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the NFL


The nicest thing you can say about the first two years of Dave Shula's career as a head coach is that this mess is not all his fault. Shula's Bengals lost 17-12 to the Jets to fall to 0-10, and the 34-year-old son of Miami coach Don Shula is now 5-21 over two seasons.

There is no doubt that young Shula's pedigree—on Nov. 14 his father became the winningest coach in NFL history—had much to do with his getting the Cincinnati job. After all, he had never been a head coach at any level before team vice-president and general manager Mike Brown picked him to succeed Sam Wyche after the 1991 season. But it would be unfair to conclude that the choice Brown made was a poor one simply on the evidence of the Bengals' sorry record. It is unlikely whether Vince Lombardi or, yes, Don Shula could have won many more games with this bunch.

Whether a coach is a teacher, a disciplinarian, a play-caller or some combination of all three, no one wins without talent, and Cincinnati has precious little of it. The offensive line, the pride of the league as recently as four seasons ago, has become a sieve manned by a fuzzy-cheeked rookie and a bunch of hold-down-the-fort veterans. For far too long Brown has depended on offensive-line guru Jim McNally to mold topflight players out of massive but unwanted bodies. Bengal running backs can't pick up blitzes. There are no defensive playmakers.

Shula is not a micromanager; he oversees all aspects of the team but leaves the play-calling to Mike Pope and Ken Anderson on offense and to Ron Lynn on defense. Still, he knows where the buck stops. "I talk with my dad at least once a week," said Shula the night before the Jet game, "and the one thing he has stressed is, 'You are the guy everybody points to. When you walk into that meeting room, those players want to know what you're going to do to get them out of it [their losing streak].' "

After the Bengals lost a 38-3 stinker to Houston on Nov. 14, Shula tried to challenge his players. He recited the Lord's Prayer with them and followed it by saying in a clipped voice, "I hope you pray for strength. We are, at this time, the worst team in Bengal history." That assessment moved running back Harold Green shortly after to wonder whether Shula might be "the worst coach in history."

Green and Shula had a long chat the day after that game, which led to an uneasy truce. Amazingly, even though Cincinnati is in contention to finish with the first 0-16 record in league history, Shula's job is not in jeopardy, and with a few exceptions, he hasn't lost his players. "The players will still play for him," one club insider said on Sunday. "I don't think he's lost his grip on the team."

He'd better not have, because this team is nowhere near a turn for the better.


The belief persists that Cleveland coach Bill Belichick and his erstwhile quarterback, Bernie Kosar, had an explosive relationship that led to Kosar's release (SI, Nov. 22). Not true. The two did not get along, but their differences never boiled over. Truth is, Belichick sincerely believed that Kosar was too slow and his arm too gimpy to flourish in any NFL offense.

Kosar also became too independent for Belichick's tastes, and that may be what finished him in Cleveland. In the Browns' 24-14 loss to Miami on Oct. 10, Kosar called an audible, and the result was a touchdown pass to wideout Michael Jackson. On Cleveland's next offensive play Kosar called another audible, and it produced a two-yard completion to Jackson. After Belichick called the next play, he shouted to Kosar, "Run the play we're sending in!"

He did not trust his quarterback to run the right plays, and the quarterback did not trust many of the plays being sent in. "I wasn't insubordinate," says Kosar. "I wasn't cancerous about it. When I audibled, I audibled to plays that I knew would work better. The [Cleveland] offense, as it exists now, cannot be consistently successful."


Just when you thought you had the NFL figured out:

•Dallas, the best team in the league, got snuffed by the NFL's worst defense, losing to Atlanta 27-14. Before the game, Cowboy defensive tackle Tony Casillas had pondered a second trip to Atlanta—for Super Bowl XXVIII. "We might want to take bread crumbs to the Georgia Dome and leave them outside, because we plan on being back in January," Casillas had said. Not so fast, Tony. The Cowboys looked like an ordinary team without quarterback Troy Aikman, who missed his second start after suffering a strained hamstring against the Giants, and without running back Emmitt Smith, who left Sunday's game after suffering a bruised right thigh in the second quarter.

When Smith left, so did the Dallas running game, and quarterback Bernie Kosar showed his limitations as a downfield thrower: only seven of his 22 completions went to wide receivers. One of the best on the planet, Michael Irvin, had one catch for five yards. "I was covered on every play," Irvin said, "but that's never stopped us before."

•Pittsburgh, with a defense that had looked like the old Steel Curtain in an intimidating shutout of Buffalo the previous Monday night, went to Denver and got thrashed 37-13. The Steelers allowed a season-high 107 rushing yards to a poor running team and gave John Elway the time to have a brilliant day—18 completions in 25 attempts for 276 yards and one touchdown. The AFC pennant race is now cloudier than it has been all year.

•Kansas City, which was beginning to look as if it could survive without Joe Montana, put on a pitiful show at home and lost to Chicago. The Bears came in with a 3.4-yards-per-rush average, third to last in the league. K.C. came in with the second-stingiest defense against the run, 3.1 yards per carry. What happened? Chicago backs gained 190 yards on 42 carries. "We were embarrassed," said Chief defensive tackle Joe Phillips. You've got to like what coach Dave Wannstedt is doing with the Bears now. Hamstrung by a mediocre quarterback, Jim Harbaugh, he's building a tough team that can win with defense and a running game, which is a combination that outdoor teams in cold climates need to have.

Philadelphia at Washington, Sunday. What a depressing outlook for two of the league's proudest franchises. Washington is 2-8 for the first time in 30 years, and the starless Eagles have lost six games in a row for the first time in 10 years. Washington is playing with a World League-quality offensive line and a journeyman backup, Rich Gannon, at quarterback. Philadelphia is playing with, well, we're not sure. "In my eight years I've never seen the Eagles so discombobulated," said cornerback Mark Collins after his Giants beat Philly 7-3. "They look so confused."

Anywhere But St. Louis Department: The NFL will name its second expansion team on Nov. 30, and last week Baltimore strengthened its chance to upset St. Louis when banking and financial services executive Alfred Lerner entered his bid for a franchise. Yet Jacksonville remains an interesting long shot, in part because of the high regard owners feel for J. Wayne Weaver, the point man for Jacksonville's effort, who made his fortune in shoe stores. Weaver echoes the concern of people in and out of the league about the suspect level of football fervor in St. Louis. He lived there for 20 years. "We couldn't fill a 52,000-seat stadium in the [Don] Coryell years, which were the most exciting years they had," Weaver said. "How are they going to fill a 70,000-seat stadium?" ...Only two times in NFL history has a college contributed two running backs in the same draft who led their pro teams in rushing as rookies. This season it could happen twice: with Jerome Bettis (Rams) and Reggie Brooks (Redskins) from Notre Dame and a pair from Division I-AA Northeast Louisiana, Roosevelt Potts (Colts) and Greg Robinson (Raiders). The Notre Dame duo might not be a surprise, but how does a small school stockpile that sort of talent? "We tell the kids that if they come, we'll put them in an offense the NFL scouts will love," says Northeast coach Dave Roberts.

The latest craze at lunchtime in the Miami locker room is a nine-hole putting course, laid out on the carpet with white athletic tape. There are fights over tee times, just like in the real world, and there's horrible putting, just like in the real world. The worst putter: tight end Keith Jackson. When one putt fell pitifully short last week, he said, "This is the sequel to White Men Can't Jump. It's called Black Men Can't Putt."




Shula is not solely to blame for the Bengals' ineptitude.



A sign of the turbulent times in Cleveland, where Kosar was king.



With Aikman already on the bench, Dallas could ill afford the injury that befell Smith.