BLOOD, SWEAT AND FEARS
After practice one day last week, Buffalo defensive end Bruce Smith sat in the living room of his new home in Hamburg, N.Y., his left arm draped over a cushy sofa. Across the room was a big-screen TV, down the hall a gourmet kitchen and out in the garage three cars. He talked about how his comfortable life-style is, essentially, a trade-off.
"Let's face it," Smith said, "the human body is not made for football. When you play, you have to accept that. I tell my wife, 'I'm going to die early,' and she says, 'Don't say things like that.' I'm not complaining. I get an awful lot of good things out of football. I chose to be a football player, and I accept everything that goes with that decision—the pain, the injuries, the pressure, the chance I might die early. Basically I'm giving my body up to support a better life-style for me and everyone close to me."
The paralyzing injury to Jet defensive end Dennis Byrd on Nov. 29 (page 22), the second such injury to occur in an NFL game in 12 months, sent chills through a lot of players last week. But not one of them quit the game or whined about the risks involved in playing it. Nobody, they said, should be feeling sorry for them.
Most players, like Smith, seem to think that the risk of suffering a paralyzing injury—it has happened to one out of the league's 1,500 players in each of the last two seasons—is worth taking. Says Raider cornerback Terry McDaniel, "I can't go out there and think it might happen to me if I hit somebody. If I go out there thinking like that, I won't be out there for long anyway."
However, an injury as severe as Byrd's is hard for even the most reckless player to ignore. "For the first few days after something like that happens, it's all you can think about," says Falcon safety Scott Case. "You're extra careful about things. But then, to be truthful, a week later you're back throwing yourself around. This kind of survivor's second nature takes over. You simply can't play this game timidly."
"For the people who don't play the game, watching the replays of Byrd getting hurt are hard," says Atlanta safety Jeff Donaldson. "But if you're a player, it's almost harder. It's a lot more vivid. You sit there and watch it, and you know, you just know, that you've had the same kind of hits. And, I think, you shake your head and wonder why some people get hurt and not others."
Redskin safety Brad Edwards got a scare last season when, after colliding with Bear running back Neal Anderson, he lost feeling in his extremities. "I had a couple minutes that I couldn't feel anything," says Edwards. "That's real scary. Fortunately, feeling came back. The speed of the game is probably outgrowing the ability of the body to handle it."
"We ought to have state troopers out there writing tickets for reckless driving," says Buffalo linebacker Darryl Talley. "You can't believe the collisions. But I want to be the best, and to do that, I've got to throw my body around."
Eventually, as Smith knows, a football player eventually pays. "This sport takes a toll," says Falcon tackle Mike Kenn. "Sooner or later you pay the guy at the toll window."
TAPS FOR BUGEL?
Phoenix owner Bill Bidwill apparently hasn't decided whether to fire coach Joe Bugel, and the team's last three games—against the Giants and the Bucs at home, and on the road against the Colts—may well decide his fate. All three are winnable, so Bugel probably has to go 3-0, or look impressive in going 2-1, to keep his job.
Bugel hopes he can hang on with the Cardinals for at least one more year, because he thinks they will benefit greatly when the free-agency system is liberalized this off-season. He figures players will flock to Phoenix, lured by its warm climate, its grass playing field and the team's new $13.6 million, state-of-the-art training complex. But he realizes the clock is ticking. "Mr. Bidwill knows I'm totally loyal, and I know he wants to see me succeed, but we've got to win," said Bugel last Friday. "And we've got to start putting some fannies in seats."
The Cardinals' 27-21 loss to the Chargers on Sunday—in front of the second-smallest Sun Devil Stadium crowd (26,880) since the franchise moved from St. Louis, in 1988—was not a good sign.
STATS OF THE WEEK
•The Browns got more points (21) in a 95-second span against the Bengals on Sunday than they had scored in eight of their games this year. Cleveland scored twice on Bernie Kosar touchdown passes and added a third TD on linebacker Mike Johnson's fumble recovery in the Bengal end zone. That burst gave the Browns a 34-7 lead en route to a 37-21 victory.
•Last year 50.2% of all NFL games (including playoffs) were decided by seven points or fewer. This season only 38.7% have been that close.
•The average age of the Bronco quarterbacks, Shawn Moore and Tommy Maddox, in Denver's 31-27 loss to Dallas was 22.5. The Bronco running backs in that game averaged 24.7 years and the wide-outs 25.8. Since John Elway went out with a bruised shoulder, Denver has lost three straight.
•The Seahawk defense intercepted Steeler quarterback Neil O'Donnell on three straight series in the first quarter, but the Seattle offense responded with drives of minus-one, minus-one and minus-three yards. Pittsburgh won 20-14. The Seahawks have forced 25 turnovers, but the offense has converted only one of them into a touchdown.
AS THE PATS BURN
In case you missed last week's episode of the Patriots' soap opera: Recuperating from colon surgery, coach Dick, without consulting franchise czar Sam or acting coach Dante, names gutsy Hugh to replace charismatic Scott at quarterback. Sam flips lid. Hugh is swarmed by mediocre Colts and reinjures shoulder. Scott replaces Hugh in second half, but he struggles too. Pats plunge to new depths—draw 19,429 to Foxboro Stadium, lose 6-0.
Just when you think it can't get any worse in New England, it does. Dick MacPherson, who said he wasn't going to make coaching decisions while recovering from acute diverticulitis, angered team president Sam Jankovich by making one without even consulting acting coach Dante Scarnecchia. MacPherson told quarterback Hugh Millen, who was coming off a separated shoulder, that he could have his job back. But neither Millen nor his replacement, Scott Zolak, moved the Pats, and New England was dealt its second straight shutout. The crowd was the team's smallest for a nonstrike game since New England moved into Foxboro, in 1971.
The fans want Zolak, who led the Pats to their only two wins, even though he has passed for 15 net yards in each of the last two weeks. "They say adversity builds character," Millen says. "Well, we have 50 aspiring monks."
GAME OF THE WEEK
Green Bay at Houston, Sunday. Huge playoff implications here, but the game also matches the two wide receivers chasing Art Monk's single-season record of 106 receptions. Sterling Sharpe of the Packers, who leads the league with 88 catches, needs to average 6.3 receptions in his last three games to surpass Monk's total. Haywood Jeffires of the Oilers, who's tops in the AFC with 74 through Sunday, must average 8.25 in his last four games to reach 107.
THE END ZONE
Leave it to Mike Ditka to make money off his biggest headache of the year. Remember when he bawled out quarterback Jim Harbaugh for having called an audible that turned into an interception in the Bears' disastrous 21-20 loss to the Vikings on Oct. 4? Well, Ditka and Harbaugh have made a local radio commercial for a mobile-communications company, in which Ditka admonishes Harbaugh for making his own calls. Harbaugh acknowledges the bad audible, and Ditka says, "No, no. Now I'm talking about your calls off the field. You should be making them with a car phone from Cellutech."
The gains from playing football are worth the pains for Smith (78).
Emmitt Smith's paycheck is light by baseball standards.
THE BONDS MARKET
You can't help but notice some of the salary discrepancies that exist between NFL players and their baseball brethren. Baseball's best all-around player is probably outfielder Barry Bonds, the two-time National League MVP who last Saturday was offered a record six-year, $43 million contract by the San Francisco Giants. On the other hand, football's best all-around weapon is thought to be Buffalo running back Thurman Thomas, the 1991 NFL MVP, whose base salary this season was $1,250,000.