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CLEVELAND BIDDING POSITIONS JACOBS FOR FUTURE FRANCHISES

Jeremy Jacobs' entrance into the auction to become owner of the new Cleveland Browns expansion franchise may have more ramifications for the future than it does for the present.

The franchise is scheduled to be awarded during the second week of September. Jacobs made his presentation at a meeting in Atlanta on Wednesday during which the East Aurora resident and Delaware North chairman schmoozed with the NFL owners.

He's getting a late start in putting together what outsiders think are some of the necessary ingredients for a successful bid, namely the inclusion of Cleveland business interests and minority partnership. For instance, Cleveland's mayor, Mike White, already endorsed one group led by the Dolan brothers, Larry and Charles, since it includes seven Cleveland-area CEOs, comedian Bill Cosby and Hall of Fame coach Don Shula, a native of Painesville, Ohio.

Yet conventional wisdom about how much those ingredients count may be overrated if it can be judged by a recent remark made by Malcolm Glazer, owner of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

"The only thing that really counts is how high the bid," Glazer told the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

Jerry Jones, mercenary owner of the Dallas Cowboys, is driving the NFL club owners' engine as they seek the most they can get for the expansion franchise, which will share in the league's huge new pot of television money, something that wasn't available to Jacksonville and Carolina when those teams entered the NFL four seasons ago. Jones has suggested the auction may go as high as $700 million to $800 million. Other owners, including Oakland's Al Davis, speculate on $1 billion.

A more realistic number may be somewhere around $600 million, since the Minnesota Vikings recently sold for $275 million. Cleveland not only will get the TV money, but also an empty salary cap, which would allow an invasion of the free-agent market without competition from another expansion franchise, a huge ticket base and a state-of-the-art stadium that will be ready for the team's debut next season.

Jacobs also would end up with a bonus the six other aspiring owners wouldn't: Profitable concession rights, which would go to his company, Delaware North. The owners also like dealing with a prospective owner whose business has impressive cash flow.

Despite the emergence of Jacobs' name, a powerful one throughout sports because of the long track record of his firm, those close to the franchise situation in Cleveland still think the front-running group is the one headed by billionaire banker Al Lerner.

Lerner is a Clevelander who was a minority owner of the Browns and a close friend of Art Modell, owner of the former Cleveland Browns who are now the Baltimore Ravens. It wasn't that long ago Lerner was a pariah in Cleveland, since he took an active part in moving the established franchise to Baltimore. But more than a year ago, Modell bought out Lerner's interest in the team as well as the new Baltimore stadium.

At the invitation of the publisher of the Plain Dealer, Lerner was interviewed by the paper about his intentions as a bidder for the new franchise. The interview contained criticisms of Modell, which severly damaged Lerner's friendship with his ex-partner, who took his words as betrayal. On the other hand, the criticisms restored his goodwill in Cleveland.

Lerner's group includes Carmen Policy, the revered former president of the San Francisco 49ers. More important than Policy's presence is that Lerner has the cash to pull off a successful bid.

Where would that leave Jacobs if Lerner or someone else outbids him for the Cleveland franchise? The answer is -- in good position to emerge as a man known and trusted by the NFL owners who would perceive him as a serious candidate to buy any future franchise that becomes available, including in Buffalo. Getting to know the NFL owners at the Atlanta meeting put him in a comfort zone for the next century.

More than a year ago, Jacobs, owner of the NHL's Boston Bruins, gave an interview to the Boston Globe in which he was asked if he was interested in owning any future sports franchises. His answer was a cryptic one: "Possibly, if one became available in my hometown." His hometown is Buffalo.

I sought an interview with Jacobs after the Globe story appeared but he demurred, explaining "this isn't the appropriate time."

Ralph Wilson, the Bills' owner and a longtime acquaintance, said Jacobs called him three weeks ago for his view of the potential bid.

"I told Jerry that if he had a real passion for the game, go ahead and bid for the franchise," Wilson said. "If he's thinking of the team as an investment, forget it. It looks as if he has the passion."

Cardinals' line still dragging

The Arizona Cardinals were expected to rise from the NFL ashes this season, largely on the strength of their powerful young defensive line. Tackle Eric Swann and end Simeon Rice were to be joined by end Andre Wadsworth of Florida State, the third overall pick in the draft.

It hasn't been an auspicious beginning. Wadsworth is still holding out and Rice has been the center of training-camp turmoil.

Eric Hill, a former Cardinal linebacker, charged that Rice's casual attitude was one of the team's principal problems in 1997. Rice, a rookie star, has been a holdout or figured out some way to avoid most of training camp in each of his three summers as a pro. After last season, he insisted upon playing pro basketball in a minor league.

Last week, his bad attitude in practice caused Swann, whose work habits are more diligent, to stalk off the field. Swann was overtaken by head coach Vince Tobin and the two had heated words.

This past week, Swann worked out at defensive end as the team experimented with ways to offset the absence of Wadsworth.

Kickers seek a leg up

There are at least five NFL teams with kicker troubles. Cary Blanchard was a big point producer for Indianapolis the last two years but his past includes being waived eight times by four different teams. Jim Mora, his new coach with the Colts, cut him twice in New Orleans.

Currently, Mike Vanderjagt, the Canadian Football League's leading kicker and punter last year as a Toronto Argonaut, is ahead of Blanchard in the competition.

John Hall, whose strong leg intrigued Bill Parcells when he was a New York Jet rookie, no longer holds as much fascination. Hall has been erratic this summer and he finished with a success rate of 68 percent last season. It didn't help that he was arrested during the offseason on a marijuana rap.

Walsh high on Leaf

Bill Walsh, who doesn't want any part of the San Francisco 49ers' crumbling future, made the trip into San Diego with the St. Louis Rams and their coach, Dick Vermeil, his longtime friend.

Asked for his appraisal of the Chargers rookie quarterback Ryan Leaf, Walsh said, "He has a great arm and a brilliant future."

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