Tuesday is traditionally Tryout Day in the NFL, the day out-of-work football players display their talents for coaches, hoping to make a team's "short list." Teams keep such lists in case of injuries or poor performances, especially by kickers or punters.
Why Tuesdays? Well, that's the players' day off. Coaches don't want their current—working—players to see whom the team is thinking of replacing.
Last week 46 players tried out for teams; the week before, 52 players had auditions. Some teams test as many as two dozen players during a season. Player personnel directors estimate there are at least 150 players—or seven "ghost teams"—waiting in the wings, though at the moment there is a serious lack of cornerbacks and outside linebackers.
The most active player on the '86 try-out circuit is Ethan Horton, a running back from North Carolina and the Chiefs' No. 1 pick in 1985. He was cut last summer and has knocked on the doors of at least six different teams since the start of the season.
Mark Pattison has also been busy. A wide receiver out of Washington who was a seventh-round pick of the Raiders in '85, he has been cut by the Raiders and Rams in the past three weeks. He had auditions with the Giants and Cowboys.
Pattison is not pleased with his tryout with the Giants. "I flew to New York on a Wednesday night, then they woke me at 7:45 eastern time [4:45 body time for the West Coast kid]," he says. "By what was 5:30 a.m. for me—8:30 New York time—I was on the field running a 40 for time, with no real chance to warm up."
The Rams experience was not much better. Because he was new to the team, Pattison roomed alone, and on game day against Indianapolis, he never got his wake-up call. When he got out of bed Pattison found out that the last team bus had left for the stadium an hour earlier. He didn't play against the Colts; three days later, he was cut. "Everybody keeps saying I can play in the NFL," Pattison says. "But I wind up running pass patterns on the beach."
Early last week, coach Mike Ditka berated his Bears for playing like high schoolers. This was bait for quarterback Jim McMahon, who had been sidelined for two weeks with a slightly separated shoulder. Mad Mac showed up for practice on Wednesday in teenage garb—thick, nerdy glasses and a high school uniform.
Well, Sunday in Cincinnati, tender shoulder and all, McMahon completed 13 of 22 passes for 211 yards—including a beautiful 53-yarder to Willie Gault—and three touchdowns to lead the Bears to a 44-7 victory over the Bengals. In the third quarter, Mac was prowling the sidelines and making another fashion statement: the not-so-chic Arab sheikh look.
Says McMahon, "The line blocked well. Guess it's my turn to buy this week."
The NFL injury list grows. Rams quarterback Steve Bartkowski went down with a sprain of his oft-injured right knee during Sunday's 34-20 loss to the Eagles. Bart left Philadelphia on crutches, with a temporary cast extending from his ankle to his thigh, and he is doubtful for this week's game against Tampa Bay.
"It's not the soreness I'm worried about," says Bartkowski, who has had five operations on that knee. "I've been playing with that for seven years. But I've got to have some range of motion in the knee in order to do my job."
Elsewhere, the Packers lost veteran linebacker John Anderson for the season (broken left ankle), and Giants wide receiver Lionel Manuel will miss at least four weeks of action because of a sprained left knee.
So what is going on down on the field? Why all the injuries?
Says Dick Steinberg, Patriots director of player personnel: "Players are bigger, faster and stronger. They are lifting weights on an organized basis at a much earlier age. There is concern that they are also using steroids at an earlier age, too. The result is they are packing a lot more strength on their frames. Two things happen: There is a greater impact upon collision, and there is greater stress on their own joints, ligaments and tendons. It's asking for trouble."
Says Oilers wide receiver Tim Smith: "With the new 46 defenses, there is potential for more violent blitzes. Blindside stuff. It's not black and white anymore out there—there's a lot of deception."
Says Lions wide receiver Leonard Thompson: "The referees have so much to look for that they're letting a lot of things slide. They've lost control of the game."
Perhaps the most devastating injury of the season occurred on Sept. 22, during the Bears' 25-12 win over Green Bay, when Packer cornerback Tim Lewis collided with Bear receiver Willie Gault. Lewis's head whipped forward, jamming his neck, and he lay on the Lambeau Field turf, as he later said, "paralyzed for 15 minutes and numb for at least an hour. But, of course to me, it all seemed like an eternity.
"I was flipping out. I tried kicking my legs, and then I looked down at my feet and they weren't moving. The trainers came out and said, 'Don't worry. Everything is all right.' I said, 'No, it's not. I can't move anything.' "
For Lewis, it was the second time he had been temporarily paralyzed after a tackle. In a 1984 practice session, when he collided with teammate Jesse Clark, Lewis's body went numb. Last week, X-rays revealed he has a narrow spinal canal between the fifth and sixth vertebrae, making him susceptible to this type of injury, and possibly to permanent paralysis. So at age 24—and on the verge of being recognized as one of the best players in the game—he was forced to retire.
"I can't pretend that I'm not hurt, and I'm not ready to get on with my life," says Lewis, who has an economics degree from Pitt. He plans to remain in Green Bay to pursue business opportunities. "Actually, that I can still walk and get around on my own is a blessing. If I hadn't had those X-rays, I'd still be playing. And who knows what might have happened."
Harvey Salem is happy to be out of Houston, but he didn't go quietly. After being docked $44,000 for missing training camp—as well as losing a $12,500 game check—Salem was traded to Detroit on Sept. 22 in exchange for a second-round draft pick in 1987. He had demanded to be traded prior to the '86 draft because he didn't like the way the Oilers organization operated—i.e., general manager Ladd Herzeg's public chastisement, and eventual firing, of head coach Hugh Campbell.
"He [Herzeg] and I—he and a lot of people—don't see eye to eye," Salem says. "There are different ways of dealing with people. I think things are better other places."
Salem also had harsh words for Houston's new coach, Jerry Glanville. One day, according to some Oiler players, Glanville took Salem's nameplate from his locker and placed it over a toilet stall. Glanville denies that story.
"I think he [Glanville] is trying to create the tough Billy Jack image," Salem says. "He's dressing all in black, speaking these one-liners [like] 'Let's create an image.' I was treated more like an ax murderer than a football player."
Mike Quick, Eagles wide receiver, has a theory about why Earnest Jackson, the Steelers' new running back, was released by Philadelphia two weeks ago even though Jackson rushed for 1,028 yards in '85: "Sometimes Buddy Ryan has a lot of nitpicking things he thinks are important, things that are not even related to football. For instance, everybody has to have his chin strap buckled, and when we line up for the national anthem, we have to have our helmets under our left arms and our toes on the line. I think maybe Earnest had his toes a couple of inches off the line."
After his three TD passes, McMahon cooled it.
Bartkowski, in a familiar situation, was helped from the field after spraining his oft-injured knee.
PLAYERS OF THE WEEK
OFFENSE: The Vikings' Tommy Kramer completed 16 of 25 pass attempts for 241 yards and a career-high six touchdowns—five in the first half—as Minnesota crushed winless Green Bay 42-7.
DEFENSE: Bronco defensive end Rulon Jones sacked Tony Eason to end a fourth-quarter drive, and had four tackles and three assists in a 27-20 win over New England, to keep Denver unbeaten.