quarterback Chris Miller . . ."

Free agency, the system that Conlan finds so offensive, is giving the Rams a chance to be successful.

"Obviously free agency has already helped this organization--the players brought in last year and the players this year," Conlan said. "Record-wise we were a bad team, and free agency helps a bad team get better quicker.

"But for the players it can be tough. I hope to God the people (who are running the players' association) aren't going to say this is a good deal. In the whole scheme of things, this wasn't the deal everyone had in mind."

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