The phone rang in the hotel room of agent Leigh Steinberg late one night last week during the NFL owners' meeting in Palm Desert, Calif. Running back Larry Centers, viewed as one of the most coveted players available when the free-agent signing period began on Feb. 14, was on the other end of the line. "Leigh, I just fired my agent [Jeff Irwin], and I want you to represent me," Centers said. "Things just aren't happening. I'm not getting any offers."
A Pro Bowl selection the last two seasons, when he also became the first running back to catch 200 passes in that time span, Centers had received just one offer when he placed his call to Steinberg: a three-year, $7.5 million deal from the Cardinals, the team he played with for the past seven seasons. (He made $800,000 last year.) "I told Larry there wasn't going to be any more money out there," Irwin said. Sure enough, Steinberg failed to drum up any more cash from the two teams that had expressed an interest in the running back—the Giants and the Redskins—and last Friday, Centers signed basically the same contract that Irwin had previously negotiated with the Cardinals.
At week's end three other heralded free agents—Broncos tight end Shannon Sharpe, Chiefs defensive end Neil Smith and Steelers cornerback Rod Woodson—were still awaiting their first big-money offer from a new team. In fact, only four players had changed addresses at the stars' going rate of $2.5 million or more per year: quarterback Elvis Grbac, from the 49ers to the Chiefs for $4.08 million; linebacker Chad Brown, from the Steelers to the Seahawks for $4 million; linebacker Micheal Barrow, from the Oilers to the Panthers for $3.75 million; and cornerback Ray Buchanan, from the Colts to the Falcons for $3.25 million.
In the first month of free agency last year, 19 players moved to new teams for contracts that averaged $2.5 million or more annually. That's the kind of movement players expected every year after unfettered free agency was introduced to the NFL in 1993. There was no salary cap that first year, and the next three seasons were also lucrative for players because the cap rose an average of 8.8% per year and teams, particularly expansion clubs Carolina and Jacksonville, flooded the market with money. Now just about everyone is snuggled up against the cap, and when it rose only 1.7% (or $701,000 per club) in '97, there was no room for most teams to maneuver.
So free agents wait for offers that may never come. As a transition player, Sharpe is able to negotiate with any team, but Denver can match any offer he receives in order to keep him. The Broncos have tendered Sharpe a $1.74 million one-year contract, slightly more than the required 20% increase over his 1996 salary. But no one has been willing to dangle the standard $2.5 million in front of the league's premier tight end.
"It's hard to have free agency with a cap," Sharpe said on Sunday. "It's like if your father said, 'Go buy anything you want,' and then he gave you $100. You can't do it. We didn't envision free agency like this. We thought a lot more players would be moving."
What's worse, even with an anticipated healthy revenue increase when a new network TV contract is negotiated after this season, the cap is expected to remain relatively flat in '98 as well. That's because of a little-known agreement in the labor settlement that mandates a rebate to each of the 30 teams under certain conditions. The payback, which is expected to amount to at least $4 million per team, will come at least in part as early as next year.
"I think if the players' association doesn't go to [commissioner] Paul Tagliabue and get a significant [cap] increase for 1998, this will be the start of a big rift between management and players," warns Marvin Demoff. Sharpe's agent.
Go Deep, Baby
The Raiders were 82-77 in the past decade, and a couple of owner Al Davis's recent acquisitions ($2.5 million a year for cornerback Larry Brown in 1996, $1.5 million a year for wide-out-return man Desmond Howard earlier this month) suggest he has lost some of his football marbles. However, Davis is excited about the free-agent signings of Howard and quarterback Jeff George because they signal the return of the vertical passing offense to Oakland.