INDIANAPOLIS -- Everyone else is just a squirrel. The NFL is Tom Condon's world. These days, everything, it seems, keeps coming back to the former Boston College and Patriots offensive lineman turned International Management Group super agent, and often that presents conflicts of interest.
Start here in Indianapolis. Condon represents league co-MVP Peyton Manning, for whom he is negotiating the richest contract in league history, one that likely will include a signing bonus of $25 million-$30 million, or $30 million-$40 million if you include the window dressing. But unless Condon and Colts general manager Bill Polian reach a deal before Manning's contract expires March 2, Indianapolis will designate Manning as its franchise player to keep him from unrestricted free agency, at a 2004 cost of $18.4 million, or 120 percent of last year's salary. Not exactly what you would call "cap-friendly."
A cap hit that large would affect the entire roster. The Colts would have to release several players to get under the cap by the March 2 deadline. They also need cap space to tender eight restricted free agents, including tackle Ryan Diem and backup running back Dominic Rhodes (another of Condon's clients). Linebacker Marcus Washington is an unrestricted free agent. Indianapolis has restructured no fewer than eight contracts in preparation for the worst.
"It's something that just has to get worked out," Colts coach Tony Dungy said Thursday here at the scouting combine. "Both sides understand what the issues are. Peyton deserves to get paid a ton of money, and we've also got to keep the team around him so we can win. We know that, he knows that. It's a system that we have and we have to work with it. But I think it will happen.
"I've been given a set of `what-ifs?' if we're not able to do it. `Do we want to do without this guy or that guy?' It's not pretty. But we've kind of made those decisions and know that if it goes that route what we're going to have to do."
Assuming they haven't already, the San Diego Chargers have to decide what to do with the first overall selection of April's draft. If they don't trade the pick, they're expected to take Peyton's younger brother, Ole Miss senior quarterback Eli Manning, whom Condon also represents. The Chargers quarterback whom Manning would replace, Drew Brees, is another Condon client.
Brees is not the only Drew among Condon's clientele. Condon is also negotiating with Houston Texans general manager Charlie Casserly on a contract for former Michigan quarterback Drew Henson, a sixth-round pick in last year's draft who returned to football after a stint in the New York Yankees organization and whom the Texans are attempting to trade before the draft, or else they lose his rights. The Cleveland Browns are among several teams interested. The Browns already have a former top pick at quarterback in Tim Couch, but he's a bust and they want him to restructure his contract. Care to guess who's negotiating on his behalf?
The Henson situation is sticky because any deal has to be a sign-and-trade. The deal is the easy part. Henson would be a first- or second-round pick and will want to be paid as such, but, for next year at least, his salary will be what little is left from Houston's 2003 rookie pool. According to a report last week in the Miami Herald, Condon is attempting to create a contract 10 to 15 years in length with guaranteed base salaries each year.
"Whoever's interested is going to have to get creative," said Bills president and general manager Tom Donahoe, whose team is interested in Henson as a possible successor to Drew Bledsoe (no, he isn't a Condon client).
"When [Condon] starts getting creative," Giants vice president and general manager Ernie Accorsi said, "you'd better go into a prevent defense."
In still more news concerning Condon, the league is suing another of his clients, Ravens tackle Orlando Brown, for $500,000, claiming that Brown owes the league because he returned to football after receiving a multimillion-dollar injury settlement for being hit in the eye by a penalty flag in 1999. Condon also represents the NFL Referees Association in negotiations.
One other oddity: Condon includes among his clients NFL Players Association president Trace Armstrong and NFLPA executive director Gene Upshaw.
Call him "Conflict of Interest" Condon. Just call him later. He's busy.
Good hands people
Will the Patriots go after a big receiver with one (or both, packaged in a trade) of their first-round picks? We won't know until April 24, but we got a possible clue from Thursday's Traverse City (Mich.) Record-Eagle. Jim Nagy, New England's Midwest scout whose emphasis is wide receivers, implied in an interview with his hometown paper that the Patriots are considering adding that dimension to their offense early in the draft. "We have four wide receivers we're comfortable with," Nagy was quoted as saying, "but there is a need to add a true No. 1. We do not have a Terrell Owens, a Randy Moss, that type of game-breaker." Well then, the Patriots are in luck. Pittsburgh sophomore Larry Fitzgerald (6 feet 3 inches, 225 pounds), Texas senior Roy Williams (6-4, 210), Washington junior Reggie Williams (6-4, 230), Ohio State senior Michael Jenkins (6-4, 215), and LSU junior Michael Clayton (6-4, 200) all fit the mold. USC sophomore Mike Williams, on the other hand, breaks it. At 6 feet 5 inches and 240 pounds, he breaks tackles, too. He broke the school record with 30 touchdown catches in just two seasons. Friday he sent tremors through the league when reports surfaced that the 20-year-old would enter the draft and become the first player to take advantage of the federal court ruling that found the NFL's eligibility rule in violation of antitrust law. Williams is expected to file for entry by the March 1 deadline, though USC coach Pete Carroll said late Friday night that Williams had not reached a decision. "[The reports] are not accurate," Carroll said. "It's still up in the air. I was with him all day [Friday]. He's going to wait until the weekend before he figures it out. He's going to make sense of all the information we've put together over the next couple of days and see if it makes sense for him. He didn't get into this mode of thinking until the last few days. There's some reasons for going and some for staying. I think he'd be more ready a year or two years from now." Personnel evaluators agree that Williams, if he declares, should get ready to hear his name called early. "He's coming out," said one West Coast scout. "I like him better than Fitzgerald. Any team at 2 or 3 who needs a receiver has got a decision to make now." . . . US District Judge Shira A. Scheindlin's decision to allow Maurice Clarett into the draft a year early had league personnel concerned that more than one sophomore, freshman, or high school senior would follow him. "When this happened, the initial thought was, `Boy, this could be a large number,' " said Falcons general manger Rich McKay. "There could be a bunch of underclassmen that will enter, a large number meaning a dozen. I remember on a conference call we were on, [people said] maybe there would be a dozen players. I think as we move further along, we've become at least a little more comfortable that number will be a lot less, and we all want it to be a lot less, so we'll see. If the number were zero, I'd be happy, but whatever that number is, we'll deal with it." Added Cincinnati head coach Marvin Lewis, "Maurice is the tip of the iceberg, actually. I think it really hurts college football and education. There are a number of kids who have worked their tails off to receive an NCAA scholarship. I'm not so sure they will work so hard if [the draft] is hanging out there as an option. The uneducated person has no idea what these guys are in for. Here's a guy who has ability, strength, speed, quickness probably, in order to have this opportunity. But there's going to be a number of guys who probably aren't prepared as he might be." . . . Had the league not granted Fitzgerald early eligibility, he would not have joined Clarett in the courtroom. "I would've went back to college," he said. "You don't want to fight against the NFL. It probably wouldn't have been in my best interest." . . . Clarett disappointed the league's talent evaluators by not working out at the combine, but, according to one general manger, he impressed in his individual interview. "I challenged him," the GM said. "I tried to break him down, but he didn't flinch."
The corner market
The Redskins gave Champ Bailey's agent, Jack Reale, permission to seek a trade last weekend, then designated the Pro Bowl cornerback as their franchise player to keep him from unrestricted free agency. That means he's wearing a $6.8 million tag until he's dealt and signs a deal with a new team or agrees to a new contract with Washington. Bailey, according to a league source, rejected a deal worth $60 million-$68 million and bonuses of first $14 million, then $17.5 million. It could be that Reale was waiting for Oakland's Charles Woodson, considered in some league circles to be Bailey's superior, to establish the market. Yesterday, the Raiders put the "franchise" label on him. Before the season ended, the Raiders had in place the parameters of a long-term deal worth $70 million that included a $19 million bonus, but that was before Oakland executive Bruce Allen left to become general manager of the Buccaneers . . . Not only is Joe Gibbs shaking up the Washington depth chart (he formally will acquire Jaguars quarterback Mark Brunell in a trade March 3), he's also shaking things up around Redskins Park. Gibbs expanded the weight room and had the walls painted. Perhaps it was an attempt at ridding the facility of the losing atmosphere that has pervaded since Gibbs's departure more than a decade ago. Then again, maybe he just didn't like the color . . . Couch's bargaining position appeared to improve when co-starter Kelly Holcomb underwent surgery two weeks ago to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder. The operation will require 4-6 months of rehab, meaning Holcomb may not be ready for the start of training camp. Seattle quarterback Matt Hasselbeck suffered the same injury at the end of last season but managed to avoid surgery and instead will rehab the injury in the offseason. Some in the Seahawks organization thought Hasselbeck should have had the procedure, but the former Boston College quarterback did not want to miss his first Pro Bowl or possibly part of training camp. Hasselbeck sought opinions from several doctors, who agreed that he didn't need it.
Hand it to the Patriots: They know how to manipulate the roster. They wanted to keep their sixth-round pick from last year, quarterback Kliff Kingsbury, so they placed him on injured reserve (wink, wink) Aug. 29. Kingsbury recapped his "redshirt" rookie season last week for the New Braunfels (Texas) Downtown Rotary Club. "I learned a lot," said Kingsbury, according to Thursday's New Braunfels Herald-Zeitung. "I thought I had a pretty good training camp. At the end of camp, [Bill] Belichick called me into his office. After he complimented me, he told me, `From now on, you're going to be hurt.' " Kingsbury also expressed confidence about his future in New England. "They're going to release the backup [not technically; Damon Huard is an unrestricted free agent], and I'll have a chance to compete with the third-string guy [Rohan Davey] for the backup spot," he said. "I have a good chance." . . . Louisiana university system officials met with Allen in Tampa Tuesday in an attempt to bring new Bucs personnel executive Doug Williams back to Grambling, where he helped the Tigers win three Southwest Athletic Conference titles in six seasons. But the contract already was signed. Williams said last week that he didn't feel the football program received enough of a commitment from Grambling's administration, and he wasn't about to break his word with the team that drafted him. "Your word is your bond," Williams said. "That's what you've got, credibility. I left Grambling, flew to Tampa, signed the contract, and went back to tell them, `This is what I'm going to do.' It wasn't a fight on the administration of Grambling's part to keep Doug Williams because two weeks before this happened, I told the AD that Tampa was going to call. At the Friday meeting when I got back, he told me that he just thought it was a rumor. It's a great feeling to know that people want you there, but it's time when the powers that be who should have been out there beating the bushes didn't do it." Grambling's loss is Tampa Bay's gain . . . The Cleveland Browns won a coin flip with Atlanta yesterday, earning the seventh pick in the April draft. The Falcons will draft eighth. McKay was asked Friday if he would solicit advice from Marty Mornhinweg, the ex-Lions coach who two years ago made the infamous decision to kick off to begin an overtime. Falcons coach Jim Mora Jr. joked, "Marty would have won the toss and chose eight instead of seven." . . . Word is the Falcons are giving offensive line coach Alex Gibbs $3 million over three years, plus an apartment. Meanwhile, neither of the Patriots coordinators pulls in close to $1 million annually . . . You're excused if you don't recognize Dolphins running back Ricky Williams when he returns from backpacking through Australia. He cut off his dreadlocks and shaved his head. Are there any constants in the league anymore? . . . If a team would like a clone of Williams, it can get him -- all the way down to the No. 34 and the locks -- in Oregon State junior Steven Jackson. He's 6-3, 229, scouts love the way he finishes runs, and he ran against eight- and nine-man fronts. But I still say the Patriots should draft Florida State's Greg Jones. He checked in at 249 at the combine and said he wanted to come down from 4 percent body fat.
Material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.