If the coming of the U.S. Football League was supposed to start a salary revolution in the National Football League, it has been a popgun uprising.
The majority of the 252 NFL free agents have yet to profit from USFL competition. For every NFL player who has parlayed a USFL offer into a more lucrative NFL contract, there are 20 or 30 still waiting for their first serious feeler from the new league.
Two major factors have led to this situation. Even though USFL owners are, for the most part, financially well off, not all of them are enthusiastic about paying lucrative salaries. So there has been no open bidding war between the 12 USFL teams and the 28 NFL clubs. Also, NFL executives have refused to panic in the face of USFL competition, so there has been no great rush to sign free agents. That hesitation will remain as long as USFL attendence continues to drop--from approximately 200,000 for five games the first weekend to about 80,000 last weekend.
"I would say that I'm further along in negotiations with my free agents than I might have been in past years," said Redskins General Manager Bobby Beathard, who has signed two of his 16, John Riggins and Rich Milot. "I guess that is because of the USFL. It got us started talking quicker. But we aren't signing anyone that much faster."
The Redskins didn't want to lose either Riggins or Milot, both of whom had USFL offers. Washington responded with quick counteroffers, and both players wound up with substantial increases.
Throughout the league, most players who could entice the USFL into making an offer have profited. But of the 252 free agents in the NFL as of Feb. 1, fewer than 10 had signed new NFL contracts before the league convention last week.
For the most part, the USFL has spent its big bucks on head coaches and rookies, just as the league's founders had hoped when making preliminary plans last year. It was never the intent of the USFL to make full-scale raids on the NFL; instead, the league aimed to be immediately competitive for draft-eligible college superstars.
Of course, those USFL executives never envisioned signing Herschel Walker, either. That move, by the New Jersey Generals, has given a misleading image of the league's willingness to spend money for players.
"There are a lot of owners in the USFL who don't want to offend the NFL," said one USFL executive. "They don't want a bidding war, they don't want to make this a 'them or us' situation. The whole purpose of the league was to set up a complementary spring league to the fall NFL. A lot of people didn't want to see us go the way of the WFL (the now extinct World Football League) and sign a lot of older NFL veterans. It just didn't work."
Perhaps that's why one of the NFL's most prominent free agents, quarterback Dan Fouts of San Diego, is home in Oregon waiting for someone to fulfill his dream of a $1 million a year contract.
San Diego says it has no intention of paying him that much. And if a USFL team was interested, it would seem logical that Fouts would have been signed by now, before the season becomes too old.
Instead, Coach Don Coryell says the Chargers might be forced to either trade for a quarterback or draft one if Fouts isn't signed by draft day April 26. Coryell made no mention of Fouts switching to the USFL, just the possibility of Fouts holding out.
The NFL players most likely to be sought by the USFL are younger athletes who can have their best years in the new league. Cincinnati tight end Dan Ross already has signed a 1984 contract with the Boston Breakers, meaning he will be a lame duck Bengal this coming season. Teammate Cris Collinsworth apparently is discussing a USFL offer that might not take effect until 1985 or 1986.
"Losing veteran players had an effect on our team, no doubt about it," said Miami's Don Shula, who lost Paul Warfield, Larry Csonka and Jim Kiick to the old WFL and had to cope with them being lame ducks for a year. "But what I think did more damage was all the guaranteed contracts that we gave out in the ensuing years, just to make sure people stayed with us. I think that had an effect on the caliber of play. It hurt us."
Guaranteed contracts are one of the USFL's strongest selling points, mainly because the NFL usually avoids such agreements.
"I don't think anyone wants to fall into the guarantee trap anymore," Shula said.
Interestingly, there already are indications that some NFL players are being adversely affected by last fall's new collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and its players union. Those veteran players are the ones who will get dramatic salary increases under the new pay scale (based on years of service), increases that they feel will price them out of the NFL market for fringe athletes and specialists.
"There are some players who got large increases under terms of the contract," said Jack Donlan, executive director of the league's Management Council. "But the wage scale was designed to benefit players' income."
However, for example, if an eighth-year punter is now worth $110,000 instead of $70,000, teams may want to look for a younger kicker whose price would be much smaller. A rookie, for example, must earn $40,000 next year.
Now, of course, good young replacements may not be so readily available to the NFL. One of the USFL's long-range effects will be to drain the pool of available free agent talent.
"I don't know what's going to happen when we have someone hurt in midseason and we go looking for a replacement," said New York Jets Coach Joe Walton. "There won't be as many good players out there waiting to be signed. They will most likely be tied up with USFL contracts. That's going to hurt us, I think."
The USFL also will influence roster cuts near the end of training camp. "You've got an old player and a young player and you know if you cut the young one, he probably will wind up in the USFL right away," said St. Louis Coach Jim Hanifan. "I believe you'll think twice about letting the young one go. Right now, I can look at the USFL and see guys who weren't quite ready for the NFL. Now they are playing well in the USFL.
"Those are the players we have to hang onto. In two or three years, they would be respectable NFL players. But not if they are in the wrong league."
Of course, to hang onto those fringe players, the NFL would have to increase the size of team rosters from 45 to, perhaps, 49. But that would mean spending more money on salaries. And many owners don't want to do that, USFL or no USFL.