Five bills decorate our 12th All-Pro team, heavy representation for a club that hasn't even been in a Super Bowl yet. But you simply can't get away from the dazzling array of talent that general manager Bill Polian and coach Marv Levy have put together in Buffalo.
As for the individual honors, 49er wide-out Jerry Rice is our Player of the Year. Where would the Niners have been without him? Coach of the Year is trickier. Art Shell brought the old Raider spirit back, capping an amazing emotional reclamation project by making the playoffs with a club that had been on a downer for four years. The Cowboys' Jimmy Johnson, whose team came from nowhere into playoff contention, was a close second to Shell.
On the All-Pro team the quarterback choice came down to Buffalo's Jim Kelly or Randall Cunningham of the Eagles. The case for Cunningham is a strong one‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√ë‚àö√Üno player means more to his team. Kelly, however, had a career season while playing on two levels. He stayed within the confines of the Bills' conservative offense when he had to, and then when Levy put some flash into the attack toward the end of the year, opening things up with a three-wideout, no-huddle offense, Kelly switched gears and performed sensationally until injuring his knee on Dec. 15.
Buffalo's Thurman Thomas is a repeater at running back. He leads the NFL in all-purpose yardage (running and receiving) for the second straight season. Barry Sanders, who got off to a slow start in the Lions' run-and-shoot, came on in dynamic fashion. He edges the Chargers' powerhouse, Marion Butts, for the other running-back slot. As a receiver out of the backfield, no one is in a class with Philadelphia's Keith Byars.
Sure, San Francisco's other wideout, John Taylor, attracted coverage that otherwise would have gone to Rice, but never has Rice been such a focal figure in the 49er offense. The running game collapsed, and Rice has had to play the dual role of possession and downfield receiver. The Falcons' Andre Rison, on the strength of big numbers and deep striking power, gets the nod over Buffalo's sturdy Andre Reed. Our tight end, Ron Hall of the Bucs, came from nowhere. He's a blocker, a key man in the outside running game, as opposed to a pass-receiving tight end, like Brent Jones of the 49ers or Jay Novacek of the Cowboys.
We almost picked the Dolphins' rookie tackle, Richmond Webb, whose prowess helped awaken a dormant running attack, but he's still a year away. The Chiefs' John Alt is a dominating, hog-type tackle, able to collapse a side by himself, and Mike Kenn of Atlanta, always a nifty pass blocker, had his best season blocking for the run. So Webb becomes our Rookie of the Year.
One guard was easy, the Bears' Mark Bortz, a prototype run blocker and a mainstay on our team. The other spot came down to a pick-'em between the Raiders' Steve Wisniewski, another fearsome run blocker, and Miami's Harry Galbreath, who has been underrated and unnoticed but is an aggressive‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√ë‚àö√Üsometimes too aggressive‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√ë‚àö√Ügo-for-the-throat guy. We based the selection strictly on our grades of them during games, and Wisniewski scored higher.
Center was no contest. The Bills' Kent Hull is now the game's premier snapper. He's smart, tough and smooth. The courage award goes to Chicago's Jay Hilgenberg, who played hurt most of the year.
Buffalo's Bruce Smith, the self-proclaimed No. 1 defensive star in the game, is just that. Case closed. Our other defensive end, Chris Doleman, began slowly but looked like his old pass-rushing, hustling self in the five Viking games that we graded.
Our repeat nose-guard, the Chiefs' Dan Saleaumua, is now more of a reader than the pocket collapser he was in '89, but he's still the best. The Oilers' Ray Childress, tough and very sound fundamentally, is the premier 4-3 tackle, although the Raiders' Howie Long and San Diego's Lee Williams are pure hell when they drop inside from their end spots in the nickel rush.
Pass coverage plus run-stopping ability were the prime considerations in choosing our outside linebackers, and Philadelphia's Seth Joyner and Buffalo's Darryl Talley, neither of whom, unjustly enough, was selected for the Pro Bowl, led the field. For pure pass rush, Charles Haley of the 49ers gets the nod over the Lions' Mike Cofer and the Chargers' Leslie O'Neal.
For an inside linebacker to be considered for our team, he must be on the field during nickel situations, which eliminates many of the game's sturdiest pluggers, like San Francisco's Matt Millen. The Saints' Vaughan Johnson is the best run-pass man in the business. Pepper Johnson of the Giants is Mr. Versatile: On one play he's rushing the passer, on the next he's in the deep zone. He is the key man in the league's No. 1 defense.
Cornerback was the easiest pick on the board. K.C.'s secondary coach, Tony Dungy, calls his Albert Lewis the best of the modern era. The Steelers' Rod Woodson is close behind. The sleepers are Issiac Holt of Dallas and Mark Collins of the Giants.
Ronnie Lott's name is always followed by "who has lost half a step," but no free safety does more to hold together a secondary than he does for the Niners. Strong safety Carnell Lake of Pittsburgh continued to amaze us with his speed and hitting. He won a close decision over the Browns' heady and tough Felix Wright.
As of Dec. 23 the Dolphins' Pete Stoyanovich had missed only three kicks this year, from 53, 44 and 28 yards, and all three came in cold weather. We chose our punter, Rohn Stark of Indianapolis, on three categories: hang time, net yardage and ratio of inside-the-20 punts to touch-backs. He is the league's best in the last two departments.
Dr. Z's 1990 All-Pro Team
WIDE RECEIVER: JERRY RICE, 49ers
TACKLE: JOHN ALT, Chiefs
GUARD: MARK BORTZ, Bears
CENTER: KENT HULL, Bills
GUARD: STEVE WISNIEWSKI, Raiders
TACKLE: MIKE KENN, Falcons
TIGHT END: RON HALL, Bucs
QUARTERBACK: JIM KELLY, Bills
RUNNING BACK: THURMAN THOMAS, Bills
RUNNING BACK: BARRY SANDERS, Lions
WIDE RECEIVER: ANDRE RISON, Falcons
RECEIVER-BACK: KEITH BYARS, Eagles
KICKER: PETE STOYANOVICH, Dolphins
END: BRUCE SMITH, Bills
NOSEGUARD: DAN SALEAUMUA, Chiefs
TACKLE: RAY CHILDRESS, Oilers
END: CHRIS DOLEMAN, Vikings
OUTSIDE LINEBACKER: SETH JOYNER, Eagles
INSIDE LINEBACKER: VAUGHAN JOHNSON, Saints
INSIDE LINEBACKER: PEPPER JOHNSON, Giants
OUTSIDE LINEBACKER: DARRYL TALLEY, Bills
CORNERBACK: ALBERT LEWIS, Chiefs
STRONG SAFETY: CARNELL LAKE, Steelers
FREE SAFETY: RONNIE LOTT, 49ers
CORNERBACK: ROD WOODSON, Steelers
DESIGNATED SACKER: CHARLES HALEY, 49ers
PUNTER: ROHN STARK, Colts
PLAYER OF THE YEAR: JERRY RICE, 49ers
COACH OF THE YEAR: ART SHELL, Raiders
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR: RICHMOND WEBB, Dolphins