George Young, general manager of the New York Giants, once was shown an "all-star" team of big-name players who had been released in training camp. He was asked how many games it might win in the NFL.
"None," Young replied without hesitation.Young and the rest of the NFL's personnel people hope the same principle applies to the players whom the 28 teams left unprotected as the league's new free agency plan took effect Wednesday
Although the official lists won't be released until late Thursday or Friday, the drift has become clear the past few days as players acknowledge they've been told their status. Many of the players reportedly left unprotected are among the game's biggest names, most of them in their declining years.
They include Steve Largent of Seattle, the NFL's all-time leading pass receiver; veteran All-Pro center Mike Webster of Pittsburgh, the last holdover from the Steelers' Super Bowl teams of '70s; Charles White of the Los Angeles Rams, a one-time Heisman Trophy winner who led the NFL in rushing in 1987; three-time Pro Bowl guard Russ Grimm and 16-year defensive tackle Dave Butz of Washington; perennial All-Pro defensive tackle Randy White of the Cowboys; Ottis Anderson of the Giants, the 11th leading rusher in NFL history; and such former Pro Bowlers as Wesley Walker of the Jets, Jim Burt of the Giants, Cris Collinsworth of the Bengals, E.J. Junior of the Cardinals and Joe Klecko of the Colts.
But most had the same reaction as teams tried to protect young prospects, knowing that other teams would be unlikely to pursue high-salaried veterans who are well-settled in their home areas.
"I knew a long time ago they would do this," said Webster, who will be 37 next season. "They would be foolish not to put me on the list."
"I understand why they're doing this but it kind of hurts your ego a little bit," said Grimm, who will be 30 on May 2 and makes $450,000 a year. "Will I look around? I don't think I'll look that hard but if the phone rings I'll answer it. Obviously, the Redskins don't look at this as a gamble on me. How many teams will pay that type of salary, and I'm getting on in years."
The plan was unilaterally imposed by the owners without union consent as an attempt to satisfy Judge David Doty, presiding over the antitrust suit filed by the NFL Players Association at the end of the 24-day strike in 1987. It took effect following a last-ditch meeting on the morning of the Super Bowl Jan. 22 between negotiators for the two sides that ended as fruitlessly as the rest of the numerous union-management sessions in the past two years.
It allows each team to protect 37 players with the rest - even those with existing contracts - to negotiate with any other team until April 1. If they have not gone elsewhere by then, they revert back to their old teams with their old contracts.
Moreover, teams are allowed to protect players whose contracts have expired under the old rules, which require a team signing a player to give his old team the right of first refusal and surrender draft choices as compensation. Only two players have changed teams in a decade under that season - the most notable linebacker Wilber Marshall, who went from Chicago to Washington a year ago.
Most teams considered the roster-pruning chore difficult and many let the big names float free while protecting unknowns who spent 1988 on injured reserve.
"There's no general philosophy to abide by," said Ernie Accorsi, executive vice president of the Cleveland Browns. "You've got to protect the great players, obviously. And you've got to hang on to the young players who are not making the big money or they're going to be stolen."