Here are four reasons that playoff teams would like to avoid the Patriots, now 7-6, come January.
1) The defense. Almost everything about this unit is big league, including an aggressive pass defense led by a pair of pass-rushing linebackers, Chris Slade and Willie McGinest. On Sunday against the Jets, who needed a win to keep their own playoff hopes realistic, the Patriot D kept New York off the board in its four fourth-quarter possessions. New England coach Bill Parcells has been loath to praise his defenders, but even he admitted after the 24-13 win that his team was looking good. "If we play defense the way we did today," he said, "we are [good]."
2) Quarterback Drew Bledsoe. He's only 22, but he has already thrown for 6,000 yards in less than two seasons in the league. No situation scares him, and he's so laid-back you sometimes wonder if he has a pulse. Bledsoe makes the big throws when needed, and he's beginning to master the clock-eating drives that Parcells loves, like the 14-play, 88-yard march that chewed up almost nine minutes of the second quarter on Sunday.
3) A maturing running game. Marion Butts is averaging only 3.0 yards per carry, but the Patriots have a bull with some wiggle in Steeler castoff Leroy Thompson, who emerged with 80 yards on 20 carries against the Jets. The ground game, however, will remain a concern until the offense can consistently run out the clock in the fourth quarter.
4) Terrific health. There was only one player on the New England injury report last week (wideout Michael Timpson, who played despite a pulled groin), which is a tribute to strength-and-conditioning coach Johnny Parker's aggressive off-season program. While playoff contenders like the Chiefs and the Dolphins are breaking down as the season progresses, the Pats are the NFL's healthiest team.
The three most important things a team can have are a defense that slugs you in the mouth, a ball-control offense and an attitude. The Patriots are getting close to having them all. "It used to be everything had to go perfect for us to win," says New England linebacker Vincent Brown. "Now we expect to win every Sunday."
TV or not TV? That is the question facing Jimmy Johnson. Some of his best friends say Johnson likes his NFL Sunday gig on Fox so much that he'll decide to stay at the network for the 1995 season. However, a coaching offer worth $3 million or $4 million a year, plus possibly a small ownership stake, could be terribly tempting.
Johnson has to decide whether he wants to go jack to working seven days a week and going to war against some of the most competitive folks on the planet (other football coaches) or sit on a Hollywood set for an hour a week and merely speak his mind. "Before I did TV and moved to the [Florida] Keys I was 99 percent sure I'd go back to coaching someday," says Johnson. "But right now I'm seriously torn. The opportunity and the money would be so tempting in coaching, but I'm happy right now."
Fox already has Johnson under contract for '95 at a salary of $600,000, and the network isn't going to entice him to stay by, say, doubling his salary. But Fox would likely give Johnson a nice raise if he decides to return.
On the other hand, Eagle owner Jeffrey Lurie is aggressively pursuing Johnson to run Philly's sinking ship. Lurie met with him twice before the 1994 season, and last week NFL sources told SI that Lurie talked with Nick Christin, Johnson's attorney, about what it would take to get Johnson to be coach and personnel director of the Eagles. (Regardless of whether Johnson takes the Philly job, current Eagle coach Rich Kotite will be gone after this season.)
Also, all three groups interested in buying the Buccaneers and keeping them in Tampa Bay have spoken to Johnson or Christin, and the Rams, who may be moving from Los Angeles to St. Louis before next season, have sent out feelers to Johnson. At 51 he has the football world by the tail, but don't be surprised if he says thanks but no thanks to all the coaching offers.
Who Are These Guys?
Last Thursday night, when Chicago quarterback Steve Walsh, a reject from the Cowboys and the Saints, lofted a perfect 15-yard touchdown spiral to wideout Greg McMurtry, a castoff from the Patriots and the Rams, the three Bears who greeted McMurtry in the end zone were running back Robert Green (a former Redskin), wideout Greg Primus (a Chicago practice squad player until three weeks ago) and tight end Ryan Wetnight (another player promoted from the practice squad). "Take a picture of that," said Bear coach Dave Wannstedt the next evening. "That's the Bears."
With three weeks left in the season, Chicago, at 8-5, is an unlikely NFC Central coleader with Minnesota, despite losing Thursday night's game to the Vikings and ranking in the bottom 10 of the NFL in talent. The team's only shoo-in Pro Bowl player is cornerback Donnell Woolford. But the Bears play as hard as anyone, they take intelligent risks (especially on special teams, which are coached by Danny Abramowicz), and their game plans are brilliant.
In Game 4 they beat the Jets at the Meadowlands, thanks largely to twice-cut running back Bob Christian's burrowing for a first down on a fake punt. They won in Miami in Game 10, when in the closing seconds James Williams, a former free-agent small-college defensive lineman, blocked a Dolphin field goal try that would have tied the game. Two weeks later they won in Arizona when Kevin Butler kicked four field goals, including a 27-yarder with 6:49 left in overtime, in a 19-16 win. Walsh calls the team "the blue-collar Bears, perfect for Chicago." There are no flashy stars, only an egoless coach who knows which buttons to push.
"It's will, desire and teamwork," says Wannstedt, the runaway favorite for NFL Coach of the Year. "We've been able to rise up and play to the level of our competition. I think we use our people the right way. Take [wideout] Jeff Graham. He was a second-round pick for the Steelers [in 1991]; they expected him to be a Lynn Swann, and he wasn't ready for that kind of pressure. We traded a fifth-round pick for him [in April] and just gave him a chance to be successful. He caught eight balls for more than 150 yards at Arizona. I ask you, could Michael Irvin have done more for his team that day? I don't think so. Every player in the NFL has talent. I just think that if you give your players a chance to be successful, and don't make things too complicated for them, and practice things over and over and over, you'll win."
The Bears play in Green Bay on Sunday, before finishing at home against the Rams and the Patriots. If the Bears win two of those games, they would probably host a wild-card game and perhaps even win the NFC Central—with the fourth-best talent in the division.
Forget the Replay
Of the 24 coaches who responded to our survey on instant replay, 10 said they didn't favor the system's return. And regardless of the widely held view that officiating is worse now than in past seasons, no one in the league believes instant replay would get the 23 owners' votes necessary to have it reinstated. Here is what some coaches are saying about officiating.
•Pete Carroll, Jets: "We should have full-time officials, and we should have a farm system to develop new people. Too many seasons and games are held in critical balance by guys working part-time. It's unfair not to have full-time officials—a total oversight, stick-your-head-in-the-ground thinking."
•Ted Marchibroda, Colts: "I've heard about full-time officials, but that's not the answer. We don't play every day. That's a cop-out."
•Dave Shula, Bengals: "There should be one full-time official per crew. The referee could be the full-time guy, and he could coach the other guys when they get together [before the game] at the end of the week."
•Sam Wyche, Buccaneers: "I've already made this suggestion and been patted on the head and told to shut up. But we need a review process by someone who is not a former official and a buddy of the guys he's reviewing. We need to bring every official in the NFL into a room three times a year—after Week 4, Week 8 and Week 12—and go over every mistake by every crew. You'd see the penalties, and you could say to [referee] Jerry Markbreit, for example, 'Jerry, look at the holding. You're eight yards away and looking right at it. Why didn't you call it? It decided the football game.' Officials need this kind of accountability."
•Buddy Ryan, Cardinals: "It seems like the officials aren't as sharp as they were when we had replay. The problem is, I don't want that five-, 10-minute delay replay caused."
It's beginning to look as if Richard Dent, who had surgery on his right knee in September, won't return to the 49ers this year, making a restaurateur named Tim Harris awfully important to San Francisco's Super Bowl hopes. Harris, the 30-year-old former Packer, 49er and Eagle pass rusher, was running a diner about 65 miles south of San Francisco when the Niners called him on Nov. 22 to replace Dent. Harris will be used about 20 times a game in pass-rush situations....
Chicago offensive coordinator Ron Turner is the leading candidate to replace Bill Walsh at Stanford after impressing Cardinal athletic director Ted Leland in an interview last Thursday....
Joe Gibbs turned down the Carolina coaching job again for a simple reason: He and his sons, Coy, 21, and J.D., 25, will live together in Charlotte and work for Gibbs's NASCAR racing team when Coy graduates from Stanford in June. It's refreshing to see that Gibbs, who left the Redskins after the '92 season, saying he was retiring from coaching because he wanted to spend more time with his family, is doing just that....
The St. Louis Rams are close to becoming a reality, all because the city is giving team owner Georgia Frontiere a sweetheart deal, including as much as $65 million to cover moving expenses....
Not to demean the accomplishments of Art Monk, the classy Jet wideout who will try to break Steve Largent's record of 177 consecutive games with at least one reception this Saturday against the Lions, but how meaningful is that mark? An offense averages 60 or so plays a game, about half of which are passes. Monk has been a starter for much of his 15-year career, and most first-string wideouts get five to eight balls thrown to them each game. For Monk to catch at least one pass in every game he has played is interesting but no huge achievement. It's the football equivalent of Roger Clemens getting at least one strikeout in 177 consecutive starts. Big deal....
The fastest riser on the draft charts? Penn State quarterback Kerry Collins, who has gone from a midround prospect before the season to the top five of the draft....
Viking coach Dennis Green, the newest member of the NFL's competition committee, says a rule to give each team at least one possession in overtime will be discussed at the league's spring meetings in March....
Giant coach Dan Reeves, speaking to his players after Sunday's 16-13 win in Cleveland upped their record to 6-7: "If it weren't for that seven-game losing streak, we'd be undefeated."
The End Zone
Keri Wannstedt, the 17-year-old daughter of Bear coach Dave Wannstedt, was recently ejected from a Lake Forest (Ill.) High powder-puff football game for blitzing the quarterback too much.
Thompson's running is one reason the Pats may be tough in January.
Dollars and Sense
Teams have learned a costly lesson this year in quarterbackonomics: Paying signal-callers big bucks doesn't make them big-time players. "What we did last year," says Giant general manager George Young, speaking of his NFL brethren, "is pay top dollar for guys who are just good football players. We have to come to grips with that and not throw our money away."
Young was speaking specifically of Detroit's Scott Mitchell (above left), who is making $6.4 million in salary and bonuses this year, and Chicago's Erik Kramer (above right), who is pulling down $3.1 million. Last winter both were free agents who were given huge deals before they had proved themselves to be anything more than competent. Mitchell and Kramer combined to win five games and lose nine to start the season, throwing 18 touchdown passes and 18 interceptions. In Week 10 Mitchell suffered a season-ending hand injury; Kramer, meanwhile, was benched. The Lions are playing better offensively with grizzled Dave Krieg at the controls, and the Bears are steaming toward the playoffs with backup Steve Walsh running the show.
In addition to Detroit and Chicago, three other teams began the season with new quarterbacks acquired through free agency: Indianapolis, with Jim Harbaugh; the Rams, with Chris Miller; and Washington, with John Friesz. In most of the five cases, the backups—Krieg, Walsh, Don Majkowski of the Colts, Chris Chandler of the Rams—have performed better than the starters. Friesz has a slight edge over Gus Frerotte in Washington, but overall the numbers are revealing.
Avg. 1994 Pay