The Buffalo Bills and Philadelphia Eagles were the runaway leaders in the NFL's offensive and defensive statistics, respectively, in 1991, so can individual honors be far behind? Five Bills, including four on offense, made my 13th All-Pro team, as did four members of the Eagle defense, including three fourths of its magnificent line.
The glue that holds that Philly defense together is outside linebacker Seth Joyner, who's equally adept at both rushing the passer and covering a receiver. He has had his finest season in six years as a pro, and he's my Player of the Year.
Joe Gibbs of the Washington Redskins was an easy choice for Coach of the Year. The 14-2 Skins played on a consistently high plane all season. A trio of newcomers—the Cleveland Browns' Bill Belichick, the New England Patriots' Dick MacPherson, the Eagles' Richie Kotite—did terrific jobs, too; Wayne Fontes of the Detroit Lions and Jerry Glanville of the Atlanta Falcons deserve mention for the wonders they worked.
Quarterback was a two-man race between Buffalo's Jim Kelly and Washington's Mark Rypien, but Kelly won out by a hair because of his ability to get things done in a hurry when he has to. A special citation goes to the Indianapolis Colts' Jeff George, who somehow stayed alive despite suffering a league-high 56 sacks.
My running backs, Buffalo's Thurman Thomas and Detroit's Barry Sanders, were chalk. Thomas again proved to be the game's most complete back, and Sanders is one of the greatest ever at turning a potential three-yard loss into a five-yard gain. The Los Angeles Rams' Robert Delpino, who performed with courage in a hopeless cause, was the choice at receiver-back.
The Bills' Andre Reed and the Dallas Cowboys' Michael Irvin emerged from a five-man final for the two wideout spots. The Houston Oilers' Haywood Jeffires had the most catches, but most of them were on six-yard hitch patterns. Atlanta's Andre Rison had some superb games, and the San Francisco 49ers' Jerry Rice is still the league's premier receiver—he just didn't have the best year—but Reed and Irvin got the nod for week-after-week consistency. An easier choice was tight end. The Patriots' Marv Cook ran away with pass-catching honors at that position. Normally I favor a blocker here, but this year the blockers didn't catch and the catchers didn't block.
The 49ers' Harris Barton and the Kansas City Chiefs' John Alt represent contrasting styles at offensive tackle. Barton, who's niftier, is adept at pulling either way. Alt is a pillar, a crushing drive blocker. Both can protect the passer. Just a shade behind them was Washington's Jim Lachey.
Steve Wisniewski, who had a superb game against the Seattle Seahawks' Cortez Kennedy early in the season, when Kennedy was considered unblockable, is a powerful force at left guard for the Los Angeles Raiders. And I got a real kick out of watching the savvy and remarkably quick strike of Miami Dolphin guard Harry Galbreath, who looked like he'd been watching old films of Dwight Stephenson. If I could have picked a third guard, Buffalo's Jim Ritcher would have been the man. In an agonizing decision at center, I went with the Bills' Kent Hull over the Raiders' Don Mosebar, who really came on at the end of the season. Hull won out on overall smarts.
On defense, both of Philly's ends, Reggie White and Clyde Simmons, made the team, with no challengers in sight. They are fundamentally sound, and they can close down the run or rush the passer. Their teammate Jerome Brown narrowly beat out last year's pick at tackle, Ray Childress of the Houston Oilers. On technique, Childress is the best in the business, but Brown was more dominating. And keep an eye on Kennedy, who had a great year.
Noseguard was a three-man race among Detroit's Jerry Ball, who's the toughest to block when he comes on hard; K.C.'s Dan Saleaumua, my choice the past two years; and the Denver Broncos' Greg Kragen, this year's selection because he was the hardest worker of the three and was in on the most plays.
Cornelius Bennett, who had his finest season in five years with the Bills and held their defense together when it was in danger of crumbling, teams with Joyner at outside linebacker. The New Orleans Saints' Pat Swilling and the Chiefs' Derrick Thomas were the class of the sack-specialist linebackers. Swilling was the NFL leader in sacks, with 17, but he had the luxury of Rickey Jackson's rushing from the other side to take some of the heat off him. Thomas got his 13.5 sacks in bunches. A head scratcher for sure, but Swilling got the nod.
The Saints decided not to lift Sam Mills in nickel situations this season, and they discovered that he had good pass-defense skills to go with his legendary plugging ability. The other inside linebacker spot goes to underrated and unheralded Jessie Tuggle of Atlanta, who always seems to be around the ball.
Has anyone noticed what an excellent job Seattle defensive back coach Rod Perry is doing? The Seahawks' secondary has been first-rate all year, and I took two players from it: left cornerback Dwayne Harper, who has come into his own as a tight cover guy, and free safety Eugene Robinson, who has been one of the finest for years as a combination hitter-ball hawk. The other corner is Washington's Darrell Green, who always draws the opposition's most dangerous receiver, but watch the New York Jets' James Hasty, who had some terrific games. An old face reappears at strong safety—the Phoenix Cardinals' Tim McDonald. A member of my 1989 team, McDonald plays the force better than any of them.
The choice at punter came down to the Raiders' Jeff Gossett, who had a remarkable 26 punts spotted inside the 20-yard line and only two touchbacks, and Phoenix's Rich Camarillo, who had better hang time than Gossett but didn't place his punts as well. I settled on Gossett largely on the strength of his late heroics in wins over Seattle and the San Diego Chargers. In both games his boots kept the enemy bottled up.
Singling out a kicker was nearly impossible, with seven of them converting better than 80% of their field goal attempts. I went with the Raiders' Jeff Jaeger on the basis of meaningful kicks—his field goals won four games for Los Angeles. How, you ask, could I have omitted the Rams' Tony Zendejas, who was 17 for 17? Hard to do, but he tried only five field goals longer than 37 yards.
Finally, there's Rookie of the Year. The pick is Tampa Bay wideout Lawrence Dawsey, who led the Bucs in catches, with 55, and fought for yards when the issue had long since been decided.
MIKE POWELL/ALLSPORT USA
Player of the Year Joyner (above) stood above the rest; Gibbs was singled out for coaching Washington to 14 wins, but Green was the only Redskins player cited.
JONATHAN DANIEL/ALLSPORT USA
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On offense, Kelly (12) was a narrow choice over Rypien at quarterback, but Cook (85) and Sanders (20) were easy picks at tight end and running back, respectively.
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FOCUS ON SPORTS
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DR. Z'S ALL-PRO TEAM
WIDE RECEIVER: Andre Reed, Bills
TACKLE: Harris Barton, 49ers
GUARD: Steve Wisniewski, Raiders
CENTER: Kent Hull, Bills
GUARD: Many Galbreath, Dolphins
TACKLE: John Alt, Chiefs
TIGHT END: Marv Cook, Patriots
WIDE RECEIVER: Michael Irvin, Cowboys
QUARTERBACK: Jim Kelly, Bills
RUNNING BACK: Thurman Thomas, Bills
RUNNING BACK: Barry Sanders, Lions
RECEIVER-BACK: Robert Delpino, Rams
KICKER: Jeff Jaeger, Raiders
END: Reggie White, Eagles
NOSEGUARD: Greg Kragen, Broncos
TACKLE: Jerome Brown, Eagles
END: Clyde Simmons, Eagles
OUTSIDE LINEBACKER: Cornelius Bennett, Bills
INSIDE LINEBACKER: Jessie Tuggle, Falcons
INSIDE LINEBACKER: Sam Mills, Saints
OUTSIDE LINEBACKER: Seth Joyner, Eagles
SACK SPECIALIST: Pat Swilling, Saints
CORNERBACK: Darrell Green, Redskins
CORNERBACK: Dwayne Harper, Seahawks
STRONG SAFETY: Tim McDonald, Cardinals
FREE SAFETY: Eugene Robinson, Seahawks
PUNTER: Jeff Gossett, Raiders
PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Seth Joyner, Eagles
COACH OF THE YEAR: Joe Gibbs, Redskins
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR: Lawrence Dawsey, Bucs