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There was a hidden statement in the New York Jets' decision to sign New England running back Curtis Martin to a rich contract.

The statement is the Tuna, Bill Parcells, doesn't intend to coach more than two more years, three at the most.

By signing Martin, the Jets surrendered their first- and third-round draft choices next month. The Patriots already held New York's second pick next month, as well as the Jets' first-round pick next year. In other words, the Jets' drafts for the next two years are, basically, worthless.

They will be player-bankrupt by the 2000 season, but by then Parcells will be doing something else, and Bill Belichick, Tuna's dyspeptic lieutenant, will be left to clean up.

Parcells' risk is calculated. The Martin signing ruptured the Patriots' offense. Once Martin was injured and lost for the season, the Pats closed by failing to average 3 yards per rushing attempt in four of their last five games. They managed to beat teams like Miami despite that, but they lost to Pittsburgh, a better defensive team, twice.

Pittsburgh eliminated them from the playoffs by scoring just seven points. Without Martin, New England scored only six.

So the AFC East is a much tighter competition now. Before the Martin signing, the Jets already added two free-agent linemen, center Kevin Mawae from Seattle and guard Todd Burger from Chicago. Parcells thinks he has enough ammunition to make a run at the playoffs.

Theoretically, New England has enough draft choices to restock this year and become stronger in the next two seasons.

There are some solid backs in this draft. Penn State's Curtis Enis and Florida's Fred Taylor probably will have been selected by the time New England gets to exercise New York's first-round pick, the 18th. But Georgia's Robert Edwards is very good, and Illinois' Robert Holcombe is underrated.

"There are good backs in the draft, but you have to get lucky with the right one," says Bills coach Wade Phillips. "New England got lucky three years ago when they drafted Martin in the third round."

The worry for New England fans is the people doing the picking for their team. There is skepticism about the judgment of their coach, Pete Carroll, and the vice president of player personnel, Bobby Grier. None of last year's rookies, their first draft, made an impact.

Bills kind toward Toronto

The Bills have assured Paul Godfrey, the Toronto Sun publisher and point man in that city's NFL expansion bid, that they would not oppose their neighbor's ambitions.

Toronto is one of the cities mentioned as a strong expansion candidate after the new Cleveland Browns make their debut in 1999. Others are Los Angeles and Houston.

Nothing, however, has been said between Godfrey and the Bills about recompense. Bills owner Ralph Wilson has said he considers Toronto "Bills territory," and that he would expect compensation if the NFL enters a city that's a 90-minute drive from the Peace Bridge.

Bills treasurer Jeff Littmann says that to be considered a serious expansion bidder, Toronto would have to forget about using the SkyDome as its NFL home and have plans for construction of a new football stadium in place by the time it made its formal bid.

O-line picks are risky

Pro Football Weekly is out with its draft preview book. Its mock draft has the top three offensive linemen, Florida State's Tra Thomas, San Diego State's Kyle Turley and Michigan State's Flozell Adams, all selected by the 12th slot.

Nevertheless, PFW has Buffalo using it first pick, the 38th overall, on Fresno State tackle Chris Conrad, whom it says is the No. 1 sleeper in the draft.

But listen to Marty Schottenheimer, Kansas City's coach, on using high draft choices on offensive linemen:

"The riskiest thing in any draft is to use premium picks on offensive linemen," maintains Schottzy. "They are difficult to judge. You can have a 6-foot-7, 330-pounder dominating the opposition, but what about the caliber of that opposition?

"A top offensive lineman can easily dominate players in college who are much smaller and less talented than he is. In the NFL, he's going to be opposite players who match him in size and skill just about every week."

In 1995, Schottenheimer learned the hard way. He used a first-round pick on Michigan's Trezelle Jenkins, who flopped as a pro.

Coughlin sold on Paup

Jacksonville coach Tom Coughlin is not going to change from his basic 4-3 defense. But he has no illusions about the way Bryce Paup fits in.

Coughlin, who paid a fortune in free agency for the former Bill, realizes Paup struggled in coverage after Buffalo was forced by injuries to switch from its 3-4 defense to a four-man front.

"We signed him with the intention of attacking the quarterback," Coughlin says.

Cowher talks tough

There's an underlying meaning to Bill Cowher's bold words about considering a move to Cleveland as coach and GM if he doesn't get a $2 million-a-year contract from the Steelers.

Cowher and the Steelers' highly regarded director of football, Tom Donahoe, are not mutual admirers. Donahoe, Pittsburgh born and bred, recently turned down a chance to become GM of the Seattle Seahawks in order to stay in his home city.

Cowher, also a Pittsburgh guy, is more difficult to work with. Owner Dan Rooney is holding him to his contract. But once it expires in two years, it would not be a surprise to see Cowher leave without the Steelers attempting to keep him.

J.J. blows smoke

The NFL may be full of con men, but none stands above Jimmy Johnson, who continues to talk himself out of an embarrassing first two years in Miami.

"If we won our last game, we would be the team to beat in the AFC East," said J.J. at the NFL owners' meeting in Orlando this past week.

Won their last game? Someone asked Johnson how many touchdowns his team scored in its final three games.

"Not many," he said, sheepishly.

The answer is one. Indianapolis shut out the Dolphins, 41-0; New England beat them, 14-12, and won again in the playoffs, 17-3.

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