About five weeks ago, all-pro defensive tackle Dave Butz left a message for Bobby Beathard, general manager of the Washington Redskins.
The message was simple and to the point. Butz, 34, said he was going to retire after this season. He asked Beathard's secretary to relay the message.
It seems Butz was unhappy with his contract situation. He is in the final year of a three-year contract, earning a $230,000 salary.
Butz would like a new contract and even gave the Redskins a proposal for a new one in September. He says a counterproposal never came.
Several weeks after the 12-year veteran had left his message, Coach Joe Gibbs spoke with Butz. It since has been agreed that Butz will meet with team owner Jack Kent Cooke after the season to negotiate a new contract. (Quarterback Joe Theismann and fullback John Riggins are the only other players known to have negotiated contracts directly with Cooke, rather than with Beathard.)
"Our plans are to sign Butz for a couple more years, anyway," Beathard said. "Everybody is aware of Dave's contract status and we have every intention of signing him. When we will, I can't say."
Right now, Butz says, he is concentrating on playing the Cowboys in Dallas on Sunday and that "everybody's goal here should be to get to the playoffs and go as far as we can and forget the salary stuff."
Still, he was asked, why did he leave such a message? Was it a threat?
"No, it wasn't a threat. There was a time when I was considering retirement," said Butz, who says he would like to play "for two more good years."
"I tried to get a hold of Bobby to tell him, but I never got to see him face to face. I told his secretary to give him the message."
In a way, Butz said, he was testing himself with the message.
"I wanted to hear myself say it. (Redskins officials) were giving me nothing to indicate that they wanted me . . . It's the same runaround that you get. I just wanted to hear myself say it."
And what did he think after he had said it? "I sounded to me like I could be serious. It wasn't a threat that, 'Hey, give me a contract or I'll quit.' It was just a possibility that maybe I could, you know.
"There's no way that you can threaten anybody in this business at any time. No way," Butz said sternly, as if a 6-foot-7, 295-pound man ever needed to speak sternly. "You have nothing to operate with. Maybe some other defensive player could do that, but I can't. And they know that."
Beathard said he wasn't surprised by the message. "Nothing surprises me with any of the players or any of the agents," he said. "Did I take it as a threat? No. You see too many of those kinds of things, we hear about too many of those kinds of things. With the money in today's game, tell me how many players retire?"
The fact is, free agent mobility of big-name veterans in the National Football League has become nearly extinct. Compensation rules make it difficult for a player to finish his contract and skip off to a seven-digit future with another team. That happens in baseball.
If Butz became a free agent in February, when this contract expires, and was signed by another NFL team, that team would have to compensate the Redskins with a first-round and a third-round draft pick. That would be the going compensation for a 13-year player in the $300,000 salary range, as detailed in the collective bargaining agreement.
Nearly 10 years ago, the times and the coaches were different. Back in 1975, former coach George Allen, who used draft picks as barter and not as building blocks, gave St. Louis two firsts and a second-round choice to acquire Butz. This still is considered the largest compensation deal in league history.
It seems unlikely that any team would be willing to part with a first-round and a third-round choice for a 35-year-old player. Asked if he thought a team would give up a first- and third-round pick, Butz said, "I don't know. We'll have to see.
"I don't think I need a whole bunch of money," he said. Asked what he does need, Butz said, "I need to feel like I'm worthwhile to the team and as long as I'm respected as a ballplayer."
He added, "I think I have that now."
Before the Redskins' 31-10 victory at Dallas in Week 15 of last season, Butz was given increased incentive bonuses for, among other things, each quarterback sack and each forced fumble.
In that game against the Cowboys, he sacked quarterback Danny White three times in a nationally televised game. His dominance that day helped him gain the fame that led to his first selection to the Pro Bowl.
Some in the Redskins' organization feel the increased incentives increased Butz's desire that day.
In fact, some NFL observers would write a scouting book on Butz this way: When he wants to play, he can play with the best of them. The key is, he has to want to play.
Butz has heard all this before. He doesn't like it. "I'd say Dave Butz always wants to play," he said. "You also have to look at the way defenses are made up and you have to look at offensive schemes of other teams.
"Last year, it was said that I signed new incentive bonuses and that's why I had such a great game at Dallas. In actuality, in the (team) meetings, I gave Todd (Liebenstein, then the starting defensive left end) half of the credit for me getting the sacks I had. A lot of it was his doing."
Last season, Butz had a career-high 11 1/2 sacks. He has 4 1/2 this season, with two games to play. He was bothered by a foot injury earlier in the season and, most recently, by food poisoning that, he said, mistakenly was called a viral infection.
He did not play in the 41-14 victory over Buffalo two weeks ago, his first absence in five years.
He said he still felt weak during the 31-17 victory in Minnesota last Thursday night. Normally, he plays every down, but against the Vikings, Butz said, "I was spelled on 20-something plays." He said he lost nine pounds, too.
Now, Butz said, he is back to good health. Just in time for Dallas.
One final thing: Asked if he still would consider retiring if he is unable to reach agreement with the Redskins, Butz said, "No. I just take it like it comes one way or the other. It's not like I'm really in dire straits. I've made some good investments, some bad ones, but on the whole I'm coming out pretty good." -- --
The Redskins had a light workout yesterday. Trainer Bubba Tyer said Riggins was released from Sibley Memorial Hospital, where traction has been used to alleviate the pain in his lower back and hips. "He felt like it helped him being there," Gibbs said. "It was total rest. We've got a special bed for his house, so he will try to do the same (traction) there. We're hoping that will give him the rest he needs."