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I'm a decent man, Carmen Policy is thinking. I've worked for the San Francisco 49ers for 11 years, done everything a shrewd, loyal front-office guy should do. I helped the team win three Super Bowls in six years. Gave Steve Young more money than a sheikh. Never sold the fans down the river.
What did I do to deserve this?
Policy climbs out of bed and walks downstairs to his den. It's 3 a.m., and, of course, he can't sleep. He flips on CNN. Floods, droughts, other people's troubles. No matter how he crunches the numbers, he can't figure out how he will be able to keep the 49ers intact in the new, free-agency, salary-capped era of pro football. It's an era that is sort of here now—since the passage in June of the collective bargaining agreement between NFL management and the players—but won't begin in earnest until next year, when every team will likely be forced to operate under a uniform salary cap. That cap is expected to be a little less than $31 million per team. Right now the 49ers have a player payroll of about $40 million. Policy knows that in short order he may have to dump salaries, and star players, like a sinking frigate dumping cannon.
Policy starts to zone out. "How," the executive says half aloud, half in silent prayer, "will the players respond to us in our hour of need?"
Like sharks released from a holding tank, it appears.
For instance, veteran guard Bill Fralic, now with the Detroit Lions, is having no trouble sleeping. He recently became a free agent and bumped his base salary from $837,000 to $1.6 million—a 91% raise—just by moving from the Atlanta Falcons to the Motor City.
Loyalty? To what? To the feeding frenzy, Mr. Policy.
"I wanted to get two teams excited about me in order to push the price up as high as I could," says Fralic. "And that happened with the Lions and the New York Jets. I knew how much the Lions needed linemen—a cheerleader could have figured that out—and so we were able to push them."
Push. Leverage. Work the market. Fralic, a good but not great guard, now finds himself the eighth-highest-paid offensive lineman of all time because he did those things. NFL general managers, who for so many years have had the upper hand when talking money with players ("Where else you fixing to play, son—Canada?"), suddenly find themselves in a panic to sign the first mass outpouring of free agents the game has allowed. Indeed, 1993 is a year in which NFL execs have embarrassed themselves as never before. How can the linebacker-rich New York Giants, for example, justify signing former Buffalo Bill 'backer Carlton Bailey for $1.7 million a year, when he won't even start?
Don't make us do this, the G.M.'s are begging the players. The players' response? If you didn't have the money, you lying horse thieves, you wouldn't.