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Last April the Bengals had the 27th pick in the NFL draft. As their turn to choose approached, they knew they wanted UCLA running back Eric Ball, but they figured they could get him early in the second round. So Cincinnati traded its first-round selection to the Falcons for Atlanta's second-, fourth-and 10th-round choices, and still got Ball. The Bengals ended up paying Ball, acquired with the Falcons' second-round pick (the 35th overall), a $254,000 signing bonus, $360,000 less than the bonus Atlanta gave the 27th pick, Northern Arizona wide receiver Shawn Collins.

That shrewd maneuver reflected the lengths to which some teams are going to avoid the high price of first-round draft picks. There's little doubt that the NFL's lavish spending on first-rounders has led to vaultfuls of wasted money. First-round salaries and bonuses increased a whopping 37.3% from 1988 to '89—and for what? An analysis of the fate of first-round choices in the regular and supplemental drafts from '83 through '89 reveals the following:

•First-rounders aren't necessarily Pro Bowlers. Only 22.6% of top-round picks in the '83 through '88 drafts have made a Pro Bowl. That means, on average, only six of the 28 first-round players each year have been judged by their peers to be among the NFL's best performers.

•First-rounders aren't even certain first-stringers. Of the 199 first-rounders selected in those seven drafts, 116—or 58.3%—are starting this season.

•The 1989 first round has been unusually fruitful. Thirteen of the top 15 picks, and 19 overall, are starting. Six are having outstanding seasons: Lion running back Barry Sanders, Chiefs linebacker Derrick Thomas, Bears cornerback Donnell Woolford, Browns running back Eric Metcalf, Bronco free safety Steve Atwater and Dolphin strong safety Louis Oliver.

•The team that has done the best first-round drafting since 1983 is Chicago. Of the Bears' 10 picks in that span, nine are starting, seven of them for Chicago. The Bears used their other two first-round choices who became starters—Willie Gault (who was traded to the Raiders) and Wilber Marshall (who signed as a restricted free agent with Washington, which had to yield two first-round picks as compensation)—to acquire three subsequent first-round selections.

•Surprise! The Cardinals and the Cowboys have struggled in the first round. They've had nine and eight first-round selections, respectively, since 1983, and none has made the Pro Bowl. Dallas's last first-rounder to become a Pro Bowler was Tony Dorsett 13 years ago.

NFL executives are in a mood to cut the prices they're paying for these players. What's more, first-rounders frequently miss at least part of training camp while negotiating for high salaries and bonuses. Viking general manager Mike Lynn, Bears president Mike McCaskey—a new member of the league's finance committee—and Bills general manager Bill Polian are all pushing for wage controls on first-round picks. However, such a system would almost certainly draw legal challenges if it were imposed without the consent of the players. "I don't think we can arbitrarily put it in," says one general manager.

Still, agents are urging top underclassmen to turn pro before using up their NCAA eligibility in case the big salaries later disappear. Last week four NFL general managers said they expect as many as 30 underclassmen to try to enter the 1990 draft. One of those players could be Alabama junior linebacker Keith McCants, perhaps the best college player in the country. He's reportedly wavering between staying in school another year and turning pro early.


Don't look now, but the team playing the best defense in the NFL is the 5-6-1 Chiefs. On Sunday, Kansas City limited the powerful Oilers to 215 yards while shutting them out 34-0. In its previous three games, K.C. held the Seahawks and two playoff-caliber teams, the Broncos and the Browns, to 129, 213 and 261 yards, respectively. And those 261 yards against Cleveland came over five quarters. The Chiefs' defense has allowed one touchdown in its last 17 quarters.

Now for the amazing part: Kansas City has had six defensive coordinators in the last six seasons. The incumbent is Bill Cowher, 32, who was in charge of the secondary under coach Marty Schottenheimer in Cleveland. Schottenheimer brought Cowher with him when he took over the Chiefs in January. Pro Bowl safety Deron Cherry says that the Chiefs have adapted well to Cowher's system for three reasons: the simplicity of his attacking scheme, an unselfish attitude Cherry says the defense didn't have in his eight previous years with Kansas City, and the fact that the Chiefs are accustomed to learning new defenses. "It's been incredible learning that many defenses in that many years," Cherry says. "Finally, I think we've got a system we'll stay with for a while."

Last year's defense, run by Rod Rust, involved lots of read-then-react responsibilities. Cowher's system basically assigns each defender to an offensive man at the beginning of a play. "It means players don't have to think as much," says Cherry. "When you have to think too much, you get indecisive."

Two other factors have helped K.C.'s defense: relatively few injuries and the arrival of rookie linebacker Derrick Thomas. He has given the Chiefs the big-time pass rusher they lacked for many years. With 9½ sacks, Thomas needs 3½ more to break the league's rookie record. "The best thing I've ever done in coaching is not say a word to Derrick about rushing the quarterback," says Cowher. "He's a natural."


Luis Zendejas, the Cowboy placekicker, still had a headache last Saturday, after receiving a concussion during Dallas's 27-0 loss to Philadelphia on Thanksgiving Day. Cowboy coach Jimmy Johnson charged that Buddy Ryan, Philly's coach, had offered $200 to any player who knocked Zendejas, a former Eagle, out of the game. Johnson also charged that Ryan had offered $500 to anyone who sidelined Dallas quarterback Troy Aikman. The league is investigating the accusations.

The flap should make for an interesting Philadelphia-Dallas rematch on Dec. 10. Last weekend Zendejas's best friend on the Cowboys, punter Mike Saxon, said, "Luis doesn't care if it costs him his career. He's got a vendetta against Buddy Ryan, and he's going to try to get him."

The wrong guy was forced out in Phoenix. But coach Gene Stallings was too popular and received too little blame in the media for the Cards' failure to make the playoffs during his tenure of nearly four years. So Stallings, who did wonders with an injury-decimated team this season, took the fall. Owner Bill Bidwill now has a major selling job to do—the 5-7 Cardinals drew only 33,297 at home Sunday—and he's a lousy salesman. Phoenix will probably have a hard time attracting a big-name coach because of Bidwill's skinflint reputation. He wouldn't let Stallings do a local weekly coaches' TV show in 1988, a decision that reportedly cost Stallings $100,000. A postscript on Stallings: His supporters distributed about 5,000 black armbands for fans to wear on Sunday.... Football cards are hot. For example, Joe Namath's rookie card went for $200 last spring; it's now selling for $1,000. "What you have are card dealers who had to find a way to make money when baseball cards got out of reach," says Ron Gordon, a collector and dealer in Albuquerque. "They looked at football and hyped it up."



Thomas has helped make K.C.'s defense the best.



Although Marino only bobbled the ball this time, the Dolphins sank beneath a sea of fumbles.



This poster for a grocery-store chain is part of the hype in the league's heavyweight division.



No NFL receiver has ever had a game like Willie (Flipper) Anderson had for the Rams on Sunday night. He hauled in 15 passes for a record 336 yards in L.A.'s 20-17 overtime win at New Orleans. Anderson was having a nice, six-catch, 141-yard game—then boom! He made seven grabs for 155 yards in the last 10 minutes of regulation. "Flipper put on the greatest performance I've ever seen by a receiver," said Ram coach John Robinson. Anderson, a second-round pick out of UCLA in 1988, had only 11 receptions as a rookie. "I really can't say how I feel," said Anderson. "Maybe it'll sink in when I see my name in the record book."

It figures that a guy named Lake would make the big play in the wettest game of the year. Two inches of rain fell on Miami's Joe Robbie Stadium, where the Steelers beat the Dolphins 34-14. With Miami leading 14-7, Dolphin running back Sammie Smith fumbled. Steeler safety Carnell Lake hydroplaned in, scooped the ball out of a puddle and lateraled to cornerback Dwayne Woodruff, who ran 21 yards for a touchdown. Miami had six fumbles, while Pittsburgh had none. What did the waterlogged Lake, whose hit knocked quarterback Dan Marino out of the game with a bruised shoulder, think of the game? "When the rains came," he said, "that's what turned the tide."

Four of the top five 1988 rushers were in action Sunday: the Colts' Eric Dickerson, the Cowboys' Herschel Walker, the Rams' Greg Bell and the Pats' John Stephens. All told, they gained 95 yards on 50 carries for a 1.9-yard average.

The Bills probably didn't need extra motivation against the Bengals on Sunday, after having lost the AFC Championship Game to them last season. But they got some anyhow, when their coach, Marv Levy, combined footage of stellar Bengal plays from that title game with excerpts from TV interviews Bengal players did last week. The Bills saw the tape Saturday night. In one interview, Bengal cornerback Lewis Billups said that Buffalo hadn't beaten Cincinnati in 20 years. It actually had been six. After the Bills' 24-7 victory, Buffalo nosetackle Fred Smerlas said, "That was the most excited I've ever seen our guys before a game."


•With their 14-13 win in Phoenix, the Bucs have won two straight games for the first time in five years and two in consecutive games on the road for the first time in a decade.

•The three teams that moved in the 1980s—the Raiders, the Colts and the Cards—are a combined 117-118 since they moved. None has a winning record this season.


Bengals at Browns. All four places in the renascent AFC Central (box, below right) are at stake this week. The record in this series, which began in 1970, is Cincinnati 19, Cleveland 19. In the '70s: Cincinnati 10, Cleveland 10. In the '80s: Cincinnati 9, Cleveland 9. The Bengals won the last meeting, on Sept. 25, 21-14. "The obsession in Cincinnati to beat the Browns is equaled only by the obsession there to beat us," says Bengal linebacker Reggie Williams, who has lined up against Cleveland 25 times. In a sense, the rivalry dates back to 1963, when Browns owner Art Modell fired Paul Brown, who had coached Cleveland for 17 years and had just completed his sixth straight winning season. Four years later, Brown became the coach and general manager of the expansion Bengals. Modell and Brown are still in place, as is Cleveland Stadium. "I love playing there," says Williams, who goes on to describe the walk through the tunnel beneath the stadium. "It smells old and dank. You can hear the crowd start to boo as you step up through the dugout to this cruddy field. You emerge to boos. Usually it seems we play them in a real gooey, sticky mud, the kind in which you wear shoes once and they're ruined. It's like sandlot football. It really gets you inspired."

Oilers at Steelers. One thing in the AFC Central that has changed from a decade ago is that Houston can win in Pittsburgh. From 1975 through '86, the Steelers were 12-1 at Three Rivers against the Oilers. In the past two seasons Houston has won both its games in Pittsburgh by 20 points each. "The thing about the Steelers is that if they play well early in a game, their crowd gets behind them," says Oiler guard Mike Munchak. "You've got to get on them early, or the crowd can be a factor." Last 10 meetings: Pittsburgh 5, Houston 5.


A decade after the Steelers led the AFC Central to dominance in the late 1970s, that division is again No. 1 in the NFL. The AFC Central has the tightest top-to-bottom standings of the league's six divisions and, with an 18-13-1 record against out-of-division opponents, is competing with the NFC West (16-11 going into Monday night's Giants-49er game) for the best record in interdivision games.

The key to the AFC Central's resurgence, after having hit bottom a few years ago, is that by mid-decade each of the division's four teams had found its quarterback of the future. The Bengals' Boomer Esiason, now 28, replaced an aging Ken Anderson for good in 1985; Warren Moon, 33, came from the CFL to take over the Oilers in '84; Bernie Kosar, 26, was plucked from the supplemental draft to save the Browns in '85; and the Steelers' Bubby Brister, 27, was drafted in '86. This season those quarterbacks rank second, third, fourth and fifth, respectively, in the AFC's passer ratings. The chart below shows how the AFC Central has fared in interdivision games during three periods since 1978.




Ranking Among Divisions