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FOR LOVE OF MONEY
Peter King
March 11, 1996
IN REJECTING THE STEELERS FOR THE JETS, NEIL O'DONNELL WENT FOR GOLD INSTEAD OF GLORY
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March 11, 1996

For Love Of Money

IN REJECTING THE STEELERS FOR THE JETS, NEIL O'DONNELL WENT FOR GOLD INSTEAD OF GLORY

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CASH AND CARRY

Free-Agent Quarterback Neil O'Donnell's huge new deal with the New York Jets raised eyebrows last week, because of both the high value of the contract and the questionable caliber of the player. Here's a sampling of other free-agent signings in baseball, basketball, football and hockey that grabbed headlines.

THE MAN

THE DEAL

THE PAYOFF

Catfish Hunter
OAKLAND A'S

To the New York Yankees for 5 years, $3.35 million in 1974

First big catch in the open market, but only one 20-win season was left in his arm

Reggie Jackson
BALTIMORE ORIOLES

To the New York Yankees for 5 years, $2.9 million in 1976

Mr. October (above) clinched '77 World Series with three home runs in Game 6

Wayne Garland
BALTIMORE ORIOLES

To the Cleveland Indians for 10 years, $2 million in 1976

"You're not worth it," said his mom. She was right: He won 28 games rest of his career

Barry Bonds
PITTSBURGH PIRATES

To the San Francisco Giants for 6 years, $43.75 million in 1992

Added third MVP award in 1993; wanted child-support payment cut during strike

Chris Dudley
NEW JERSEY NETS

To the Portland Trail Blazers for 6 years, $24 million in 1993

Has averaged 5.0 points a game and $4 million a year since heading West

Horace Grant
CHICAGO BULLS

To the Orlando Magic for 5 years, $17 million in 1994

Fills frontcourt void, steers young Magic all the way to NBA Finals in his first season

Ron Harper
Los ANGELES CLIPPERS

To the Chicago Bulls for 5 years, $19.2 million in 1994

Mr. Free-Agent Bust a year ago, he's filling quiet role as starter on 52-6 team

Reggie White
PHILADELPHIA EAGLES

To the Green Bay Packers for 4 years, $17 million in 1993

Alltime sack leader was best NFL free-agent bargain ever; he's still playing as if he's 27

Deion Sanders
ATLANTA FALCONS

To the San Francisco 49ers for 1 year, $1,335 million in 1994

More interested in a Super Bowl ring than money, he got what he wanted

Andre Rison
ATLANTA FALCONS

To the Cleveland Browns for 5 years, $17 million in 1995

Poster child for money ill-spent; when fans boo, he says, "F---you, too"

Deion Sanders
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS

To the Dallas Cowboys for 7 years, $35 million in 1995

More interested in money than a second Super Bowl ring, he wound up with both

Dale Hawerchuk
BUFFALO SABRES

To the St. Louis Blues for 3 years, $7.5 million in 1995

Signed richest contract in NHL's young free-agent history but has struggled

The voice on the other end of the line sounded defiant, stern and, agent Leigh Steinberg thought, a bit desperate. New York Jets president Steve Gutman was calling to up the ante for free-agent quarterback Neil O'Donnell. The deal: five years, $25 million, including a $7 million signing bonus. From Gifford to Namath to Gastineau to Taylor, no New York football player had ever received an opportunity like this. "This is our final offer," Steinberg recalls Gutman saying on the night of Feb. 27. "There is not going to be another penny—not another penny!—added to this package."

The Jets' deal was for $1.25 million more per year than O'Donnell was being offered to stay with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Yet, odd as it may seem, O'Donnell, torn between returning to the AFC champion Steelers or migrating to the woeful Jets, almost didn't take it. In fact, 21 hours after Gutman made his final offer, O'Donnell told Steinberg, "Leigh, I'm comfortable in Pittsburgh. I don't want to leave [coach] Bill Cowher." But then, moments later, O'Donnell said he wanted to review the two proposals again. Four hours after that, just before midnight on Feb. 28, as he sat at the dining room table in his suburban New Jersey house with Steinberg, wife Leslie and family friend Bob Bryant. Neil still hadn't committed. So Steinberg tore four pieces of paper from his yellow legal pad and said, "Let's vote: Steelers or Jets."

There would be no straw poll, however, because Neil had already decided. "You don't have to vote," he said. "I'm going to the Jets."

Not long ago, vagabond owner Art Modell said he would pay almost any price—even trade 10 years of his life—for a Super Bowl trophy. Judging by the early returns in the fourth season of unfettered free agency, Modell's not alone among NFL owners. The Jets' deal jumped O'Donnell ahead of such stars as John Elway, Dan Marino and Emmitt Smith on the NFL salary list. What's more, New York has signed tackles Jumbo Elliott and David Williams, who in 15 combined seasons have made one Pro Bowl trip between them, to five-year contracts worth a collective annual average of $5.39 million. The Oakland Raiders paid $7.8 million in signing bonuses for two mid-level cogs in the Dallas Cowboys machine, defensive tackle Russell Maryland and cornerback Larry Brown. And the Jacksonville Jaguars signed restricted free agent Alonzo Spellman of the Chicago Bears to an offer sheet that made him a $3 million-a-year pass rusher. Never mind that Spellman has only 22 sacks in 63 games. Call it dumb and dumber: The Bears matched the Jaguars' offer.

Perhaps it's too early to rip some of these moves, but NFL teams seem to be doing what baseball purists bemoaned a decade ago: making the .225-hitting shortstop a $2 million-a-year man. "What worries me," says Green Bay Packers general manager Ron Wolf, "is that people have lost confidence in their ability to judge and develop and coach players. We're going crazy, buying guys. That's not how you a build football team."

The NFL always worried that uncapped free agency would lead to dynasties in big markets. That's why there's a salary cap, which in 1996 is $40.75 million per team. Since its inception, the cap has cost the Cowboys 24 free agents, including three defensive starters this winter—Brown, Maryland and linebacker Dixon Edwards. More defections from Dallas are expected. In addition to O'Donnell, Pittsburgh has lost a rising star at tackle, Leon Searcy, to Jacksonville. The cap may be designed to inhibit dynasty-building, but it hasn't stopped teams with cap room from spending foolishly.

At week's end only two free-agent starters had moved from a team that had a losing record in 1995 to a club that had a winning mark, yet 12 starters had left winners for teams whose record in 1995 was .500 or worse. As the O'Donnell and Searcy deals showed, cash is king. "Leon and I heard all the stories about [Jacksonville coach] Tom Coughlin being a dictator," says Drew Rosenhaus, the agent for Searcy and the engineer of the richest contract ever for an offensive lineman (five years, $17 million). "Screw that. Money talks."

But spending big on free agents hasn't necessarily translated to winning big. "The only lesson you can learn from free agency is that it can't be your primary way to build a team," says new Miami Dolphins coach Jimmy Johnson, who took a major hit last Saturday when he decided not to match the Philadelphia Eagles' offer for restricted free-agent cornerback Troy Vincent. "The draft is still the most important thing."

Last year the Dolphins bought up seemingly half of the free-agent crop. Miami went 9-7 and was embarrassed in a playoff loss to the Buffalo Bills. The Cleveland Browns signed five 1994 starters for the money they would have had to spend to get pricey defensive end Reggie White in '93, and they finished 11-5. Yet after the Browns splurged on free-agent wideout Andre Rison in the off-season, they plummeted to 5-11. The Denver Broncos, who have been as active as anyone in the open market, are 24-24 since free agency began.

The Steelers have been ravaged by free agency—they've had 14 full-or part-time starters test the open market, and 13 have left—but it hasn't crippled them. The 14th starter, linebacker Kevin Greene, a 33-year-old designated pass rusher, could break the run of defections this off-season, but only if he's willing to take a $500,000 cut from the $1.19 million he made in 1995. Pittsburgh's philosophy regarding salaries is simple: It won't spend any more in any one year than that year's cap figure. "We don't panic, and we won't panic," Cowher says. "Last year, we lose a bunch of players to free agency, and everyone comes into the season doubting us. Then we lose [All-Pro cornerback] Rod Woodson in the first quarter of the first game, and we start the year 3-4. But we adjusted. We adjusted on the run after losing Woodson, and we'll adjust this year."

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