Originally created 08/06/99

Did it have to come to this?

GREENVILLE, S.C. -- What's troublesome about the Jamal Anderson holdout is that it even had to come to this.

It's August, a little more than a month before the season-opener, and the Falcons' best player spends more time updating his Web site (www.athletedirect.com) than he does enduring the smog alerts and cafeteria food alongside his Atlanta teammates here at Furman University.

On his Web site, he's letting all know that he will not report to camp without a renegotiated contract. Rumors of an imminent arrival are false, he claims. He writes that he's prepared to sit out the season.

Anderson's holdout reached an eighth day Thursday, costing him $40,000 in fines and creating even more tension among the players and coaches who are growing tired of answering questions.

The $2.6 million Anderson would pocket this year isn't chump change, but when you consider that it's not even among the team's top five base salaries, let alone not among the five best for running backs, you tend to rationalize his reasons for wanting a new deal.

The troublesome part is how slowly the Falcons have moved to try to appease their all-pro back. They've known since the playoffs started in December that Anderson wanted a new deal, and here it is Aug. 5, and nothing.

The Falcons' latest offer -- five years, $28 million with a $6 million signing bonus -- is a contract worth less than the deals that rookies Donovan McNabb, Tim Couch and Cade McNown signed.

Anderson's request for at least an $8 million signing bonus is merely a status move. He's seen Terrell Owens, Robert Smith, Curtis Martin and Jake Plummer all receive that kind of bonus money up front, and he sees the Falcons' offer as a low-ball tactic.

Anderson also wants a contract to pay him in excess of $13.5 million in the first three years instead of the back-loaded, non-guaranteed money typical of NFL contracts.

The way the NFL market for top-notch players is set, those are not unreasonable requests. Yet the Falcons, who have had trouble taking care of their own in the past, don't want to give him a blank check and set a benchmark for the nine other players who will face free agency at season's end.

Ask yourself this: Who's more important to the Falcons' longterm success, Anderson or Travis Hall? Or Chuck Smith? Or Terance Mathis? Or Bob Whitfield?

These are tough decisions, but dependable bull-dozing running backs strong enough to carry a destitute franchise to the Super Bowl tend to hold leverage.

Anderson's asking for a genuine commitment from his employers after setting an NFL record for carries and a team record for rushing yards in his third 1,000-yard season. In response, the Falcons are treating Anderson as if he were expendable.

"It's a mistake to blame these young men for the money they make," coach Dan Reeves said. "That said, they have to be reasonable in their requests."

Consider that Anderson rushed for 1,846 yards, 14 touchdowns and helped the Falcons possess the ball seven minutes per game longer than their opponents. Consider that he has never spent time on an injured list.

Now consider life without Anderson and you realize how reasonable he's being.

Other teams take care of their young stars -- Owens, Robert Smith and Plummer come to mind -- with renegotiated deals before contracts expire. Anderson, more valuable than all three, sits and wonders why he's not being treated with similar respect.

"I didn't create the market," Anderson said in a recent ESPN Up Close interview. "You would like to say that you've played well enough where a team would say `Hey, we are going to reward you. We are going to extend your contract."'

The Falcons will find out how much they need Jamal if they don't make him happy.

Rick Dorsey can be reached at (706) 823-3219 or rdorsey@augustachronicle.com.


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