RODNEY GETS RESPECT
Philadelphia quarterback Rodney Peete spent a full hour and a
half in the trainer's room after the Eagles' 28-19 victory over
the Giants on Sunday, and when he finally came out, he had that
stiff-legged walk that said, It might not hurt too much now,
but, oh, brother, just wait till tomorrow.
Peete, who injured his right hip, had taken a shot from New York
defensive tackle Ray Agnew in the second quarter when he
scrambled to the Giant four-yard line and didn't bother to
slide. To add insult to injury, he fumbled the ball. The Eagles
got it right back on another fumble, and Peete got hit again
when he threw an incomplete pass. But he hung in there, throwing
his next pass to wideout Fred Barnett for a four-yard touchdown.
Peete finished out the half, marching the Eagles from their own
19-yard line to the Giants' 37. He then took one final hit, a
crusher from New York defensive end Michael Strahan, which
caused his pass to wobble downfield for an interception. Peete
was through for the day, but the Eagles had a 21-7 lead, and
Randall Cunningham came in and got the save in the second half.
Peete, who was 14 of 20 for 133 yards, was moving stiffly toward
his locker when someone asked him, "You going to play next
week?" The quarterback smiled and nodded. "I'll play," he said.
Philadelphia is now 7-4, second best in the NFC, and sore hip or
no sore hip, this is no time to take a seat. The Eagles' new
West Coast offense, imported from the 49ers by rookie coach Ray
Rhodes, is at long last starting to kick in.
There were a few glitches on Sunday, but for the second straight
week Philly used the run to set up the pass, and the result was
21 first-half points and a high-percentage day for the
quarterback. Two weeks ago Peete ran the attack in dazzling
fashion in a 31-13 win over Denver, putting together long
scoring drives on each of the Eagles' first three possessions.
Here's the bottom line: Philadelphia began the season at 1-3
under Cunningham. With Peete starting, the Eagles are 6-1.
Barring some sort of disaster, Peete's the man.
Peete, 29, spent five strange years in Detroit, sharing time
with Erik Kramer and Andre Ware in a three-man quarterback
rotation that drove everyone crazy.
"We started with a pure run-and-shoot offense and went to a
hodgepodge," says Peete. "You'd go from starter to third string,
back to starter again, then back to third string. [Lion coach]
Wayne Fontes loved to play games: 'We'll announce our
quarterback at the end of the week.' It was a nightmare."
Last year, as Troy Aikman's backup in Dallas, Peete learned the
true West Coast offense. "It was a great situation but not a
permanent one," Peete says. "I wasn't ready at that point to
say, O.K., I'll be a backup for the rest of my career. When I
got here, I figured, This is it. Here's where I make my stand."
Now Peete is ready to lead the Eagles into the playoffs.
"I see a lot of Steve Young in Rodney," says Eagle guard Guy
McIntyre, a former 49er lineman. "He'll check off when he has
to, he'll spread the ball around. He knows what to do, and he'll
hang in there. He's not afraid to take a hit.
"He's our quarterback."
BACK IN THE FOLD
It was a very small news item in Dallas, lost amid the
hullabaloo of cornerback Deion Sanders and his $35 million
contract and owner Jerry Jones's lawsuit war with the NFL and
quarterback Troy Aikman's sore calf and defensive end Charles
Haley's aching back. Cowboy outside linebacker Darrin Smith came
back to the team on Oct. 14, ending an 85-day holdout.
"I just slipped through the backdoor and nobody noticed," Smith
said last week.
Smith, a third-year player with 4.5 speed, may very well be the
fastest linebacker in the league. He's a cover linebacker, one
of a rare breed. Yes, we know, Jerry Rice made him look bad in
the team's loss to the 49ers in Week 11, but Smith usually
covers mere mortals. The extremely talented 6'1", 230-pounder
was a whisper away from making the Pro Bowl last year. With a
$178,000 paycheck, no less.
Somehow the big money that has become the Cowboys' trademark
never found its way to Smith's corner of the locker room. So he
decided it was time to get his just due for the services he
performed. In August, Dallas offered Smith a one-year contract
at $425,000, which was a boost from '94 but still well below the
NFL average for starting linebackers. Smith, who will be a
restricted free agent in '96, was looking for a one-year,
$800,000 deal but lowered his price to $500,000 in mid-October.
The Cowboys stuck to their guns. Case closed. Come see us when
you're ready to sign.
Smith held out until the week after the trading deadline--"when I
saw for sure that there was no chance of going anywhere else,"
he explains--and then signed for what the club offered, minus, of
course, the pay for the six games he missed, which put him at
Smith, who led Cowboy linebackers in four categories last year
(sacks, interceptions, passes defensed and tackles behind the
line), was immediately plugged into the lineup and has started
the last four games for Dallas. But why would a team that
spends so liberally in some areas lowball a proven player like
"Because he's a linebacker, and they're not a big priority
around here," says Cowboy cornerback Kevin Smith. "Just look at
the linebackers who either walked or got fired: Jack Del Rio,
Gene Lockhart, Ken Norton Jr. In this scheme they just have to
be able to run. Defensive linemen and cornerbacks are the
priorities. Linebackers come and go."
TURNING THE CORNER
If you haven't noticed, New York Giant cornerback Phillippi
Sparks is having an All-Pro year. Just look at how little the
wideouts he has had in man coverage have produced this year.
Dallas: Michael Irvin caught a seven-yard touchdown against
Sparks in zone coverage, but no, repeat no, passes were thrown
Sparks's way while in man-to-man.
Kansas City: Willie Davis, one for six yards. Danan Hughes, one
Green Bay: Robert Brooks, three for 27.
New Orleans: Michael Haynes, one for 21, the longest completion
of the year against Sparks, on a pass down the seam that Haynes
caught six inches off the ground.
San Francisco: Jerry Rice, three for 32. Nate Singleton, one for
11. Sparks shadowed Rice for much of the afternoon. Of the seven
passes thrown to Rice in man coverage, Sparks knocked down two.
Arizona: Frank Sanders, one for a six-yard touchdown, the only
TD in man coverage Sparks has given up all year. Sparks had
bruised his right arm and was in and out of the lineup. The
Cards' rookie wideout also caught a pass for a two-point
conversion in the back of the end zone, with Sparks covering.
Philadelphia: A shutout. Sparks intercepted one of the two
passes thrown his way.
Washington: Henry Ellard, two for 30. Leslie Shepherd, two for
58. Tydus Winans, one for 12. This was Sparks's only off game of
the season, with the Skins playing catch-up in a hectic second
half and quarterback Gus Frerotte launching bomb after bomb into
the tiring Giant secondary.
Seattle: Robb Thomas, one for 13. Joey Galloway one for eight.
Brian Blades, one for six.
Oakland: Tim Brown, one for 12. Sparks served as Brown's
personal escort for most of the day and intercepted one ball in
the end zone.
Philadelphia: Rob Carpenter, one for five. Fred Barnett, one for
20, after Sparks sprained his ankle.
Will Sparks make the Pro Bowl this year? Not likely. Deion
Sanders is a lock. Arizona's Aeneas Williams, who labored in
anonymity for years, has finally been discovered, and Eric Allen
of the Saints is a popular choice. And it doesn't help that the
Giants are 3-8.
"It takes a while for the people who do the picking to catch on
to the fact that you're playing well," says Sparks, now in his
fourth year out of Arizona State. "But once a guy gets noticed,
it seems that he just keeps getting picked every year, no matter
how he plays."
There are different types of corners. There are the gliders,
such as Sanders and Oakland's Albert Lewis, who are so
athletically gifted that they seem to perform almost
effortlessly. There are the teeth gritters--the Eagles' Mark
McMillian or the Bears' Donnell Woolford, for instance--players
who excel through sheer force of will. And there are corners
such as Williams, who are so technically correct that they never
seem to take a false step.
Sparks is more of a teeth-gritter type who loves to come up and
smack people on the sweeps. But his technical skill has matured
"We're playing more man-to-man this season than ever before, and
Phillippi's the reason," New York defensive coordinator Mike
Nolan says. "He's now at the stage where I can hand him the
other team's most dangerous receiver and say, 'He's yours. Go
"I'm not a talker on the field," Sparks says. "I don't make much
noise. I'll help a receiver up and give him a pat on the
butt--that is, until he tries to head-butt me or throw a cheap
block. Then he'll hear from me."
What does Sparks, a guy with potential who missed 16 games over
the last two years due to injury, see as the keys to becoming a
"Getting my life in order," he says. "Dedicating myself to my
religion. Spending my time at home with my wife and kids instead
of hanging out with the fellas. Plus remembering the fact that
NFL stands for Not For Long if you don't pull your weight.
Football's not like baseball, where they've got Double A and
Triple A leagues. Here, if you don't produce right after
college, there's no place for you."
COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANSCunningham saved the win for Philadelphia on Sunday but didn't win his starting job back. [Randall Cunningham]