NFL digs in as rivalry with new league intensifies

Super Bowl week, which ended with Sunday's Washington Redskins-Los Angeles Raiders championship game, was the usual ode to the power and prosperity of the National Football League.

The 63-year-old league is indeed a venerable and strong institution, but not a carefree one.

This past season saw several players suspended for drug incidents, TV ratings slip, and criticism of the NFL's football product increase. Some said there was too much offense, particularly of the aerial variety. Others bemoaned the parity that converted most teams into a nondescript middle class.

During his annual state-of-the league press conference, Commissioner Pete Rozelle conceded that today's problems are more complex than those of yore. "There was a time," he said, reflecting on his 23 years in office, "when my biggest concern was a heated argument over how many players to have on a squad."

Today, of course, he faces all of the aforementioned challenges, plus others which require his presence in courtrooms and Congressional hearings.

Presently, the most bothersome issue is the escalating bidding war with the United States Football League, which begins its second season Feb. 26.

Rozelle labels this ''the biggest problem for individual clubs,'' of which there are 28. Even so, he prefers to call the competitive bidding a skirmish rather than an out and out war - and this from an eyewitness of earlier confrontations with the American and World Football Leagues.

Whatever is going on, the USFL appears to have intensified its raids on NFL rosters lately. And in the aftermath of the Super Bowl the upstart league will be looking to pick off any Redskin or Raider free agents it can, just as it attempted to lure Washington's John Riggins (the MVP of Super Bowl XVII) a year ago.

Raider reserve defensive lineman Dave Stalls was actually signed by the USFL's Denver Gold earlier this season while still with the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Once his signing became public, the Buccaneers dumped him, only to see the Raiders hire him as a "lame duck."

L.A. quarterback Marc Wilson, the team's starter until injured, also appeared headed for the USFL. The Raiders came up with an $800,000-a-year offer that nearly quadrupled his present salary, however, and Wilson decided to stay.

The new league's interest in Wilson is not hard to understand. To project a truly big league image, the USFL now realizes it needs some recognizable names at quarterback.

It will add three this spring in Doug Williams, Brian Sipe, and Cliff Stoudt. Williams, disgruntled by what Tampa Bay offered him, sat out this past season after signing with the USFL's Oklahoma Outlaws. Sipe, the Sporting News NFL Player of the Year in 1980, is jumping from the Cleveland Browns to the New Jersey Generals, while Stoudt, who took Pittsburgh to the playoffs this season, is heading for the Birmingham Stallions.

The USFL has also lured away Buffalo running back Joe Cribbs; Cincinnati receiver Cris Collinsworth (for 1985); San Francisco linebackers Bobby Leopold and Willie Harper; and Kansas City defensive back Gary Barbaro. And the new legaue is knocking on Walter Payton's door, hoping the Chicago Bears' star runner will switch his allegiance to the Chicago Blitz for the princely sum of $ 6 million over three years.

While all this sounds rather ominous for the NFL, there have been signs that players want to stay put.

New York Jets' defensive back Johnny Lynn paid $50,000 to back out of a USFL contract. All-pro linebacker Lawrence Taylor of the New York Giants took similar action in buying out an option held by the New Jersey Generals that would have obligated him to play for them in 1988. And despite having signed contracts with teams in both leagues, Detroit running back Billy Sims says he wants to remain with the NFL Lions. Whether he gets to will be decided in a federal court.

What is perhaps more disturbing, though, is when the USFL, which holds its draft much earlier, is able to tap significantly into this traditional feeder system. Heading the list of such acquisitions are the last two Heisman Trophy winners - Herschel Walker and Mike Rozier - plus running back Kelvin Bryant and wide receivers Trumaine Johnson and Anthony Carter. The new league hasn't stopped there either; it is still trying to land quarterbacks Steve Young of Brigham Young and Ben Bennett of Duke before the NFL holds its draft on May 1.

It's possible, of course, that players who opt for the USFL may eventually wind up on the NFL's doorstep. That could happen if the USFL folds, as the WFL did, or fails to satisfy a player's appetite for the big time.

The USFL is adding six franchises this year, yet some observers see such rapid expansion not as an indication of strength but as a search for extra income to help offset last year's heavy start-up losses.

These could multiply, too, if multimillionaire owners like Donald Trump of the New Jersey Generals continue to spend lavish amounts of money.

Trump and others seem to have lost sight of the original plan for a bargain-basement operation that would grow by avoiding direct competition with the NFL, which earns 14 times more in TV revenue. Indeed, Commissioner Chet Simmons now says his circuit is even looking into the possibility of switching its season to the fall and going head-to-head on the field as well as in the bidding arena.

Rozelle's reaction? He doesn't think stadium schedules could be worked out to let USFL, NFL, and major league baseball teams play during the same period.

He also rules out an eventual merger such as occurred with the AFL. This is partly because the NFL prefers expanding into new markets and partly because the league doesn't want to divide up its TV loot with additional business partners.

So the two leagues are destined to become increasingly fierce rivals. Peaceful coexistence has gone out the window and for the NFL that can mean only one thing: "Man the battle stations.!"

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