If less than a month remains before NFL teams begin to whack each other in anger, the Baltimore Colts must be in turmoil. Two years ago the coach quit - briefly - during a power struggle with the general manager. This time an owner who will be getting about $5 million in new income will not part with about $50,000 to get his star runner running.
It always is easy to spend someone else's money, as George Allen showed us. And perhaps Lydell Mitchell is asking for more than the reported $200,000 per year. Also, he may be earning more than the reported $99,000. But not that much more, and whatever owner Robert Isray needed to coax Mitchell back to camp should have been promised long ago.
Mitchell was the Colt's most valuable player before Bert Jones became a superior NFL quarterback. He still is. Without Mitchell - or whatever he might bring in trade - the Colts are an ordinary team in the toughest division in the league.
In truth, the impasse already may well have hampered Mitchell beyond repair this season, even if he got exactly what he demanded and reported for the afternoon workout today. As learned by Larry Brown and Mike Thomas of the Redskins, among others, missed workouts often lead to injuries that never mend the entire season.
And Mitchell is entering a dangerous phase of his career, the seventh year a time when his exceptional durability would be vulnerable even if he had the proper preseason conditioning. O. J. Simpson survived a similar scene; he is the exception.
But then Simpson does not work as hard as Mitchell.
As wonderful and productive as Simpson has been over the last five seasons, Mitchell has worked harder and been hit more often. And apparently for about one-sixth of what Simpson earns.
Mitchell is one of the least appreciated backs in NFL history. Every one of them runs and some of them catch passes. Mitchell does both as well as anyone - and until now allowed some numbers to be his most forceful spokesman.
In the last five years, Mitchell has averaged 285 carries and 56 catches. That's an average of 341 times somebody much bigger and stronger has smacked him to the ground, because Don McCauley usually is allowed to score the touchdowns.
In Simpson's most prolific season as a runner catcher, 1975, the combined number of times he was the man with the football was 357. Mitchell had 372 last season, for a total of 1,779 yards.
Last season Mitchell carried the ball nearly 60 percent of the Colts' running plays and caught nearly a third of their passes. Little wonder he looked about the NFL, at backs much less productive earning much more than he, and finally began to scream.
Probably, both he and Irsay have overreacted in their latest public tirade, after Mitchell apparently charged racial discrimination in a grievance scheduled to be heard before a four-man playerowner committee in 10 days.
That may have been a tactic by Mitchell to force a trade. His reputation is not to talk before considering his words and their impact.
Some Mitchell inconsistencies are obvious. He was the Colt player representative at a time some of the very policies he now finds objectionable were ratified by the players and owners in their collective bargaining agreement. He signed a contract that called for an option year - at a 10 percent raise.
So why doesn't he simply take the raise, as he agred to both as a player and a player rep, work as hard as ever and then realize his worth on the open market after leading the Colts into the playoffs once again?
Well, a man can get hurt in the NFL. And Irsay seems capable of meeting Mitchell's demand without going penniless before December. If they are $50,000 or so apart, everyone seems to forget that each NFL team gets about $5 million for the next four years as part of the new television contract.
There were whispers, apparently management oriented, that Mitchell would not fight for the extra yard, that there was not enough Larry Brown in him. That sort of slander is more than enough to make a fellow cry "racist."
Had Joe Paterno not been so persuasive at the last moment Mitchell would have enrolled at Maryland instead of Penn State. In 1968 Bob Ward had two players in mind to improve the Terrapins immediately; Mitchell was one.
The Colt coach, Ted Marchibroda, convinced Irsay to favor him over Joe Thomas during the intrafamily bickering two years ago; now he has not been able to convince either his boss or star player to bend enough to help the team.
"I'm not trying to push Lydell," Marchibroda said Tuesday, "but if he isn't in camp this week he won't be any use for us for the Dallas game. We'll need all our horses for that game. We can't afford to go into it with only an 80 or 90 percent performance."
The Colts open with Dallas, Miami and New England. If horses is to be the analogy, Irsay seems to be tearing down the stable because he demands Triple Crown runners at Charles Town wages.