Football junkies are advised that the NFL serfs very likely will not strike until the fourth game of the season. We'll get to why they probably won't walk before Oct. 3 after examining why they probably will if the owners refuse to get serious about free agency.

To fully fathom the lunacy of the owners' latest offer, a fan must see himself as a general manager. Slip under a stopwatch and imagine being in charge of your favorite team, paid to evaluate talent, to determine the value of every player in the NFL just in case Tex Schramm calls and proposes a trade.

Now ask yourself: is Joe Theismann worth two first-round draft picks?


He is a splendid fellow you would invite for dinner; he is not someone a tough-minded, astute businessman would accept for the rights to prospects who could keep two positions on a team solid for a decade.

That's what the most recent proposal by the NFL Management Council included. A guy making Theismann bucks, well over $300,000 a season, would cost any team that signed him as a free agent two first-round draft choices. The owners would sell you a used center for, say, a No. 1.

What they have done, it says here, is wrap the same garbage in a bright new bag. What didn't work during the last contract wouldn't work during the next one. Ed Garvey and the players were hornswaggled four years ago. They agreed to what seemed a reasonable system for player movement, then watched in horror as the owners conspired to make it fail.

You're right. Nobody ever fingered them. But any agreement in which just one draft choice (a No. 3) is exchanged for one player (Norm Thompson) in that amount of time is about as fair as the Redskins having to grease their hands against the Eagles Sunday in Philadelphia.

Compensation is so dear for players being tossed athletic peanuts that they have rejected the offer as insulting. It will remain that way until teams have to give up what Theismann currently is worth in the NFL trade mart:

One first-round choice.


The Redskins and some others tested Theismann's value before he signed a new contract earlier this year. They found, as Jack Kent Cooke's generosity suggests, that Theismann is a whole lot more valuable to the Redskins than he is to any other team.

It may well take a strike for the pro football players to come close to achieving what their brothers in baseball and basketball already have. Simply put, that's because Schramm and his Cowboys have won two Super Bowls and George Allen and the Redskins won none.

Allen was a players' coach in the NFL and will be in the USFL. If it's not his money, George is the game's greatest giver. He also will swap what everyone else considers an outrageous draft-choice price for a veteran player. Generally, he is right.

But not often enough.

Every Super Bowl has been won by a team built the traditional way, through hording draft choices and using them judiciously. This also is the cheapest way. In the NFL, though, balsa wood apparently is stronger than seasoned oak.

The Cowboys have shown, year after year after year, that champions also can maximize profits. They have maybe eight wonderfully gifted players, men who simply cannot be replaced and thus must be paid a handsome wage. Everyone else is a widget, another part off the college football assembly line. Dallas retools almost every season, replacing marginal veterans with rookies nearly as talented who cost much less.

So every other bottom-line owner can keep frustrated fans at bay with the familiar refrain: "The Cowboys always win; their way is the only way." According to the players association, Dallas also plays with "funny money," signing a prospect for a large bonus, most of it deferred. Which means that a Cowboy hog-tying the Redskins in 1982 might get much of his money in 1990 dollars.

It works.

Without owner enlightenment or intent rebellion by the players, it won't change. Guess which is likely to happen first.

Some of us who have watched athletic labor pains over the years are willing to predict when the owners will make their best offer, the one beyond which they are willing to lose the season over: Thursday, Sept. 30. At, say, 3 p.m.

Before then, we can expect the owners to talk about dramatic increases without actually offering them. Or inventing some near bribe, such as that $10,000-a-year bonus -- up to $60,000 -- they dangled before fence-straddlers two days ago.

The players are not likely to strike before October because they are vested in the pension fund for an entire year if they play in the first three games. Or so they assume. Also, they will need a few regular-season checks as a net for a strike that could be as long as it is ugly.

The issue is how passionate the players are to get what they see as their fair share of NFL billions. Their 55-percent-of-gross argument has little appeal among the masses. But the owners' concept of free agency hardly makes a player free. It only loosens the shackles a notch.