Sunday, July 19, 1998

Smith deal raises bar for league's ball carriers

By Rick Gosselin, The Dallas Morning News

July 19, 1998

Minnesota halfback Robert Smith has long been an annoyance on the field for NFC Central rivals Chicago and Green Bay. This off-season, he became a greater annoyance off the field.

The Bears and Packers do not have their 1,000-yard rushers of a year ago under contract and Smith is as much to blame as anyone - blame that can be traced to the five-year, $25 million deal he signed with the Vikings in March."The Robert Smith contract helped every other running back in the NFL by raising the standard," said Neil Cornrich, Smith's agent.

That was supposed to include Raymont Harris, who rushed for 1,033 yards for the Bears last season, and Dorsey Levens, who rushed for 1,435 yards for the Packers. Having played out their contracts in 1997, they envisioned Robert Smith-type money this off-season, too - but it was money their clubs were unwilling to pay. The fallout is that Harris has now replaced Levens in the Green Bay backfield.

Blame - or credit - the Smith contract. Most NFL teams considered it excessive. They argue that Smith's contract didn't raise the standard for running backs, it lowered it.

His contract told players you don't have to be a Barry Sanders or an Emmitt Smith to receive $5 million per year. The Vikings are paying Smith elite money without him ever having achieved elite status. He has never been to a Pro Bowl in his five seasons.

Smith's productivity has been spotty. He has only 12 100-yard rushing games and 18 touchdowns in his five-year career. Elite backs such as Sanders have had more 100-yard games in a single season (14 in 1997) and Emmitt Smith more touchdowns (25 in 1995).

Robert Smith's participation also has been spotty. He has missed almost as many games in his career as he has started . He has never lasted a 16-game season, missing time with the chicken pox, an ear infection and assorted ankle, knee and hip injuries.

Smith, in fact, rushed for 1,000 yards for the first time in his career in 1997. Also rushing for 1,000 in 1997 for the first time in their careers were Harris and Levens.

Levens outperformed Smith at individual and team levels. He went to the Pro Bowl and his Packers went to the Super Bowl. In his opinion, he's worth more than Smith. And that's what he's reportedly been seeking - a long-term contract averaging about $5.3 million per year.

The Packers slapped the franchise tag on Levens. That guaranteed him a one-year contract at an average salary of the NFL's five highest-paid running backs. But that's only $2.74 million, a little more than half of what he's asking.

With negotiations at a standstill - and needing a running back to defend their NFC championship - the Packers signed Harris on Friday on the eve of training camp.

Harris was an interesting tale himself. The Bears placed the transition tag on him in February. That guaranteed him a one-year contract at an average salary of the NFL's 10 highest-paid running backs. But that was only $2.46 million.

Harris, who also has a history of injuries and also is represented by Cornrich, wanted a multi-year contract from the Bears reportedly in the range of $3.2 million per season.

Chicago offered him a one-year deal at $2.85 million in April, but Harris turned it down. So Chicago drafted Penn State halfback Curtis Enis in the first round and removed the tag on Harris. That allowed him to sign with anyone.

But at that late date, with NFL rosters filled and most dollars spent, Harris didn't draw much interest. Only the Packers and Miami Dolphins brought him in for visits, and neither was offering Chicago money. So Harris is now with the Packers at a bargain price, and Levens is in limbo.

Smith may prove to be worth his money. He has always had great size (6-2, 212) and speed (4.3 40 time). He finally gave the Vikings a snapshot of greatness in 1997, when he averaged 5.5 yards per carry and unleashed a 169-yard game on Buffalo. He rushed for 1,266 yards despite missing two games with injuries. If he stays healthy, Smith could compete for future rushing titles.

"Football has always been a game based on expectations," said Cornrich, defending the investment by the Vikings.

Tuesday, February 24, 1998

Stubblefield Signs Blockbuster Contract

Redskins sign Stubblefield
By Larry Weisman

February 24, 1998. pg. 01.C

The Washington Redskins' leaky run defense found a stopper in Dana Stubblefield.

The free-agent defensive tackle left the San Francisco 49ers on Monday and signed a six-year contract worth $36 million (including an $8 million signing bonus) that brings the NFL Defensive Player of the Year to a team desperate for help up front.

"My job is to stop the run. That's what we're going to do," Stubblefield said.

Washington ranked 30th (last) in the NFL against the run in 1996 and 28th in '97. Stubblefield gained more notice for his pass rushing with the 49ers' No. 1-rated defense in '97, finishing with 15 sacks.

Copyright USA Today Information Network Feb 24, 1998

Sunday, February 15, 1998

Innovative Contract Leads to Rich Deal for Dana Stubblefield

Use of franchise, transition labels keeps top talents from free agency

BY: Len Pasquarelli, STAFF WRITER
DATE:February 15, 1998

By the time the 1998 free agent signing period opened for business Friday morning, the market resembled a local grocery store on a day when a two-inch snowfall was expected.

Caught in a frenzy by the league's new TV contracts and the resulting increase of $11 million in this year's salary cap, to $52.338 million, general managers used "franchise" designations and lucrative signing bonuses to retain their best players during a 48-hour rush before the signing period began The upshot of their spending spree is a veteran market with the shelves picked clean of most of the prized commodities some teams have been coveting for months…

…Considering only the moves teams made Thursday, the day before the signing period, about two dozen blue-chip players went off the free-agent market. Between "franchise" and "transition" designations and new deals negotiated that day, NFL clubs committed at least $121 million in compensation for 1998. There were new record contracts signed at three different positions.

What remains, now that the dust has settled, is a talent pool that represents the weakest "top 30" ever presented by the Journal-Constitution (see chart).

The severely diluted Class of '98 still is better than classes of the old "Plan B" system, when, during a three-year period in the late 1980s, clubs overspent for marginal players. But the 1998 class lacks the quality and depth that had been anticipated by personnel men leaguewide.

Call it "Plan B-plus" for lack of a better term.

"There are some positions now where it's just about tapped out already," Oakland personnel chief Ken Herock said. "You knew some big-name guys would go off the market, but not to this extent. And the (dollar) figures are huge."

Nowhere was the impact of the premarket signings more profound than at offensive tackle and defensive tackle, two areas that were supposed to feature a veritable free-agent treasure-trove. Of the nine top-rated defensive tackles, five received "franchise" designations. Eric Swann re-signed in Arizona, and Minnesota star John Randle has a "transition" tag. That left Dana Stubblefield (San Francisco) and Joel Steed (Pittsburgh) as the true quality players at the position. At offensive tackle, the re-signings of Todd Steussie in Minnesota and Bruce Armstrong at New England left the Steelers' John Jackson as the best left tackle and journeyman James Brown the best available right-side tackle. Steussie, in whom the Falcons had an interest, signed a four-year, $22 million deal that includes a $6 million signing bonus and makes him the highest-paid blocker in history.

"I played four years to get my freedom, but there was a price at which I'd surrender it, and (the Vikings) paid it," Steussie said. "Being a free agent, out on the market, would have been great, but how much better could I have done, realistically? If this is what indentured servitude is all about, I'll take it."
The signing frenzy Thursday was, many veteran observers agreed, one of the most phenomenal things witnessed in the past 20 years. Teams held the threat of the "franchise" designations over the heads of players and agents for forced deals. Since the "franchise" tags are lower than most of the players would command on the open market and don't include any up-front bonuses, players squirmed and then signed.

One who called his team's bluff was Baltimore center Wally Williams. Ravens officials offered a choice ---a four-year, $10 million contract or the "franchise" designation, a oneyear tender at $3.052 million. "When he rejected the offer, they wasted no time in putting the `tag' on him," said agent Tom Condon said.

The day left agent Neil Cornrich looking like the smartest man in America. Cornrich represents Stubblefield, arguably the best unrestricted player in the market, and he had included in the previous contract the stipulation that the 49ers could not designate his client as a "franchise" or "transition" player. The "franchise" tag is worth $2.883 million. On the open market, the five-year veteran could command as much as $6 million per year. "You don't think Dana is one happy fellow right now?" Cornrich said.

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