It is about to enter uncharted waters this week, and the hierarchy of the National Football League is wondering if it is going to wind up with its own version of "Gilligan's Island."

On Wednesday, for the first time in the history of the NFL, teams will have to willingly release more than a third of their players into the open market as free agents, and almost all of the owners don't like it.

"Any time you have change, there is some reluctance," says Jack Donlan, executive director of the NFL's Management Council, which is proposing the change to combat the Players Association in court. The league is gambling that this new system, in which each team can protect 37 of the 59 (on average) players it owns, will be accepted by the courts.

The plan, put together by the league's lawyers and antitrust advisers, has not been well received by most owners. They would rather see a new collective bargaining agreement that would include some kind of free-agency plan both sides can live with.

Last week there was a move by a few owners and general managers to obtain a delay to see if an accord could be reached with the players, but the majority decided to continue as planned on Feb. 1. The league also held three seminars to bring general managers and coaches up to date on the details of the plan.

"I think it is creative and innovative," says retired San Francisco 49ers Coach Bill Walsh. "To me, it seems like the plan would be fair to everyone."

However, the players' union insists it will accept only a plan in which every player in the league can become a free agent without compensation at some point in his career, and the owners balk at that.

The biggest concern of the owners is that payrolls will be driven up when teams start bidding for players who, for the most part, have not commanded big contracts in the past.

"This is going to be like baseball," says one general manager, who cannot be named in light of the gag rule regarding statements about any phase of the collective bargaining process. "Remember when they went to free agency (in 1976) and guys who were bench players or utilitymen were being offered four or five times more than they had been paid? Big money was given to players who were not worth it, but because several teams were interested in them, it drove the prices up."

Some feel that if Judge David Doty, who has been overseeing the court battle between the players and owners in Minneapolis, decides this free-agency plan is acceptable, the players would have to drop their "complete free agency" stance and come back to the bargaining table looking for other ways to get a better all-around deal.


NO FOOLING AROUND: You can bet that Sam Wyche did not break the bank when he signed a five-year contract to continue coaching the Bengals last week, but you can also bet the team treated him fairly. Owner Paul Brown had told friends before the Super Bowl that if Wyche demanded a megabucks contract, the Bengals would start looking for another coach.

Because Wyche and Brown agreed to terms in less than a day, you can guess that he will be paid in the $600,000 range, but not up there with Walsh ($1.3 million), Joe Gibbs ($1.1 million), Dan Reeves ($900,000) or Tom Landry ($900,000).

A year ago, the heat was on in Cincinnati to fire Wyche. Brown was upset because he thought Wyche was too friendly with some of his players and didn't have enough discipline on the club. Wyche was given the job for 1988 when he agreed to get tougher and act more like the players' boss.

"There was more discipline this year," says defensive end Jason Buck. "The year before, Sam was kind of loose. This year it was different right from the start. He didn't fool around with the players as much as he did before."


McMAHON LOSING SPEED: San Francisco safety Jeff Fuller on Bears quarterback Jim McMahon: "He doesn't have the arm strength he used to have. He doesn't throw the ball with the same velocity. When we beat the Bears in the playoffs, we played their receivers tough off the line of scrimmage, forcing McMahon to throw the ball deep. We just didn't think he could do that consistently because he can't get the ball downfield deep anymore with a lot on it."


POCKET CHANGE NEEDED: Bengals quarterback Boomer Esiason is going to have to show people right from the start next year that he can become a pocket passer. Esiason acknowledges that a lot of his problems in the Super Bowl were due to the 49ers not allowing him to scramble around and ad-lib big plays as he did so well during the regular season to become the league's MVP.

San Francisco felt that Esiason was not a pure, high-average passer and could not throw the ball consistently well enough to keep drives going, unless he could run out of the pocket to throw, especially to his left, or run upfield.


PATRIOTS PASSED ON RICE: Now that Jerry Rice is regarded as the premier receiver in pro football, the Patriots don't look too good for trading away their first-round pick in the 1985 draft to San Francisco, which used it to take him. But people in the league still insist the 49rs made that trade looking to get Eddie Brown of Miami, who was intercepted two picks in front by the Bengals, leaving San Francisco to go after the next-best receiver on the board, Rice.

The Patriots backed up and took Trevor Matich with the last pick on the first round and Garin Veris on the second round. The reason they let Rice go at the time was that they were loaded at wide receiver with Irving Fryar, Stanley Morgan, Cedric Jones and Stephen Starring.

Rice didn't come off very well last week when he blamed the media in San Francisco for not making more out of him being named MVP in the Super Bowl. Rice hinted at racism, claiming that if Joe Montana had won the award, the headlines would have been bigger, and more endorsements would be coming his way.

The racism allegation is a joke. To start with, the people who pick the award winner are white, and it would have been just as easy to pick Montana. In fact, most of the media members waiting outside the locker rooms at the end of the game thought Montana was going to be named MVP, and were mildly surprised at the selection of Rice. Second, endorsements don't come from sportswriters, they are controlled by the major advertising agencies across the country.


CARSON IN GOOD COMPANY: One of the key factors in the Cleveland Browns' selection of Bud Carson as head coach was Carson's bringing along Tony Dungy as defensive coordinator. Dungy quit as the coordinator in Pittsburgh when Steelers coach Chuck Noll decided to reduce Dungy's role to defensive backfield coach. The NFL hierarchy was upset with the Noll move because Dungy was the only black coordinator in the league.