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Clements lucky to get franchise tag

Column as I see 'em:

Based on comments made by Marv Levy and Dick Jauron this week, it seems fairly certain that the Buffalo Bills will use the franchise tag on Nate Clements, preventing their top cornerback from testing the free agent waters. Tagging Clements would cost "only" $5.89 million, the average of the top five salaried NFL corners last season.

There's concern that Clements would resent the franchise tag. That's usually the case when a free agent is denied a chance to sell himself to the top bidder. On the open market, Clements would be seeking the deal of his life, a contract with an overall worth around $50 million and a signing bonus in the $15 million range.

Well, tough. Walter Jones, the Seahawks' Pro Bowl left tackle, got the franchise tag three times. Jones chafed at the designation and became a perennial holdout, but he eventually signed a seven-year, $52.5 million deal. Steve Hutchinson, Seattle's Pro Bowl left guard, is a leading candidate for the franchise tag this season.

Clements would be fortunate to be paid as a top five corner, if even for one year. The fact is, he wasn't that good last season. He had a mediocre year for a bad defense that couldn't stop opponents in the red zone. He got torched by Chris Chambers in Miami, and by numerous receivers in San Diego. Teams were much more willing to throw his way, and Clements wasn't a difference-maker, especially in road games.

Yes, Clements can be a dynamic playmaker. He suffered last season with an inferior defensive front and a dysfunctional coaching staff. But he still has a lot to prove. If he thinks he's worth one of those mega-deals, he has to prove it on the field. By slapping a tag on Clements, the Bills can buy time to work out a long-term deal. But they'll be dealing from strength and shouldn't overpay.

*In the end, it's good for the Sabres that Ryan Miller got snubbed by USA Hockey. Miller admitted he was exhausted after starting the last nine games. The Olympic break will do him good. Lindy Ruff is famous for working his starting goalie to the bone. He wouldn't want Miller to be worn out if the Sabres make a run in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Remember 1998? Dominik Hasek led the Czech Republic to the gold medal. He was treated like a god in his home country. He was honored all over the U.S. But by early June, when the Sabres lost to Washington in the conference finals, he was a spent, weary man. He had played in 93 games, not counting preseason, and it finally caught up to him.

*It's in the heart of conference season when point guard play matters most. Sure enough, shoddy play at the point has been a big problem for the University at Buffalo lately. During their recent 5-6 stretch, the Bulls have turned the ball over more than 19 times a game. They had five games of 20 or more turnovers, including two games with 29. In the last 20 games a year ago, they averaged fewer than 14 turnovers a game. Do you think they miss Turner Battle just a little bit?

*At the very least, Wayne Gretzky is guilty of turning a blind eye to the gambling problems of his wife and assistant coach. Janet Jones comes across as just another casualty of this country's spiraling obsession with gambling.

*Bishop Timon-St. Jude will honor the athletes from 1953-54 on Feb. 25. That group, led by Buffalo Sports Hall of Famer Tommy Ryan, finished third on my list of the area's top 12 high school athletic years in 1999. Sources tell me the Timon guys still feel they should have been No. 1.

*By now, you'd think Jauron or Levy would have picked up the phone and called Eric Moulds. Moulds is the team's elder statesman, a leader who had a falling out with the previous coach. Calling Moulds to assure him that he's still appreciated seems like an obvious and overdue gesture by the new guard.

*Pitchers and catchers report this week. Box scores can't be far behind.


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