As NFL's '82 season kicks off, who -- if anyone -- will be on the field?
Seven-Up gave us the UnCola, and now the National Football League may be giving us the UnSeason.
Translated, that's a season minus the effervesence of a full 16-week campaign , due to a players strike. The chances of this happening appear good unless the players' association and Management Council suddenly kiss and make up. Talks, which broke off in August, have reconvened this week, with the owners reportedly prepared to make a new proposal before the NFL's first weekend of games.
The labor problem is only the biggest black cloud over the league. Others have billowed out of an onslaught of drug-related revelations and the NFL's failure to keep the Raiders in Oakland.
Before examining these problems, however, some on-the-field football news deserves attention.
To an already slick passing attack, the Super Bowl champion San Francisco 49 ers have added receivers Russ Francis, an all-pro who's come out of retirement, and Renaldo Nehemiah, the world's best high hurdler and football's Grand Experiment. (Though an exceptional athlete who's twice won TV's Superstars competition, Nehemiah hasn't worn pads since high school.)
Down the coast in Los Angeles, owner Georgia Frontiere of the Rams made a deal for Baltimore quarterback Bert Jones. That prompted starter Pat Haden to retire and take a TV job. Vince Ferragamo, meanwhile, returned from Canada hat in hand, or so it seemed. Having once been the team's budding matinee idol and the only quarterback ever to take the Rams to the Super Bowl, Ferragamo may not settle for backup duty and could be traded at the first available opportunity.
In Cleveland, the focus of everyone's attention is Tom Cousineau, the game's first $3.5 million linebacker. Unlike Ferragamo, Cousineau played his cards right in going to Canada, where he arrived fresh out of Ohio State three years ago. Buffalo made Tom the NFL's top draft choice in 1979, but lost him to the Browns in a free agent bidding war to the Browns, who forked over three future draft choices. Cousineau's contract, which paid $1 million up front, calls for him to receive $500,000 a year for five years. Whether his comparatively indigent teammates will expect Tom to make every tackle isn't known yet.
Three new head coaches are preparing to make their debuts, and all three - Frank Kush, Ron Meyer, and Mike Ditka - are nearer the Vince Lombardi end of the spectrum than thought possible in this laid-back era.
The controversial Kush, the former drill sergeant of Arizona State football, has come to the Baltimore Colts after a successful one-year stint in (where else?) the Canadian Football League. He takes over a 2-14 team that may have the potential to go 0-16. Without Bert Jones, Kush will have to throw rookie quarterback Mark Pagel or Art Schlichter to the Lions (Bengals, et. al.).
Meyer arrived in New England after completing a tremendous rehab job at Southern Methodist. Coaching the league's certified worst team promises to be an even bigger challenge, particularly with his toe-the-line philosophy.Veterans are already squawking about his rule against leaving the hotel on road trips.
In Ditka, a former Bear tight end and Dallas assistant coach, Chicago got just the hard-nosed, no-nonsense type it wanted. He has run a mean training camp, with more full-bore scrimmaging than normal.
The talk in Minnesota isn't about the coach - Bud Grant you take for granted - but about the team's new playpen, the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome. Having grown fond of their games on Metropolitan Stadium's frozen tundra, the Vikings are finding life in ''Minnesota's Crockpot'' (oh, for some air conditioning) a new experience.
The move indoors, of course, is not nearly as jolting as the Raiders' 500 -mile migration from Oakland. The league fought the move in a protracted court battle, but lost. Now it fears other franchises may relocate with no regard for civic loyalties.
The Oakland community faithfully supported the Raiders for many years, but maverick owner Al Davis sought even greener pastures in Los Angeles , where he worked out an attractive rental agreement with the L. A. Coliseum and stands to make more in TV revenues down the road.
As it is, the NFL's 28 teams already are dripping in television money. In March, the league signed a new five-year contract with the three major networks for a whopping $2 billion. Divided equally, which is pro football's unique way of doing things, each team receives $14 million a year.
With little sympathy for hardly destitute owners, the proletariat is digging in at the bargaining table, demanding that 55 percent of the gross revenues go toward wages. Negotiations have thus far proved fruitless, with management bent on ignoring the players' shouts of ''We are the game.''
Life during the preseason has gone on pretty much as expected. The players haven't gone on the picket line, as they did in 1974, nor have the owners locked them out of training camps.
The tensions are real, though, and have surfaced in various ways. When Denver quarterback Craig Morton said he wouldn't support the union, Gene Upshaw, the association's player president, warned that such disloyalty wouldn't be forgotten on game days. Upshaw's remark was insensitive, but so was the owners' ill-advised reaction to a harmless union ploy. By threatening to fine players who shook hands (in a show of union solidarity) before preseason games, the owners did nothing but instill the spirit of Lech Walesa into the rank and file. Management backed off, but the harm was already done.
Where things go from here is anybody's guess. Some think the players will strike several games into the season, after they've collected a few paychecks. The owners no doubt have a counter-strategy in mind. So no one should be surprised to suddenly find stadiums padlocked or old movies replacing Sunday afternoon doubleheaders.
As though this situation isn't complicated enough, the NFL also finds itself grappling with an image problem. When ex-player Don Reese collaborated with Sports Illustrated on a harrowing story about cocaine use in the NFL, players all over the league started going public as well.
Among those who admitted to his mistake was New Orleans running back George Rogers, a Heisman Trophy winner who led the league in rushing last season as a rookie. Like other players, Rogers stated he'd undergone treatment for drug abuse, but the league was still stuck with the ticklish business of finding a solution to its drug problems. To check for drugs by urinalysis, or not to check, that is the question that has helped fuel labor-management differences.
Further furrowing the NFL's brow is the formation of a rival league. By beginning its inaugural season in March, the newly launched United States Football League won't actually compete head-to-head with the NFL. Eventually, though, it could steal some of the NFL's thunder.
For the moment, the league just wants everyone's attention focused on the playing field. Cleveland Coach Sam Rutigliano says ''28 teams believe they can be in the playoffs.'' And why shouldn't they, after seeing San Francisco and Cincinnati make it to the Super Bowl last season? So say it again, Sam, and hold your breath that there'll be playoffs come January.