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New New England

It's only four games—keep repeating that—but new coach Dick (Norman Vincent Peale) MacPherson has pounded his power of positive thinking so deeply into the Patriots that they already have scraped themselves off the bottom of the NFL barrel and become a competitive (2-2) team. MacPherson tries to give most of his players quick individual pep talks before each game, and before Sunday's meeting with the Oilers, he went up to wideout Greg McMurtry, who had only one catch for this season. "I feel deep in my heart that you're going to have a great day," MacPherson told him.

So, of course, McMurtry went out and caught a pass, zigzagged 34 yards with it and scored the winning touchdown with six seconds left. Final score: New England 24, previously unbeaten Houston 20.

Credit for the victory goes to an unheralded Patriot secondary and to the defensive scheme devised by coordinator Joe Collier, who deployed three linemen, two outside linebackers and six defensive backs to thwart Warren Moon and the Oilers' run-and-shoot offense. But credit also must go to MacPherson for his work on the minds of players who are coming off the 1-15 nightmare that was the 1990 season. "All I've done is made them realize how great they are," MacPherson said on Monday. "Only 1,316 people in the world do what they do at such a high level. They are the stars. I've told them they've got maybe 1,000 plays in a season. Play every one right. Pay attention to detail. And have a good time doing it."

Dumb Rule of the Week

Although the NFL took some teeth out of its anticelebration rule last week—the five-yard penalty for high-fiving fans or throwing the ball into the stands was revoked, but the $1,000 fine for tossing the ball to the fans was retained—there's still a ridiculous double standard. Why is Saints owner Tom Benson not fined for dancing with a parasol on the sideline late in games that New Orleans is about to win, while celebrations by players are subject to penalties or fines? If Benson can boogie, then why can't Ickey shuffle?

This is a clear case of the 800-pound gorilla sitting wherever he wants. Benson is an owner; Bengal fullback Ickey Woods is a player. "It's a loophole that commissioner [Paul] Tagliabue is rapidly trying to close, along with getting a collective-bargaining agreement and making sure our clubs have stadiums with satisfactory terms," said NFL vice-president of communications and development Joe Browne in a cryptic rejoinder to an inquiry last week about whether the anticelebration rule applies to Benson.

Unsportsmanlike conduct was called 12 times in the first three weeks of the season for excessive or prolonged player demonstrations, with nine of those penalties imposed for either throwing the ball into the stands or high-fiving fans. (Excessive end-zone celebrations accounted for the other three flags.) Tagliabue said negative fan reaction to the penalties is the reason that he eased up on the rule. There were no violations of the revamped anti-celebration statute in Sunday's games.

Smith-Green Stats of the Week

•In nonstrike games they have played since 1985 without star defensive end Bruce Smith, the Bills are 8-0, including their 17-10 win over the Bucs on Sunday.

•Wide receiver Roy Green, 34, who signed with the Eagles last week after spending 12 years with the Cardinals, practiced with his new team for two days and then caught six passes for 114 yards in a 23-14 defeat of the Steelers.

•Emmitt Smith of the Cowboys, who leads the league in rushing with 450 yards, has gained more yards than Marcus Allen, Ottis Anderson, Eric Dickerson, Dalton Hilliard and Lorenzo White combined. Smith ran for 182 in Dallas' 17-9 win over Phoenix.

•Pittsburgh tight end Eric Green had five receptions for 99 yards in the first quarter of the Steelers' loss to Philadelphia. That's one catch and 46 yards more than the rest of the AFC Central tight ends had on the day.

•Oiler linebacker Al Smith led all AFC players with 14 tackles in Houston's loss to the Patriots.


The Vikings didn't run a play in Saints territory and had only six first downs in their 26-0 loss at the Superdome....

"Through four weeks Slim Pickens and Bruce Pickens have logged the same number of plays," wrote Falcon beat reporter Len Pasquarelli of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "And Slim Pickens is dead." Bruce, a defensive back from Nebraska and the third pick, by the Falcons, in last April's draft, is the lone unsigned first-rounder....

Derek Tennell's reception in the Lions' 33-24 win over the Colts on Sunday was the first catch by a Detroit tight end since 1988.

Game of the Week

A rarity in Southern California: This will be the only Sunday of the season when the Rams, Raiders and Chargers will all play at home and kick off at 1 p.m. PST:

•Green Bay at L.A. Rams. The Pack has lost 10 straight games on the Rams' home field since winning there in 1966.

•San Francisco at L.A. Raiders. Heads up, 49er offensive line coach Bobb McKittrick. Raider defensive end Howie Long says you teach your linemen illegal leg-whipping, and he wants to get even.

•Kansas City at San Diego. John Friesz will be the sixth quarterback to start for the Chargers in their last eight meetings against the Chiefs.

The End Zone

When Eagle quarterback Randall Cunningham had the posterior cruciate ligament in his left knee repaired earlier this month, surgeon Clarence Shields transplanted an Achilles tendon from a male cadaver into Cunningham's knee. The use of cadaver ligaments speeds the healing process because replacement parts aren't taken from the patient's body, as is the case in most ligament and tendon transplants. "And you can get a very large, thick tendon," says Shields.

Cunningham, the NFL's most mobile quarterback before his injury, suggested some suitable sources for his transplants. First he asked Shields if the Achilles of Lee Majors (Steve Austin in The Six Million Dollar Man, remember?) was available. Nope. "Well," said Cunningham, "how about one from somebody like Jesse Owens?" Nice try.



Apparently the Benson Boogie is exempt from penalty under the anticelebration statute.



Even the reserved Shula enjoyed an ice-water dousing after win No. 300.



Phillips regained his job, but the assault took something out of him.


A month ago Pete Rose stopped for dinner at Don Shula's steakhouse in Miami Lakes, Fla., and the Dolphin coach was summoned from his nearby home to meet the famous customer. The resulting visit wasn't any nice-to-see-you, uncomfortable chat between sports celebrities. This was 90 minutes of in-the-pit gossip and jock talk. Rose asked, "How can Marino get rid of it so quickly?" Shula asked, "How do you think the Miami baseball franchise will do?" What a sports documentary it would have made: alltime baseball hit leader and modern football's winningest coach, just talking.

"Don is not much older than me," Rose, 47, would later say of his 61-year-old host. "But when I look at him, he reminds me so much of my dad at that age, it's unbelievable."

By virtue of the Dolphins' 16-13 victory over the Packers at Joe Robbie Stadium on Sunday, Shula and Rose have something else in common—they have each earned a milestone for the ages. In becoming only the second NFL coach to win 300 games, Shula moved to within 26 victories of passing George Halas for most career wins in pro football history. Just as Rose chased Ty Cobb, so Shula now pursues Halas.

"In the modern era, 300 wins in the NFL is harder than getting 4,000 hits in baseball," says Bears coach Mike Ditka. "Whatever mark he puts on the board, that'll be the mark forever. Nobody's going to touch it." Rose agrees with Ditka's comparison. "Getting 4,256 hits is personal," he says. "Winning 300 games, you've got to get 40 guys to play for you."

Those guys presented Shula with the game ball after Sunday's win, and the usually stone-faced coach got a little emotional. Still, in his remarks to his players, he deflected the attention from himself, just as he did throughout the hubbub leading up to win No. 300. "The important thing is not me and the 300," Shula told the team. "This is a special moment, but the important thing is we're 2-2, and it's important what we do this year. Let's get it done."

Here's why Shula may be the last coach to win 300 games.

•He loves the coaching life, in an era when the game wears on other coaches like never before. Ditka and the Denver Broncos' Dan Reeves have been successful coaches for about a decade (99 wins apiece through Sunday), and each has had heart trouble in the past three years. Shula has had no major ailments during his 29 years as coach of the Baltimore Colts (1963-69) and Dolphins, even though his workday is two hours longer now than it was when he started coaching.

•Owners don't hire 33-year-old coaches anymore. That's how old Shula was when he was hired by the Colts. The average age of the last 10 coaches hired in the league was 49.

•He has won every which way a coach can win in this league. "He had a run-oriented team in the '70s," says Ditka, "and he had the best passing team in football with Dan Marino. Now he has a balanced offense. He's had a great defense, a not-so-good defense, and now he's rebuilding the defense. He has constantly bent his system to fit the talent of his players."

•He has ignored the lucrative financial opportunities that have lured some of the best coaches away from the game. John Madden (112 wins) and Bill Walsh (102) left coaching while they were on top and moved on to high-salaried jobs in the TV booth. Shula could too—NBC has loved his postseason studio work—but he wants no part of a full-time TV job.

"As long as I feel I'm productive and I'm in good health, why would I be looking?" says Shula. "I look forward to going to work. The competition on Sunday afternoons, the preparation during the week—there's nothing that rivals game days, when the ball's kicked off, the highs and the lows, the decision-making, the excitement. I'm sure other professions have it: the lawyer in his final argument, the business guy who's closing the big deal. But we have 'em every Sunday."


This week, Charger Nosetackle Joe Phillips will observe the first anniversary of the most terrible night of his life by marketing T-shirts that have his likeness and the slogan COMEBACK POWER on the front. The proceeds will benefit the San Diego Crime Victims Fund. Early in the morning of Sept. 26, 1990, outside a Mission Beach, Calif., restaurant, the 6'5", 326-pound Phillips was nearly killed by a flurry of punches and kicks from three men, who fled the scene and left him for dead.

Phillips and the girlfriend of a teammate were intoxicated when they stepped outside the restaurant, and an exchange of words with the three men, who happened to be driving past the restaurant at the time, precipitated the assault. The orbit around Phillips's left eye was shattered almost beyond repair, and his nose and cheekbone were broken. A surgeon needed nearly six hours to reconstruct the bone and eye socket, using titanium and teflon plates. Phillips still suffers from facial paralysis on the left side and peripheral double vision.

Phillips should be named NFL Comeback Player of the Year just for returning to the Chargers and winning back his starting job in training camp. That he has made 11 tackles and one sack in four games is gravy. "The tough thing the first time I practiced was to develop confidence that my eye wouldn't fall out," he says.

The three men who assaulted Phillips pleaded guilty to assault with a deadly weapon in a plea bargain and are serving one-year terms in work-furlough programs. Phillips won't discuss any details of the case because he has a civil suit pending against the men and the restaurant. He will say, though, "I'm shocked at the lack of remorse they showed in court. It's incredible that people can do this to another human being and have no feelings of guilt."

Phillips doesn't remember much of the physical pain because he blacked out after the first few kicks to the head. But the mental anguish is still there—daily. Despite playing 11 pounds lighter, at 315, he is performing nearly as well as he did before the assault. "He's strong as a bull, and he seems as good to me now as when I played him in previous years," says Steeler center Dermontti Dawson, who lined up opposite Phillips in the two teams' season opener. Says another Pittsburgh lineman, who prefers anonymity, "He's playing as well. He's just not playing as angry."

Even Phillips says he'll never be the same macho guy he was before the attack. "I feel like there's a part of me that isn't here, anymore," he says. "It's pretty horrific, really. I don't have the same personal security I once had. I have this feeling that it's a stark reality that 1 could get beaten again."