When New Orleans Saints general manager Jim Flinks called the players who would not be on his team's protected list last week, he was surprised by their replies.

"They didn't know what I was talking about," said Finks. "They really didn't know what was going on."

If a lot of players in the National Football League really didn't know what the owners were up to when they implemented the new free agency system, they are in for a few more surprises.

For example, as of Feb. 1, the players no longer have severance pay. The league's annual payments of $10,000 per player into severance funds will cease starting with the 1989 season.

For example, the league has changed its drug policy _ random testing will be done before and after regular-season and postseason play.

For example, the owners are dissolving their partnership with the NFL Players Association in the Bert Bell Retirement Plan. The benefits for the players will remain the same, but the union will have no say in the distribution of the money _ the owners will control it.

Under labor law, the owners can implement these changes with the impasse situation that exists.

"This is the first time we can test year-round, and I think it is a very positive step," said New York Giants general manager George Young. "There is only one way to try to stop this stuff, and that is testing. In the past, there were no more tests when the season ended until the next season, and the players knew this. Now teams will continue testing right through the offseason, and when players know they can be tested at any moment, they are going to give what they do a lot more thought."

Young also noted that players seemed dumbstruck when the new free agency plan went into effect.

"I didn't talk to the players directly," said Young, "but I got the word back through some of their agents that these guys didn't know what it was all about. We had a guy on our team who was big during the strike, carrying around a sign about free agency and doing a lot of talking about how free agency is the big thing. Then when he is told he is unprotected and is a free agent, he says, `Why me? I don't want to be a free agent.' That is something, isn't it? His agent tells me, `George, you can't win either way. They are mad when they don't have free agency and mad when you make them a free agent.' "

Even more players will be mad when they realize that, as a group, they are losing $16 million in severance pay, and that all of them are subject to unscheduled drug testing, a first in any major sports league.

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CHARGER DECISION DUE: San Diego Chargers general manager Steve Ortmayer hopes to name a head coach this week. "We were hoping to get it done before this," said Ortmayer, "but we are going to put a new coach on the back burner for a few days and concentrate our efforts on the workouts in Indianapolis."

Ortmayer, along with the other general managers and many personnel directors and coaches, are in Indiana to inspect the top 300 players expected to be drafted in April. Word has it that Dan Henning, quarterback coach of the Washington Redskins, and Mike White, former coach at Illinois, are the top two contenders for the San Diego job.

However, Ortmayer has told friends he has "a couple of different thoughts" he might explore before he and owner Alex Spanos come to a decision. . . .

NFL scouts were happy to hear that the NCAA, at a Rules Committee meeting in January, voted to outlaw kicking tees for extra points and field goals. As in the NFL, tees will be used only for kickoffs.

In the past, some players produced great kicking statistics in college but were miserable failures when they performed without tees in the NFL. Drafting kickers thus was something of a gamble.

The NCAA made the switch because too much of the scoring increase in the college game in recent years was attributable to better field goal and extra point kicking. The committee wanted to make it more difficult for the kickers.

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BACKFIELD BOUNCES BACK: Saints coach Jim Mora feels a lot better about the health of his starting backfield of Reuben Mayes and Craig (Ironhead) Heyward now than when the season ended. "Mayes (injured leg) is not as bad as we thought at first," said Mora. "He is working out (at home) in Washington and he will not need any surgery."

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SHERRILL TO OILERS?: Look for former Texas A&M coach Jackie Sherrill to hook on with the Houston Oilers in a major role. The door was left wide open for Sherrill when Oilers general manager Ladd Herzeg, who has been the day-to-day leader of the organization for nearly a decade, resigned.

Insiders in the league have speculated that a series of personal problems led to Herzeg's decision, but others say he would have stayed had owner Bud Adams given him a lucrative five-year contract. Herzeg's contract expired Dec. 31, and reportedly, negotiations with Adams on a new pact ended last week when money and length could not be agreed upon.