'WHAT A MESS'
Those are the words that Viking head scout Ralph Kohl uses to describe the crop of running backs who were picked high in the 1987 draft, only to flop in the pros. Of the first 31 players drafted that year, seven were ballcarriers: Alonzo Highsmith (the third pick overall, by the Oilers), Brent Fullwood (fourth, Packers), D.J. Dozier (14th, Vikings), Paul Palmer (19th, Chiefs), Roger Vick (21st, Jets), Terrence Flagler (25th, 49ers) and Kenny Flowers (31st, Falcons). Not a single one is an NFL starter today.
Highsmith, who has had a spate of knee injuries, was dealt to the Cowboys in September and has since gone on injured reserve. The Packers gave up on Fullwood because they thought he was a head case who would not play hurt. They traded him to the Browns in October, but Cleveland isn't using him much, either.
Last summer Dozier became a rising baseball star in the New York Mets' minor league system, then he held out in a contract dispute until re-signing with the Vikings three weeks ago. The Jets never figured out how to use Vick, who belonged in a one-back offense, and they traded him to the Eagles in September. Vick is now a special-teams player and garbage-time back.
Flagler, who, like Dozier and Palmer, wasn't big enough to plow up the middle or quick enough to squirt around the defense, was dealt to the Cowboys last April and waived by Dallas in training camp. The Cardinals picked him up, but he's backing up two rookies.
In the last 15 months, Palmer has been released by the Chiefs, picked up by the Lions, traded to the Cowboys and signed under Plan B by the Bengals, who cut him in August. He's now out of football. So is Flowers, who was released by the Falcons during the '89 season.
"I guess you have to say it's not a perfect science, this drafting business," says Kohl. "In math, when you have an unknown, you put an X down. It's the same with seniors in college. You look at a kid's college career, and you try to make the best projection about how he'll be as a pro. It doesn't always work."
The five players from this group who remain in the NFL have produced 261 rushing yards this season. Now compare that to the production of the next seven running backs who were chosen in the '87 draft: Christian Okoye of the Chiefs (second round), Steve Smith of the Raiders (fourth), Troy Stradford of the Dolphins (fourth), Timmy Smith of the Redskins (fifth), Bo Jackson of the Raiders (seventh), Rick Fenney of the Vikings (eighth) and Merril Hoge of the Steelers (10th)—all of whom remain with their teams, except Timmy Smith, who is out of football. The six active backs from that group have combined for 2,183 rushing yards this year.
"Sometimes the most important thing is going to a team that's going to give you a shot, no matter where you're drafted," says Hoge. "That's what happened with me. Where you were picked meant nothing when camp started."
After the Eagles defeated the Falcons 24-23 on Nov. 18, Philadelphia coach Buddy Ryan called Atlanta cornerback Deion Sanders a "coward" and said he "ought to be in track" instead of the NFL, because Sanders showed more as a return man than as a tackier. Sanders's response? "The Man Upstairs—He doesn't like all of this ugly talk about one of His children."
...Despite reports to the contrary, the Patriots say they definitely are not interested in drafting quarterback Todd Marinovich if the Southern Cal sophomore comes out early....
Cardinals coach Joe Bugel, on newly acquired Dexter Manley, the defensive end who served a one-year ban from the NFL for drug abuse and was cut by the Redskins after being reinstated last week: "He needed a change of environment. One thing about Washington. When you become a hero, you always stay a hero. People love Dexter. There were people who came just to see Dexter play. He realized that. John Riggins thought all 54,000 came to see him. That's why he was so good. Dexter's the same." Translation: To have any future in football, Manley needs to go someplace where he can be a nobody....
When Chiefs linebacker Derrick Thomas ran into Lawrence Taylor of the Giants at the Pro Bowl last February, he said, "I want to be just like you when I grow up." Thomas has grown up in a hurry. He leads Taylor in sacks this season, 15-6....
Bengal assistant general manager Mike Brown scoffs at an NFL Today report on CBS that coach Sam Wyche has fallen out of favor with his father, Cincinnati general manager Paul Brown. "If there's an implication that Sam's on thin ice here, it's absolutely wrong, I can guarantee you that," Mike Brown says....
There's no secret to stopping the Dolphins: Stuff their running game. In Miami's two defeats, to the Raiders and the Giants, running back Sammie Smith totaled six yards on 11 carries. He has 588 yards on 144 carries in the Dolphins' nine victories....
If the 4-8 Jets continue to sputter, look for rookie Troy Taylor, the third-string quarterback, to get playing time. Coach Bruce Coslet likes Taylor and wants to see if the fourth-round draft pick is the Jets' quarterback of the future.
THE END ZONE
In the off-season, Reyna Thompson, the Giants' terrific special-teams player, works on a master's degree in English at Florida International University, with the idea of someday becoming an English professor. Thompson has written six stories for what he hopes will become a book of 40 short stories, and he isn't lacking for characters. A teacher in one story has the personality of Giants linebacker Carl Banks, and cornerback Mark Collins is the inspiration for a waiter in another story. Lawrence Taylor? A TV commentator in one short work bears some resemblance to LT.
"When you live with guys every day, it's easy to get to know them and to be able to develop them as characters," Thompson says. "I think that what you have to do when you write is to really know a subject. I know the subjects here."
Fullwood (21) was one of the running backs who flopped after going early in the '87 draft.
MIKE POWELL/ALLSPORT U.S.A
As if all those Raider penalties weren't bad enough, Bo Jackson gained just 25 yards in nine carries in the team's 27-24 loss to the Chiefs.
DOUG PENNSINGER/ALLSPORT U.S.A.
THE WEEK THAT WAS
WHY YOU SHOULD NEVER GAMBLE
The five division leaders who played on Sunday—the Giants, Bears, 49ers, Bengals and Raiders—were favored in Las Vegas by an average of six points a game. All five teams lost—by an average of 15 points.
HALLUCINATION OF THE WEEK
The Browns still have to play all three of their road games against their AFC Central Division rivals. They have lost six games in a row by a total of 100 points. And yet, after a 30-13 loss to the Dolphins on Sunday dropped their record to 2-9, interim coach Jim Shofner said, "I have a feeling we may not lose again. I just feel that way. I don't know how you can feel any other way." Better get into your players' heads this week, Coach. They don't share your feelings.
Quarterback Bernie Kosar questioned his teammates' work ethic after the Miami game, and linebacker Eddie Johnson said he thinks the players must practice and study harder for games. "I'd like to see guys taking film home, studying and knowing the opponent inside out," Johnson said. "I think guys need to get into those meeting rooms and start taking notes, but you don't see that. I look over sometimes at some of these young guys, and they probably don't even know what a pencil is."
GOTTA LOVE THE KIAM ERA, RIGHT?
The 1-10 Patriots solidified their grip on the worst record in the NFL—which would earn them the top pick in next year's draft—with their 34-14 loss at Phoenix. They haven't won since Week 2, at Indianapolis, and they're the only Boston-area big league team without a win since then. Here are the number of victories posted by Massachusetts's pro franchises since Sept. 17.
The Vikings are surging, and it's their defense that's making the difference. Since losing five in a row to sink to 1-6, they have won four straight, and one look at their turnover ratio over those stretches will tell you why they have reversed their fortunes. Minnesota's turnover margin was minus 11 in the losing streak, and it's plus 9 in the winning streak.
While the Vikings did not commit a turnover in their 41-13 rout of the Bears, linebacker Mike Merriweather created all kinds of havoc for the Chicago offense. Merriweather made 12 tackles, forced one of the Bears' four fumbles and was credited with 1½ of the seven sacks of Chicago quarterback Jim Harbaugh. The Vikings went into the game figuring that if they stopped Bears running back Neal Anderson, they would win the game. Anderson rushed for 48 yards on 17 carries.
The 7-4 Raiders have lost three of their last four, and now they play three of four on the road—at Denver, Detroit and Minnesota. In their three recent losses, they have been penalized nine, 10 and 11 times, respectively. The L.A. defense was drawn offside by the Chiefs six times in the 27-24 loss. Four of the offside penalties accounted for 20 yards on the Chiefs' 73-yard drive that put them ahead 27-17. "If today were the end of the season, this would be a disaster," Raider linebacker Jerry Robinson said after the game. "But it's not. It's just an emotional letdown."
STATS OF THE WEEK
•The Cardinals' 20-point margin of victory over the Patriots was their largest since moving to Phoenix in 1988. And the crowd of 30,110 was their smallest at Sun Devil Stadium.
•Chiefs running back Bill Jones has scored touchdowns on his last four pass receptions.
•The Packers were not penalized in their 20-10 victory over the Bucs—the first time they didn't draw a flag in a game since 1977.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
Steeler offensive coordinator Joe Walton returned to Giants Stadium on Sunday to face the Jets, the team he had coached for the previous seven seasons, and he was serenaded by the fans with a chorus of "Joe Must Go" in the first quarter. Said Walton after the game: "They were playing my song."
THE WEEK AHEAD
Three games will feature five teams that are big disappointments this season.
Rams at Browns. Sunday's 28-17 victory over the 49ers aside—hey, the Rams have beaten them at Candlestick Park three years in a row—Los Angeles (4-7) has languished because its defense, crippled by holdouts, injuries and the shortcomings of a new system, has slumped to 27th in the league rankings. Entering the season, Cleveland (2-9) was counting on a revived ground attack, but Eric Metcalf has not been a factor, and the Browns have the NFL's second worst rushing game.
Falcons at Bucs. Two young teams with struggling quarterbacks, superb individual talent and stern coaches—all looking ahead to 1991 with hope of better things to come. Atlanta (3-8) has lost five of its last six and Tampa Bay (4-8) has dropped six of seven. Buc tackle Paul Gruber could be speaking about either team when he says, "It's been awfully disappointing because we know we have our best overall talent since we've been here. We're soul-searching now, and we're going to see who's going to fall by the wayside."
Saints at Cowboys. New Orleans (5-6) has been an enigma, considering that it has a dominant rushing game and terrific linebackers. "But part of being good is keeping your hands on the ball," says Saints coach Jim Mora. "In five games, we've turned it over 25 times." New Orleans coughed up the ball eight times against the Lions, five times each against the 49ers and the Vikings, four times against the Redskins and three times against the Oilers—all losses. Meanwhile, Dallas (5-7), which is on the upswing after going 1-15 in 1989, actually has a shot at a .500 season.