Patient Jets Figure to Be in Race -- For Second Place
By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 27, 2004; 11:37 AM
This offseason has not been an unmitigated calamity for the New York Jets, which puts them far ahead of where they were a year ago, when they were reeling from a free-agent raid by the Washington Redskins that cost them wide receiver Laveranues Coles, guard Randy Thomas, kick returner Chad Morton and kicker John Hall. Then, an injury to quarterback Chad Pennington led to a 6-10 season on the heels of playoff appearances in Herman Edwards's first two seasons as coach.
Jets owner Woody Johnson demonstrated patience. He extended Edwards's contract by two years and retained General Manager Terry Bradway -- thought by some in the league to be the potential fall guy for last season's woes after he failed to give Coles the highest tender in restricted free agency to ward off the Redskins and improperly matched Washington's offer sheet in restricted free agency to Morton, leading to an arbitrator awarding Morton to the Redskins. Edwards retained beleaguered offensive coordinator Paul Hackett but dismissed defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell and replaced him with Baltimore Ravens secondary coach Donnie Henderson.
The Jets continued their defensive housecleaning by releasing aging linebackers Mo Lewis and Marvin Jones, along with cornerback Aaron Beasley and safeties Sam Garnes and Tyrone Carter. Guard Dave Szott retired and the Jets cut Curtis Conway, last year's replacement for Coles, after trading a second-round draft choice to the Tennessee Titans for fellow wide receiver Justin McCareins.
The free-agent signing period opened with another embarrassing moment for the Jets. They were making plans to announce a six-year, $30 million contract agreement with Antoine Winfield, perhaps the best cornerback on the market, when he abruptly backed out and signed a six-year, $34.8 million contract with the Minnesota Vikings. But the Jets rebounded by signing another solid free-agent cornerback, David Barrett, to a six-year, $21 million deal.
They also fortified the defense in free agency by signing linebacker Eric Barton and safety Reggie Tongue, although Edwards was unable to bring about a reunion with John Lynch -- his former pupil when he was the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defensive backs coach -- after the safety was released.
Jets fans at the draft chanted Jonathan Vilma's name when the team was on the clock for the 12th overall pick, and cheered wildly when the club selected the University of Miami middle linebacker. Were the fans right? The 12th choice might have been just a bit high for Vilma. The Jets probably could have traded down and still gotten him. But Vilma was a tackling machine at Miami who drew raves from Hurricanes coaches for his ability to soak up teaching and immediately apply it on the field. He should have an immediate impact in the NFL, although he perhaps won't match the big jump from his first to his second pro season often made by lesser students of the game.
The Jets can only hope that Pennington stays healthy. Tailback Curtis Martin remains productive but just turned 31. The Jets kept backup Lamont Jordan despite his complaints about wanting to be paid more or traded to a team that would play and pay him more. McCareins and Santana Moss provide Pennington with a dangerous set of receivers.
This is the "off" year in the New England Patriots' recent pattern of winning every other Super Bowl. Still, with the offseason improvements made by the defending champions, it's likely that everyone else in the AFC East will be playing for second place. But the Buffalo Bills still have holes and the Miami Dolphins have endured a tumultuous offseason, so it's not farfetched to think that the Jets could be in the thick of that race for second.
Upshaw Says He Has No Plans to Succeed Tagliabue
In a breakfast meeting with Washington Post editors and reporters on Wednesday, Gene Upshaw, 58, said he plans to retire as executive director of the NFL Players Association by the time he's 65. And he said he won't be a candidate to succeed Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, 63, who recently agreed to a three-year contract extension that runs until the spring of 2008.
"I was asked this one time about Paul's job, what I thought about it," Upshaw said. "And I said the one thing I don't like about his job is, he has 32 owners and it takes three-fourths of them to agree on anything. We work on a majority. I would much rather take my majority among 1,800 players than his three-fourths vote among 32. That's just hard. That's the only thing I don't like about his job. Other than that, I feel close enough to it, in a sense. We talk all the time . . . I don't want his job, and I'm sure he doesn't want mine. But overall, I don't think I've ever wanted to be the commissioner because I'm close enough to it that I kind of think I'm the co-commissioner anyway."
Upshaw said that he and Tagliabue hope they've set a model for cooperative interaction that will be followed by their successors. He and Tagliabue preside over the most prosperous league in pro sports, and Upshaw said he is not bothered by criticism that he is too close to the commissioner.
"I don't lose any sleep over that when anyone that knows me, that knows our relationship, also knows that you have to be close," he said. "I'm close enough. I haven't had that on our executive committee, on our board of reps. I haven't heard that from too many players who say I'm too close. Where you hear it from is people who don't agree with something that we have decided to do in the best interests of the game -- in the best interests of the fans, the players and the owners.
"That's our job. Whatever we do, we have to do it in the best interests of those three groups. A lot of people don't see that. If they disagree with that, they say, 'He just did that -- he went along with that drug-testing program because Tagliabue wanted it and the NFL wanted it and he's too close.' That's the guy who just got popped for testing positive and cheating on the rest of the guys . . . You can catch more bees with honey than with vinegar. I learned that in Texas a long time ago."
Upshaw also said Wednesday:
• That representatives for the union and the league have had a few meetings to begin negotiating an extension of their labor agreement, which runs through the 2007 season. Upshaw said he hopes to have a deal to present to the players by the completion of the upcoming season. The extension probably will run through the 2011 season, Upshaw said, to coincide with the league's new television contracts. Upshaw said a six-year TV deal is desired because it would enable the three networks to broadcast the Super Bowl at least twice. The NFL's current TV contracts run through the 2005 season. Upshaw also hinted that the union will seek a heftier percentage of revenues for the players under the salary cap.
"I think there will be a pretty significant change on how we approach the whole economic model," Upshaw said. "The way that we approached it in the past and a lot of things that we did 10 years ago, we've outgrown with where we are now. So we have to look at a different way of how do I get more to my guys? What I'm saying is, 'I need more money.' That's the whole approach to it, is to try to get more to the players because they [the owners] are making a lot. If you look at the price of a team -- even [Redskins owner Daniel] Snyder, everyone thought he was nuts that he paid as much as he did [$800 million] for the team. But if you look at what it's worth right now, it's now probably $1.4 [billion], $1.5 billion in a very short period of time. So we have to address those. Those are the things that we're kind of looking at."
The extension also could include modifications to the franchise-player rules and possibly could create standard language for clauses in players' contracts, Upshaw said.
• That the union, which oversees the certification and discipline of agents, has decided not to pursue possible sanctions against David Joseph. The agent missed a February deadline to void the remainder of Terrell Owens's contract with the San Francisco 49ers and make the wide receiver a free agent. But the union brought a case before NFL special master Stephen B. Burbank that resulted in a settlement in which Owens was traded to his preferred team, the Philadelphia Eagles, and signed a new contract.
"Basically in the Joseph case, we bailed him out," Upshaw said. "We bailed him out all the way. It was beyond bailing him out. Now we can't go back and prosecute him for something that was in the contract but he didn't see the loophole, and we were able to drive a truck through it and we got it settled. Now we can't go after him, so he's kind of like off the hook. But he knows we're watching."
But Upshaw said disciplinary action is possible for agent Jerome Stanley, who missed a February deadline to void the remainder of wideout Dennis Northcutt's contract with the Cleveland Browns. The union didn't have an Owens-like remedy in Northcutt's case because of differing contract language. Northcutt just signed a three-year, approximately $9 million deal with the Browns but had been offered more money by the club before missing the deadline.
"I'm talking to Dennis Northcutt all the time while this is going on and he's in his agent's office," Upshaw said. "And I'm telling him what happened. They called it an administrative error. An administrative error is going to cost him millions of dollars and his freedom. That's what it did cost him. That's one case we will probably take a close look at."
Upshaw declined to comment on the possibility of pursuing sanctions against Carl Poston, the primary agent for Redskins linebacker LaVar Arrington. Arrington filed a grievance against the Redskins, alleging that the contract extension he signed in December is missing $6.5 million that the sides agreed to verbally.
"We have to try to overcome the contract," Upshaw said. "That's where that case is. I'm in a situation with that case where I can't say very much about it, simply because we're ready to process it and try to adjudicate the case. I don't want to prejudice it in any way . . . . We are going to proceed through the grievance procedure and try to resolve it. We're going to be supporting Arrington in his fight against the Redskins. Meantime, I'm still trying to work it out between Snyder and Arrington . . . . With Poston, we can't do anything with it at this point until it's resolved because we don't want to prejudice the case.
"Obviously we're working with them trying to put up a defense [but] it's going to be hard. That's going to be a tough case to win simply because it's all written down and it's all signed, sealed and delivered. The only way it can settle now is if Snyder decides to try to make it right in some way with Arrington . . . . I can just get them in the room. I can't make them make a decision. I try to at least keep them communicating and all of that."
• That there are too many certified agents and many players are too loyal to the bad ones.
"The reason the problem has gotten worse is that the money has gotten bigger," Upshaw said. "There are more sharks in the water now. These [players], if you talk to them, they put so much trust in this decision and in this person that when you tell them, you confront them with the evidence . . . the player says, 'No it's not. Don't talk bad about my agent.' . . . This year was a different-type year where agents are not reading contracts. Agents are not following through on deadlines. Even after all we've gone through with Northcutt -- we finally got it done a few days ago with Northcutt, and hopefully he'll be happy with that -- but [there are] just too many of them."
The union cannot raise the certification fee for agents to reduce the numbers because legally it cannot make a profit on the program, Upshaw said.
• That Tagliabue will honor the wishes of Pat Tillman's family in deciding how to honor the former Arizona Cardinals safety killed in combat in Afghanistan last month as a member of the U.S. Army Rangers. Tagliabue and Upshaw attended a memorial service for Tillman.
"I know how Tagliabue feels about this," Upshaw said. "He wants to make sure that it's done with the best interests of the family and what the family wants. Before you get out in front of that train, you want to check with them to see what they want to get done. You want to give them some time. We went out to that ceremony. It was very emotional for the family. His dad and his brothers, you could see a little anger there about what had happened because you don't want to accept it. So you just try to give them time."
• That he shares the concerns of some owners about growing revenue disparities between teams. If football ends up being, like baseball, a league of "have" and "have-not" franchises, Upshaw said, the players suffer because the have-not clubs wouldn't spend freely in pursuit of a championship they know they can't achieve.
"We both [the league and the union] have a vested interest in that because it will then destroy the competitive balance," Upshaw said. "Right now, everyone's got a pretty good chance, if you've got pretty good talent, to win. In baseball, it's who's going to play the Yankees . . . . We don't want to get to that. Our sport depends so much on television and so much on attendance. You need the interest in the stands with the fans to drive the television, to drive the merchandising and all the other pieces of the puzzle to make it work."
• That he hopes to see former USC wide receiver Mike Williams return to school and try to have his eligibility restored by the NCAA instead of suing the NFL. Upshaw said he's been told by USC Coach Pete Carroll that Williams could become academically eligible to play for the Trojans next season by attending summer school. "He's going to SC," Upshaw said. "He's not going to Yale."
Williams and former Ohio State tailback Maurice Clarett are ineligible to play in the NFL this year after a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit on Monday reversed a February ruling by a federal judge that made Clarett temporarily eligible for last month's draft. Williams was the only prominent player to enter the draft after the NFL set a new deadline for previously ineligible players in the aftermath of Scheindlin's decision, which held that the league's draft-eligibility rule (that a player must be at least three years removed from high school) violates antitrust laws.
The appeals-court judges wrote that the rule is exempt from antitrust scrutiny because it resulted from collective bargaining. Clarett's attorney, Alan C. Milstein, filed a brief Wednesday asking the full appeals court to hear the case.
"We were all put in a situation by the district court," Upshaw said. "The district court first said he's eligible, so we all had to comply with what the district court said. Once the district court had finished and the NFL appealed and everyone read the decision, it was just so out of whack that you knew it was going to get overturned . . . I really feel bad for the two kids because they're like in no-man's land. Obviously they don't want to go to school because that's why they dropped out in the first place, and now they say that they're being deprived of a chance to make money in employment. But we have a right as a union to negotiate entry into the work force. That's what unions do all the time. We happen to agree with the NFL that you need such a rule . . . . I've always supported staying in school.
"What happens to these two kids is a big concern of mine because whatever happens, in a year they're going to be in our unit, one way or the other. So do they come in as good citizens or [mad] at everyone else that's been around? If you read some of the quotes I've been seeing coming out of the Williams camp, it's almost as if we [the union] sided with the NFL and turned on him. Well, we didn't. We had to do what the courts told us to do. I publicly said, 'I support the rule.' And I think the rule should be there."
Williams's agent, Michael Azzarelli, has said that Williams's NFL eligibility should be considered separately from Clarett's because he entered the draft only after the league set the new deadline. But Williams said in a conference call with reporters when he entered the draft that he understood that the Clarett ruling could be overturned. Upshaw said he agrees with NFL officials who have said that Williams and his representative were given sufficient notice that the league would try to reverse the original Clarett decision and would keep Williams out of the league if successful.
"He was warned," Upshaw said. "He knew, and he knew the consequences. In many respects, he might be in a position where he had a little more knowledge about what was going on than Clarett . . . . If you go back and research, you'll see clips where Williams said, 'I don't care about the Clarett decision. I'm staying in school.' Then all of a sudden the [late-February NFL scouting] combine takes place. And at the combine they looked at all of the receivers and someone says, 'If Williams was in the draft, man, he could be a top-five pick.' So immediately the dollar signs go off in his head -- 'I don't want to go to school anyway. I'm just here until next year, and then I'm out of here.' And I'm sure he was convinced. I'm sure he was convinced by an agent that, 'It's better for you to get into the NFL now. You're going to be a top-five pick. Why wait? You have nothing else to gain. You're not going to get any higher than that by staying another year.' And so he took his chance."
Friday: Oakland Raiders
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