A QUICK FIX
With their 3-0 start after Sunday's 31-21 defeat of the Raiders, the Broncos have to be considered the early-season surprise of the league. The last time Denver attracted attention it was on the mat in San Diego, KO'd 42-10 by Washington in Super Bowl XXII. The Broncos had just lost their second straight Super Bowl, having yielded 1,001 yards and 81 points in the two games. The hangover carried through last season, when Denver finished 8-8 and defensive coordinator Joe Collier's sophisticated schemes confounded his players and didn't stop anyone's offense. Says Denver quarterback John Elway, "When you work so hard to get to the Super Bowl and you get blown out, and it happens twice, I don't care what anybody says, that has a big effect on a team."
Nine months ago coach Dan Reeves fired Collier and the rest of the defensive staff. The new coordinator, Wade Phillips, has taken the talent he inherited, deployed it more simply and focused it on stopping the run. So far, his strategy has worked. Denver allowed 22.0 points a game and a league-high 4.6 yards per rush in 1988. Through three games this year, those numbers are 18.3 and 3.3, and the Broncos rank first in the league against the rush. Says strong safety Dennis Smith, "With Joe, we had so many defenses, so many schemes. We've cut down on the complications. Now you can be a football player, you don't have to be a brain surgeon. I think what hurt us in the past was that when young players came in here, the best players didn't win out all the time. It was the players who learned the system the fastest."
"We'd stagnated a bit," says Denver linebacker Karl Mecklenburg. "We had to make some changes, and we did. Right now it looks like Dan Reeves is a genius."
The defense features six new starters, all of whom are 27 or younger, including outside linebacker Michael Brooks, 25, who shows signs of becoming a dominating player, and rookie free safety Steve Atwater, 22. Reeves loves Atwater's aggressiveness, especially against the run. Brooks might be the best example of how Denver has benefited from the change in defensive coordinators. Under Collier, Brooks was tentative and mistake-prone, confused by the mass of schemes. Under Phillips, says Smith, "Michael's football instincts have taken over."
"My background is to play the best athletes and get them to play to the best of their ability without mistakes," says Phillips, a friendly, unassuming guy like his dad. Bum, the former coach of the Saints and the Oilers. Before joining the Broncos, Phillips, 42, had been with the Eagles. He had the title of defensive coordinator, but coach Buddy Ryan was really the leader of the unit. Phillips holds Ryan in high regard, and he brought some elements of Ryan's 46 defense with him—especially the eight-man front Denver frequently uses to stop the run.
Says Smith, 30, "Having all these young guys makes me feel young again. I feel just as young as them."
NEGOTIATION OF THE YEAR
Two hours and 45 minutes before Philadelphia took the field against Washington at RFK Stadium in Week 2, Eagle quarterback Randall Cunningham was in the Arlington, Va., hotel suite of Philly general manager Harry Gamble. Cunningham was on the phone with his agent, Jim Steiner, who was explaining Cunningham's new contract, point by point. "Jim, I've got a game today, you know," Cunningham said. "I've got to catch the bus." Steiner hurried. When Steiner had finished, Cunningham signed in Gamble's room. The deal: seven years, including the two remaining years of his current contract; $20,245 million, most of which is guaranteed. The average: $2.89 million a year. The contract is the richest ever in football, baseball or hockey, though it's exceeded by half a dozen contracts in basketball. Steiner negotiated most of the deal face-to-face with Gamble before leaving for vacation in Bermuda on Sept. 13. He completed it from the veranda of his hotel room overlooking the Atlantic. "You've just secured your future. You're a rich man," Steiner told the quarterback later. "Rich in wisdom," replied Cunningham.
THE DREAD VELCRO PENALTY
San Diego's new punter, 30-year-old Hank Ilesic, late of Toronto in the CFL, needed a work permit from the Immigration and Naturalization Service last week before he could play against Kansas City. The Chargers were able to arrange it. Then he needed to remake his shoes. A minute before kickoff, officials told Ilesic his shoes were illegal because they had Velcro straps over the laces. So, much to his chagrin, he had to cut away the Velcro of his Cana Sport shoes. The Chargers rallied behind Ilesic. "Our motto was, 'Win one for the shoe,' " said linebacker Billy Ray Smith. Ilesic averaged 44.8 yards on five punts. San Diego won 21-6.
On Monday, San Diego sent one of Ilesic's shoes that had not been de-Velcroed to NFL headquarters in New York City so that the league could rule on its legality. Oh, that wacky NFL: "The great thing is, they said it was an altered shoe, so he can't kick with it," said San Diego placekicker Chris Bahr. "But then they said you have to alter the shoe to make it legal."
Sunday's game marked one year since Marino was last sacked—in Indianapolis on Sept. 25, 1988. He now has thrown 618 passes without getting sacked....
In 1987 and '88, Giants running back Ottis Anderson rushed a total of 67 times for 214 yards. In September he ran 69 times for 276 yards as a replacement for the injured Joe Morris....
The next mega-deal? It could be $2 million a year for Eric Dickerson, through 1994 or '95. Colt general manager Jim Irsay says he thinks if his father, club owner Bob Irsay, and Dickerson went behind closed doors, "they could get it done in an hour."
...In the biggest early-season injury to date, the Bengals lost running back Ickey Woods to reconstructive surgery on his left knee last week. His replacement, a good-looking rookie out of UCLA named Eric Ball, doesn't have the power or cut-back knack that Woods does, but offensive coordinator Bruce Coslet thinks Ball is a better blocker with better speed. "I'd say Eric's at about the same stage of development as Ickey was last year," says Coslet. "Remember, Ickey hadn't done anything a year ago at this time."...
Washington has a five-game losing streak at home....
Last year Pete Rozelle frowned on the Arizona state legislature's refusal to make Martin Luther King's birthday a state holiday. According to some in the state government, it was no coincindence that last week—at the same time Arizona was bidding to secure the 1993 Super Bowl for Phoenix—the legislature voted to make the day a holiday....
The Redskins aren't playing linebacker Wilber Marshall on most obvious passing downs, which is an admission that they paid $6 million last year for an incomplete linebacker. On Sunday in Dallas, where Washington beat the Cowboys 30-7, Marshall sat out 13 of the Skins' 57 defensive plays, and he probably would have missed a few more if not for an injury to safety Clarence Vaughn. Washington coach Joe Gibbs says he would rather play six defensive backs and linebacker Monte Coleman in nickel situations. "That way, we can keep Wilber better rested," says Gibbs. Marshall is quietly seething....
The Cardinals began the season with the league's second-oldest starting offense (29.5 years on the average) and the second-youngest starting defense (26.2)....
Dallas kicker Roger Ruzek has punted once and caught one pass in the Cowboys' three games, but he has yet to attempt a field goal....
Buddy Ryan's wisdom is for sale: Call 1-900-USA-RYAN (SI first minute, 75 cents each additional minute, with all the proceeds going to charity) to hear Buddy speak.
Bruce Smith, were getting mugged, held, tackled and karate-chopped on Sunday. Nothing happened. What the hell are the officials doing? It's absolute anarchy out there."
PUT-UP TIME, TONY
Rookie Green Bay offensive tackle Tony Mandarich played his first nine downs as a pro on Sunday. The Packers had worried about Mandarich because, after missing all of training camp, he was beaten fairly consistently in practices before making his debut against the Rams, who won 41-38. But he showed signs of fulfilling his promise. Mandarich subbed for Alan Veingrad on five plays at right tackle and played tight end on the left side on four short-yardage downs. His most significant contribution was leading the way for running back Brent Fullwood on a nine-yard run. Three times on passing plays Mandarich, one-on-one, effectively walled off L.A. linebacker Kevin Greene, who was second in the NFL in sacks last year with 16½. Was he worried that Greene might beat him to get a sack? "It was in the back of my mind," said Mandarich.
STATS OF THE WEEK
•Of the NFL's 41 games through Sunday, the home teams won 21, the visitors 20.
•The Jets scored so often (28 points) and moved the ball so easily (9.3 yards per play) in the second half against Miami that they faced only two third downs. They converted both of them.
•Perils of the run-and-shoot: In its 47-27 loss to Chicago, Detroit scored on four straight possessions—and immediately thereafter turned the ball over four straight times.
•Giants defensive backs had 10 interceptions last year. In a nine-minute span against Phoenix, they had four.
•The Cowboys, who lost 30-7 to the Redskins, have lost their first three games by an average of 19 points. The teams that beat them are a combined 0-6 in other games.
•The Chiefs are 1-16-1 on the road since the start of the '87 season, 0-9-1 since the start of '88.
THE WEEK AHEAD
Broncos at Browns. The good news for Cleveland is that this isn't an AFC Championship Game. The Browns have blown two such title games in the last three years—both against Denver, both in the final minutes. The bad news for Cleveland is that the Broncos are 10-0 against the Browns since 1975. Says Denver safety Dennis Smith, "Whatever the Browns do to us now, it can't make up for what we've done to them already." Adds Cleveland tight end Ozzie Newsome, "Sometimes we wonder, Is it possible to beat these guys?"
Rams at 49ers. L.A. is off to a 3-0 start, but it had a soft schedule in September. Six of the Rams' next seven games will be against teams that averaged 11 wins in 1988. This week's game will feature the two players with the most receiving yards in the NFL over the past two seasons: San Francisco's highly rated Jerry Rice and Los Angeles's underrated Henry Ellard. Ellard really started to come on after the Rams traded Eric Dickerson to the Colts on Oct. 31, 1987. In 28 regular-season games since then, Rice has accumulated a league-high 2,552 yards, followed by Ellard, who has 2,472.
Eagles at Bears. Philadelphia is 0-12 in Cook County. The 12th defeat came in the bizarre Fog Game, during last season's playoffs. "The important thing about this team is it's so young, there aren't a lot of guys who know much about the past," says Philly linebacker Al Harris, who formerly played for Chicago. "I remember watching the Eagles last year and thinking how much they reminded me of the Bears—a young team about to be dangerous."