Stacey James, the Patriots' executive director of media relations, couldn't understand why his phone calls were not returned, until a fax showed up on his desk Monday morning that made it all shockingly clear.
Ever since Doug Flutie's dropkick split the uprights on New Year's Day, the Patriots had searched for the football that was literally a footnote to history.
(Flutie's kick at first was believed to be the first successful dropkick in pro football since Ray McLean of the Chicago Bears kicked an extra point in the 1941 NFL championship game; but kicking guru Rick Gonsalves of Gloucester later wrote to point out that Joe Vetrano of the San Francisco 49ers had dropkicked an extra point after a muffed snap against the Cleveland Browns of the All-American Football Conference Nov. 28, 1948. Although not all AAFC records were transferred to the NFL when the leagues merged in 1950, the franchises in Baltimore, Cleveland, and San Francisco were, so Vetrano's kick was technically the most recent by an NFL player until Flutie's.)
Regardless of that, the Pro Football Hall of Fame called James the next day seeking the ball. But because the Patriots had lined up before Flutie's kick as if it were a play from scrimmage, the net was not raised behind the goalposts, so the ball went into the stands and the waiting arms of a fan who shall remain anonymous at the Patriots' insistence.
James told the Hall he would send Flutie's jersey and shoes for display but wasn't sure he could find the football. The team reviewed film to try to locate the lucky fan but came up empty -- until James got a phone message from someone purporting to have the ball or at least know where it was. James left several messages in return but the caller didn't reply until the morning of Jan. 23, when a fax arrived from a lawyer, whom the team also decided to keep anonymous.
According to the fax, the law office represents Mr. X, ''who is in possession of the football recently drop kicked by Doug Flutie for the first extra point scored in the NFL by drop kick in forty one years. My client understands that the New England Patriots may have an interest in purchasing that historic football."
Then came the fan's ''terms and conditions," which frankly boggle the mind. Here's what one self-proclaimed ''real Patriot fan" feels the ball is worth:
''1. Payment of ONE HUNDRED THOUSAND ($100,000.00) DOLLARS [lawyer's capitals] on delivery of the football.
''2. A guarantee of eight (8) season tickets for 25 years in the end zone (preferably sections 142 or 143).
''a. The season tickets will be paid for annually by my client at the then going price for season tickets. The Patriots would not be expected to pay for the tickets.
''3. Delivery by the Patriots to my client sometime in September, 2006, of a Tom Brady Patriots' football jersey signed by all the team members as of the beginning of the next football season."
Well, at least he didn't ask to call a few plays against the Dolphins next year or throw a couple of passes against the Jets' secondary.
The lawyer's letter goes on to explain that his client ''has had a number of offers for the football already but he is a real Patriot fan and would prefer to see that historic football wind up in the Patriots' possession."
Thank goodness his client is a real Patriot fan. Had he been a phony Patriot fan, what would he have asked for? That he and Bob Kraft become partners in this football thing?
From time to time, this corner has taken the side of fans who felt they had been ill-treated or overcharged by the Patriots. This case is the flip side of the coin. The Patriots' refusal to accede to a ransom demand for the Flutie ball is a clear example of common sense on the one hand and blind greed on the other.
A tip of the hat to the Kraft family for ignoring the whole matter. As someone in the organization said Friday, ''I hope he enjoys the football."
It's crunch time in labor negotiations
Meetings have begun between representatives of the Players Association and the Management Council and will continue next week with the hope that the framework for an extension of the collective bargaining agreement will be in place by late February.
Technically, an extension would have to be in place by the start of the new league year on March 3 or problems would arise; agents would be faced with making deals for this year's free agents with only a four-year amortization period for bonuses, and some franchises would be forced to all but gut their teams because of salary cap problems, according to league sources on both sides of the issue.
''A number of teams would go into severe cap trouble if there's no extension," said a league source. ''A team like the Colts would have to blow their team up. And for agents, it will be hard to get a true market deal. Not hard. It would be impossible.
''The good news is, the way the system was designed the last year without an extension is very painful for both sides. Hopefully that will promote rational behavior on both sides. As we get closer to D-Day, people start to think more clearly on both sides."
Management has begun to put together some guaranteed cap numbers beginning at $110 million and swelling to $160 million six years later. Twelve years ago, when the salary cap era began, the first cap was around $36 million.
The owners would have to be suicidal to fight over a few million more per year on the cap because if they had to endure a work stoppage, they would be hurt to a much greater extent. The problem for both sides is that if they get to March 3 without at least the framework of an agreement, they would face what one owner described as ''a mess."
Said the owner, ''Teams would have to cut guys with option bonuses coming due because they couldn't pay them and stay under the old cap. And new contracts would have to be structured differently. People would start to make plans for an uncapped year in 2007. If we later did extend the CBA, those free agent deals signed in the first week or two couldn't be recalibrated and it would create a huge accounting problem. It'll be the wild West again."
That's why people on both sides believe a deal will be close to finalized by March 3. If the labor deal can be extended another half-dozen years, commissioner Paul Tagliabue will have only one world left to conquer.
All that would be left would be settling the issue of when the league will return to Los Angeles.
Then Tagliabue could work on a transfer of power to the next commissioner.
Sunday night television picture is coming into focus
Details on the flexible Sunday night NFL television schedule for next season were ironed out last week during a brief league meeting in Orlando, Fla., that was a precursor to the annual meeting in mid-March.
The owners and networks came up with a system that will begin in Week 10 of the 2006 season because there will be no Sunday night game on Christmas Eve. In 2007 and thereafter, the flexible schedule will be in place from Weeks 11-17 except in years when there is a Christmas conflict.
For those weeks, no game will be designated for the Sunday night slot on the schedule when it is released before the season; all games will be listed with the usual 1 p.m. or 4 p.m. start time. However, the league will already have a game or two in mind for each of those Sunday nights, subject to change based on team records and matchups.
For Week 10, a game will be designated for Sunday night 12 days in advance; the same will happen for each succeeding week, with the teams involved given 12 days' notice.
Fox and CBS each will have five ''blocks" per season, meaning they can stop a designated game from being moved to Sunday nights -- but only up to a maximum of five times. When a block is used, a new game will be selected, still with 12 days' notice.
The hope is that this will avoid some of the terrible matchups ''Monday Night Football" was saddled with in recent years. Monday nights now will belong to ESPN, with the Sunday night NBC game becoming the big night game of the week.
NBC and the NFL have yet to decide whether the Sunday games will begin at 8:15 or 8:30 p.m.
Material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.