PLAYOFFS ARE TOO WILD
For all of the improvements he has initiated and the energy he has brought to the office of NFL commissioner, Paul Tagliabue made a shortsighted move last March that has turned out to be the biggest mistake of his first year on the job. Pressured by the owners to hammer out a new contract with the networks that would guarantee a huge increase in TV revenue and seeking to increase late-season fan interest, Tagliabue bargained away the premium that two teams previously had earned for winning their divisions—a bye during the wild-card weekend of the playoffs.
Tagliabue expanded the playoff field from 10 to 12, adding an extra wild-card entry from each conference. That created two more first-round games—the broadcast rights to which brought in extra money from ABC. Now, with three wild-card teams in each conference, two wild cards will play each other in the first round, and the third will meet the division winner with the worst record. The other two division winners in each conference still have first-round byes.
Admittedly this is a freak season, in that the NFC's three dominant teams—the 49ers and Giants entered their Monday night showdown with 10-1 records, and the Bears are 10-2—are all runaway division leaders. But under the new postseason format, one of these teams will lose a week off and will have to play an extra game in its bid to win the Super Bowl.
Chicago president Mike McCaskey has mixed feelings about the expanded postseason. "I don't think we'll get screwed," he says. "Clearly, I think it was in the service of a larger goal. Everyone wanted more TV dollars. I'd personally rather have a smaller number of teams make the playoffs and make winning the division really meaningful. But a lot of people felt the TV deal was very important."
"There's supposed to be an incentive to win your division, and one of the incentives was that it took only three wins to be the Super Bowl champion," says Falcon coach Jerry Glanville. "Now, if you're, say, the Bears right now, you've got to win four games. You're being punished for winning your division but not winning it by enough."
One club executive said last week that "our problem right now as a league is we're running everything as a business. We need to get back to running it as a football business. We make decisions and forget all about football when we're making them. Every decision we make is based on money, not the sport."
All the blame can't be laid on Tagliabue. He didn't negotiate the previous TV contract, which provided for all 28 clubs to receive the same amount—$17 million—per season from 1987 to '89, a period when network payouts to other sports took a sizable jump. He was subjected to the not-so-subtle urgings of the owners to make up for "lost" revenues when it was time to sit down with the networks again.
He brought four bargaining chips to the negotiations: 1) spreading the 16-game regular season over 17 weeks in 1990 and '91 and over 18 weeks in 1992 and '93 so the networks would have more weeks in which to televise games; 2) giving the networks two more commercial minutes per game—for a total of 56 minutes—starting in '92; 3) giving a second cable network, TNT, nine Sunday night games; and 4) adding two playoff teams to create two more postseason games. Owners who had expected to receive an average of $27 million a team per season were thrilled last spring when Tagliabue announced a four-year deal that would bring each of them an average of $32.1 million a year.
In a speech to the American Bar Association last June, Tagliabue talked of the pressure he felt to cut a lucrative TV deal. He said that league executives "had a way of sending me every day a new headline saying BASEBALL QUADRUPLES INCOME, or BASKETBALL QUADRUPLES INCOME, or NCAA QUADRUPLES INCOME, and then they'd put these little notes on the bottom that made you sound like you might be the shortest-term commissioner in the history of the sport if you didn't also quadruple the income. When you looked at the [other sports' TV] contracts, one thing emerged very quickly. Not only were there substantially increased rights payments, but there were major increases in the inventory of programming. So we had to start facing up to the question of whether we redesign our schedule and add games, add product, or whether we stay the way we've been for 25 years. In the end, we did a little of each."
Now, however, Tagliabue maintains that the revenue generated by the extra wild-card games was less of a factor than sustaining fan interest. "In December, there's tremendous excitement week in and week out in the league," says Tagliabue. "Last year we entered the final weekend with 17 teams having a shot at the playoffs. Then we went from 17 cities hyped on NFL football to four cities the next weekend. It's kind of a letdown. Adding the two teams helps us keep the excitement up."
That's true. However, increasing the number of playoff teams from eight to 10 to 12 since 1978 is severely testing the integrity of the regular season. Who says 22 teams should be in the playoff hunt in late December? The new postseason format doesn't cripple the game. It just cheapens it—unnecessarily.
SHAME HAS NO PRICE
After weighing the contents of the 60-page report on the Patriots-Lisa Olson sexual-harassment case prepared by special counsel Phillip Heymann, Tagliabue last week levied fines totaling $22,500 against three New England players and $50,000 against the team. But, says Tagliabue, "I was tempted to impose no fines. I don't have any doubt about what Zeke Mowatt did. [According to Heymann's report, Mowatt 'purposely displayed himself to (Olson) in a suggestive way.'] But one of the reasons you impose sanctions is to try to deter future similar behavior, and I don't think the people involved need much more of a deterrent."
In other words, Tagliabue believed that the guilty parties had suffered substantially from the tremendous amount of publicity—99% of it bad—generated by the incident. That's also why Mowatt's fine ($12,500) for harassing Olson in the Pats' locker room on Sept. 17 is only 45% of what Bengal coach Sam Wyche was fined ($27,941.18) for barring a female reporter from the Cincinnati locker room after a defeat on Oct. 1 in Seattle. Wyche had violated the league's media policy on two previous occasions in his seven seasons as coach. Tagliabue believes that Wyche's defiance was likely to continue unless he was heavily fined.
MEN OF TROY
In Steve Walsh's return to Texas Stadium as quarterback of the Saints on Sunday, he threw for 177 yards. The man he couldn't beat out for the Cowboys' starting job, Troy Aikman, threw for 177. New Orleans ran for 113 yards. Dallas ran for 113. The difference in the Cowboys' 17-13 win? A hot Aikman in the second half, during which he completed 11 of 11 passes and Dallas scored all of its points.
"It's like when a basketball player gets hot," Aikman said after finishing with 15 completions in 21 pass attempts. "When you're on, you're on." Aikman said a cordial hello to his old rival before the kick-off, but since they weren't close as teammates, they didn't pal around before or after the game.
That was better for everyone, really, as was the trade of Walsh to the Saints in September. "I've never said this before," said Cowboy coach Jimmy Johnson, "but I couldn't get close to Troy as long as Steve was here."
THE BUCS STOPPED HERE
With the not-unexpected firing of Ray Perkins as coach of Tampa Bay on Monday—"We haven't gotten it done, and I realize that," said Perkins, who was 19-41 in three-plus seasons—the Buccaneers will now be looking for a marquee guy to succeed him. That's too bad. What the Bucs need is a bright coaching prospect who can rebuild the team from scratch.
Look for Tampa Bay to inquire, if it hasn't done so already, about the availability of former 49er coach Bill Walsh to double as coach and general manager. (A source close to Walsh says the NBC analyst has had at least three feelers this season exploring his possible return to football in a coaching or management capacity.) Another candidate might be Giants coach Bill Parcells, who has one year left on a four-year, $3.2 million contract. Assistant head coach Richard Williamson will serve as the Bucs' interim coach for the remainder of the season.
World League of American Football president Mike Lynn is finalizing ownership agreements for franchises in Barcelona and Frankfurt, and he has issued this desperate plea: "Wanted: American football coaches who can speak German, Spanish or French. Apply immediately." Lynn believes that having coaches in Frankfort, Barcelona and bilingual Montreal (site of another WLAF franchise) who can speak the native language is crucial.... Look for the Chargers to send Arthur Cox, their 290-pound tight end, packing after the season. Not only did his fumbles with 48 seconds left in regulation and on the third play of overtime enable the Seahawks to beat San Diego 13-10 on Nov. 25, but Cox also spit in the face of Seattle linebacker Joe Cain during the game. The previous week he kicked Chiefs linebacker Percy Snow.... Maybe the NFL should send Jesse Jackson to New England. He showed up at a Redskins practice last week and talked to the players about their responsibility to the community as role models.
THE END ZONE
Sure, Bengal cornerback Lewis Billups plays on what might be the worst defense in the NFL, but he also owns what probably is the best car in the league. It's a 1987 white Lamborghini Countach, a model no longer made, with a top speed of 183 mph. The car had 7,500 miles on the odometer when Billups bought it in '89 for $200,000. Now he drives it to practice on Fridays and Saturdays.
The car has a remote-control ignition system, which allows Billups to start the engine from as far away as 100 feet with a device that fits on his key ring. Sometimes he startles unknowing teammates by pointing at the car from a distance and yelling, "Start, car!"
"When I was nine or 10, the first time I saw a Lamborghini, I said, 'I'm going to get one of those,' " says Billups. "I sometimes like to drive it without the radio on—just to listen to the engine."
Billups was ticketed by Kentucky State Police for driving 105 mph on 1-75 last month. Not to worry. He was driving his Porsche 911.
Getting sacked in his end zone was one of several bone-headed plays that laid Brister low.
Billups can fire up his $200,000 dream machine, a Lamborghini Countach, from afar.
PRETTY GOOD COMPANY
At 10-year intervals, first-time NFL coaches Chuck Noll, Bill Walsh and Jimmy Johnson took over moribund teams in Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Dallas, respectively. After their first 28 games, they were on the same career track, a trend that Johnson obviously hopes will continue, because Noll and Walsh went on to win a combined seven Super Bowls.
The first sign of Cowboy progress—Dallas's record has improved from 1-15 in 1989 to 6-7 this season—has boosted Johnson's optimism, which was already boundless. "We could be back in the playoffs sooner than anyone imagined," he says. "The way it looks now, that could be next year."
Oh, yeah, in 1959, another rookie coach took over a foundering team. But Vince Lombardi went 18-10 in his first 28 games with the Green Bay Packers.
THE WEEK THAT WAS
BUBBY, CAN YOU SPARE AN ARM?
"What can you say?" said Boomer Esiason after the Bengals had won 16-12 in Pittsburgh for their sixth straight victor over the Steelers. "We've just got one of those matchup things with the Steelers. I wish we could play them every game." The last four times these teams have met. Cincinnati running back James Brooks has rushed for 113. 127. 105 and 81 yards, respectively. Cincy's crummy defense comes to life against the Steelers, whose quarterback, Bubby Brister, doesn't have the accuracy or the patience to pick apart the Bengals. Pittsburgh hasn't scored a touchdown against Cincinnati in 11 quarters.
The Steelers led the league in stupidity on Sunday. In the second quarter, Brister took a sack half a yard deep in his end zone, after having plenty of time to dump the ball. Following a timeout to set up a crucial third-down play late in the game, two Pittsburgh players went in motion—toward each other. Brister called time again, which drew a delay-of-game flag because a team can't call successive timeouts without running a play. Then, with 2:14 to play, Brister threw the potential game-winning TD pass eight feet over the head of wide-open tight end Eric Green.
OH, AND ONE MORE THING
Steeler punter Dan Stryzinski downed his own second-quarter punt, an 18-yarder, against the Bengals.
If Bills wideout James Lofton had stopped playing after the first quarter of Buffalo's 30-23 win over the Eagles, he still would've had the best day of any NFL receiver in Week 13. Lofton caught three passes for 154 yards in the first 14 minutes. Next best effort: Stephone Paige of the Chiefs, with seven catches for 151 yards in 60 minutes. Lofton wound up with five receptions for 174 yards.
SCHOOL OF HARD KNOX
The Seahawks' last four games have been decided on the final play. They've won three of them, including a 13-10 decision on Sunday, when Norm Johnson's 42-yard field goal beat the Oilers in overtime.
JINX OF THE WEEK
The Falcons controlled the ball for 39 minutes against the Bucs, and they rushed for 222 yards, their best effort since 1986. Still, they lost their 17th straight road game, 23-17, and quarterback Chris Miller was sidelined for the year with a broken collarbone.
STATS OF THE WEEK
•Is Marion Butts of the Chargers the back of the year, or what? He has carried the ball 262 times without fumbling, and he missed being the first back to rush for 1,000 yards this season by a couple of hours. Thurman Thomas of th Bills, whose game in Buffalo started three hours before Butts's game in San Diego, was the first back to reach 1,000 yards in '90.
•Pittsburgh's Gary Anderson, who kicked four field goals against Cincinnati to raise his career total to 202, has made 49 straight inside 35 yards.
•The Patriots' defense has given up a score on the opponents' first possession in nine of 12 games this season. The New England offense has failed to get a first down on nine of 12 opening possessions. Both of those patterns were continued in a 37-7 loss to Kansas City.
THE WEEK AHEAD
Bears at Redskins. Fifty years ago, on Dec. 8,1940, one of the NFL's most storied championship games was played in Washington, D.C. Bears 73, Redskins 0. How bad was it? Well, Washington had beaten Chicago 7-3 just three weeks earlier in the regular season. But on this day, in the first championship game carried on network radio, George Halas's Bears outrushed the Redskins 372 yards to three. Also, Chicago stopped kicking extra points in the second half because Washington, which as the home team supplied the balls, was afraid it would run out of them. (In those days, balls kicked into the stands were kept by the fans.) "Some of my players were yellow, yellow in the sense that they quit and did not give their best effort after we got behind," Redskins owner George Preston Marshall said after the game. The payoff to the league champions was $873.99 per man. The loser's share was $606.25.
Cardinals at Falcons. A sentimental matchup for two guys who traveled a long road to become NFL head coaches. In 1967, when Joe Bugel and Jerry Glanville were assistant coaches at Western Kentucky, they were so broke that they lived in a log cabin without electricity just off campus. They were two football freaks who diagrammed plays on empty pizza boxes. "All Jerry ever thought about was football," says Bugel, who in his first year with Phoenix is 4-8. "I used to kid him that if you cut his head open, little footballs would jump out." The cabin had only one bed, which Bugel took for himself. Glanville, the former Oiler coach who so far this year has guided Atlanta to a 3-9 mark, slept on layers of old newspapers. "We tried to make them as soft as possible," says Bugel. "He'd either sleep on the funnies or on the sports section."
CHUCK NOLL, Steelers
BILL WALSH, 49ers
JIMMY JOHNSON, Cowboys