Forrest Gregg looked out from beneath his furry eyebrows and smiled. "Vince (Lombardi) warned me not to go into coaching," he said, shaking his head slowly. "But I bet not even he anticipated the things that could happen in today's game."
When Gregg, the coach of the beleaguered Cincinnati Bengals, was an all-pro offensive tackle with Green Bay, life in the National Football League was much simpler. Teams didn't worry about drugs, agents, spring leagues and players unions.
But this is 1983, and Gregg has all those concerns and more. His Bengals have become a microcosm of everything that has turned the NFL upside down these past few months. You name it, and the Bengals are bothered by it.
Drugs? Two players, starting fullback Pete Johnson and starting defensive end Ross Browner, have been suspended for at least four games by Commissioner Pete Rozelle for admitting in court testimony that they purchased cocaine.
USFL troubles? Two players, Pro Bowl wide receiver Cris Collinsworth and Pro Bowl tight end Dan Ross, have signed future contracts with USFL teams. Ross will join the Boston Breakers after this season, Collinsworth will go to Tampa after 1985. And just days before the opening of camp, Offensive Coordinator Lindy Infante was fired after agreeing to coach the USFL's new Jacksonville franchise next season.
Holdouts? All-pro tackle Anthony Munoz is not in camp. He made $125,000 last year; he wants $400,000 this year, although his contract still has three seasons, plus an option, remaining. He is being fined $1,000 a day, and the Bengals say they will not renegotiate.
Future contract hassles? As many as a dozen Bengals are either on the last year of their contracts or in their option season. One, linebacker Jim LeClair, already has told the team he wants to leave. Some players predict that six or more of their teammates could be USFL-bound by next season.
Injuries? Starting linebacker Bo Harris has a wrist that hasn't healed properly. He isn't in camp and could miss the entire season.
And those are just the big headaches. There are other minor irritations. Rookie center Dave Rimington, the team's No. 1 draft choice and a two-time Outland Trophy winner, has a lucrative $1.23 million contract that makes him the second-highest paid player on the team. The veterans weren't enthralled with that, nor were they pleased when Cincinnati traded starting center Blair Bush, a team leader, to make room for Rimington.
And Rimington has had difficulty executing the snap to the quarterback, which has left him unsettled, the coaches uneasy and teammates shaking their heads.
Gregg likens the Bengals to a machine with all the pieces on the ground. Mike Brown, Cincinnati's assistant general manager, simply says, "Pro football is beset by a good number of problems and we have had our share. We just try to do what is right, do the best we can and go on from there."
But where do the Bengals go from here? Ross and Collinsworth have played well in training camp and Gregg says he is not worried about their attitude this season. But without Munoz and Bush, a good offensive line suddenly is questionable, especially in the Bengals' pass-oriented offense.
Johnson, who has led the team in rushing the last six years, played at 270 pounds after the strike last year; heaven knows what his weight will be if and when he is reinstated this season.
Browner is a defensive leader on a line that needs to improve its rush; he might be missed more than Johnson, who could be traded before appearing again in a Bengal uniform.
Cincinnati certainly never has hesitated to unload disgruntled players. The last to go was quarterback Jack Thompson, sent in the offseason to Tampa Bay for a No. 1 draft choice after he sued the team last year over a contract problem brought on by the players' strike.
Brown says he never has asked himself, why us? But this certainly has become a primer on how a quality team (Super Bowl loser to San Francisco two years ago, playoffs last year) possibly could be destroyed by off-field troubles.
"It was a terrible offseason, something I've never been through before," said Gregg, who is trying to make it through the season with a short staff. Bruce Coslet, who had been special teams and tight end coach, now is offensive coordinator, so Gregg is helping out with Coslet's old duties, along with other members of the staff.
"Of course, no one is forcing me to coach. I'm just glad to get into camp. At least here, you settle into a routine and seem to have more control over things."
The Bengals at least are trying to fight back on some fronts. They've made offers to players from both the Boston and Tampa franchises in the USFL.
"If a team from a rival league signs one of our players to a future contract, we'll attempt to sign their players to future contracts, too," Brown said. "If they leave us alone, we'll leave them alone. Otherwise they will pay."
But this conservative franchise, molded by Paul Brown ("Everyone is useful, no one is necessary"), also is not about to alter its fiscal approach noticibly to negate any USFL threat. Team policy is to use the minimums set by the collective bargaining agreement as its standard salary level. The Bengals also rarely include incentive clauses in contracts. Mike Brown says neither stance will change.
Nor will the Bengals begin outlandish bidding for their veteran free agents. "If they get offers from the USFL and we bid for them and they sign with the other league, that's competition and so be it," he said.
But Bengals players hope the USFL flirtations keep coming.
"The guys are happy for me, because they know it will open the door for them eventually," said Ross, who will make $1.5 million over three years to play in his home town.
"They also know I'll play hard this year. You can't think about the future; I just want to survive week to week. But I hope people don't think of me as a traitor; I have been treated well by the Bengals, but geez, how could I pass up what they were offering me?
"I look at it like I'm Carl Yastrzemski. He's retiring from major league baseball. I'm just retiring from major league football."
To help Collinsworth's concentration, Tampa included in its $3 million, five-year offer, incentives for this season, while he still is with Cincinnati. Although Ross is concerned about fan reaction ("I've stayed up nights thinking how they will react the first time I drop a pass"), Collinsworth hats remain the hottest seller at Camp Bengal.
"If anything, I think all the offseason stuff is going to have the opposite effect than expected on the team," said Collinsworth, an engaging, easygoing free spirit who signed in part with Tampa because he wanted to return to his home state. "We don't think about it on the football field. To me, it was a relief to start playing ball again. On the field, your teammates and coaches don't want to talk about it."
But in the locker room, there has been plenty of talk, especially about the absence of Munoz and the firing of Infante.
Brown says Munoz, the best left tackle in the league after only three seasons, has too many years left on his contract to renegotiate. "The first years of his contract were favorable to him and we lived with it and now the last part is favorable to us and we expect him to live with it," Brown said, after putting down "History of Western Philosophy" by Bertrand Russell.
Infante's dismissal, and the Bengals' subsequent suit for breech of contract, put pressure on both Gregg and Coslet, the young coordinator. This was Infante's offense, one that quarterback Ken Anderson has executed so smoothly the last few seasons.
After a shaky start, Coslet has his duties ironed out, but it's apparent the success of the offense will depend even more heavily on the experience of Anderson, who quietly had his contract renegotiated in the offseason to a four-year, $2 million pact.
"We've got a lot of young players who have to step in and play well for us," Gregg said. "But our major problem now is depth. Others have to become quality backups. I just hope we've seen the last of our difficulties. I imagine there are other things that can happen to us, but I can't imagine what. Matter of fact, I don't even want to think about what we've missed out on."