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Gruber laments contract limbo

In his five years with Tampa Bay, Paul Gruber's mouth has seldom, if ever, arrived ahead of his reputation.

But on Saturday, the veteran Bucs offensive tackle deftly used one to defend the other.

Scoffing at the restricted free-agency that Tampa Bay granted him this week, Gruber spoke out on the state of his stalled contract negotiations and his future as a Buc.

By choosing not to offer Gruber one year for $2.351-million _ the minimum for a "franchise" player at his position _ Tampa Bay on Monday gave up exclusive negotiating rights to him for 30 days. As a restricted free agent until July 15, Gruber can elicit offer sheets from any other NFL team. Tampa Bay has the right to match any offer or receive that team's 1994 and 1995 first-round draft choices.

Gruber, who had fought Tampa Bay's franchise-player label since it was hung on him this spring, took exception both to the Bucs' stated intentions and to the limited mobility available to a restricted free agent.

"I wasn't at all surprised with what happened on Monday because that's their prerogative," Gruber said in a phone interview. "It's a business, and I can respect that. The problem I had with it was, in fairness to me, why come out and try to sugarcoat it by saying now Paul Gruber has the opportunity to go out and test the market? That's ridiculous.

"What they're calling restricted free-agency is really the same system that I was under before the new free-agency _ you can move if a team's willing to give up two No. 1 draft picks. That's happened once (Wilber Marshall in 1988). So I think it's pretty misleading for the Bucs to be telling the public that they're giving me the opportunity to test the market. It could have been handled in a little classier way. Just be straightforward. I didn't hear the 49ers say that (franchise player) Steve Young was able to go out and test the market now."

Under the modified NFL labor settlement, teams had until Monday to tender at least minimum offers to unsigned franchise players. Those offers had to equal an average of the top five highest-paid players at their position, based on contracts signed through May 6. For Gruber, that would have meant a doubling of the $1.17-million minimum tender that Tampa Bay made this spring, which was based on average 1992 salaries.

But Gruber's only offer from the Bucs remains this spring's $1.17-million _ a figure that has been dwarfed by subsequent free-agent signings, including tackle Will Wolford's $2.55-million deal with Indianapolis.

Gruber's situation represents a loophole in the NFL's new free-agency: While he lacks the freedom of an unrestricted free agent or transition player, he has seen his team use the existing framework to deny him a franchise-player minimum bid at current levels.

"First of all, to even call these negotiations _ there's nothing happening. At least the minimum tender would have been a step in the right direction," said Gruber, who made $700,000 last season and is believed to be seeking a deal slightly higher than Wolford's. "We're not going anywhere this way."

Bucs vice president Richard McKay said the team would have no comment on Gruber's statements.

Gruber acknowledged that several teams contacted his agent, Ralph Cindrich, this week but that nothing has progressed past the point of phone conversations.

"Two first-round draft picks is a lot of compensation," Gruber said. "That's scaring some people. But there's a lot of things that can happen."

One could be the stepping-up of Gruber's request to be traded, a subject first broached just before the draft, when Tampa Bay was receiving some interest in their 1988 No. 1 pick.

"If we're not going to get anything done, I think it'd be best for the Bucs and for me to look elsewhere," Gruber said. "I hope they do what's best for me and what's best for the team and not drag this thing out. I'm prepared for anything this summer. I'd like to get this thing resolved and get on playing football, but I'm not willing to compromise myself or my family."