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GOOD COACHING jobs on losing teams are often overlooked, as
Oiler coach Jeff Fisher is learning this season. With its four
wins, Houston has already won twice as many games as it did last
season, but the story of the Oilers this fall has focused on
their impending move to Nashville. Not surprisingly, Houston has
played to listless crowds in a half-empty Astrodome.

Fisher's troubles don't end there. Because they had spent too
much money unwisely in the previous two years and used up most
of the room under their salary cap, the Oilers were hit with a
reduction--from $17 million in 1994 to $10 million in '95--in the
amount of money they could offer in signing bonuses last spring.
That meant Fisher has had to contend with the loss of several
talented players, including receivers Ernest Givins and Webster
Slaughter, who during the off-season signed as free agents with
other clubs. In addition, it quickly became apparent to Fisher
and his staff that Steve McNair, Houston's top draft choice (and
the third pick overall), was not ready to play quarterback in
the NFL, and he has spent the season at third string, behind
Will Furrer and starter Chris Chandler, who has been
inconsistent and all too often injured. There's more: The best
Oiler player, defensive tackle Ray Childress, went down with a
dislocated shoulder on Oct. 8, and his season is over.

Fisher's office at Houston's run-down training complex looks
like a windowless supply room--which it was. "We used to use it
for storage," Fisher says. In fact, boxes are still piled
everywhere, and Fisher's videotape player and TV monitor are
perched atop a packing case. Two chairs face Fisher's desk, and
beyond the chairs is a mattress, with a folded quilt and a
pillow next to it. Fisher, in the manner of former Redskin coach
Joe Gibbs, sleeps in this dingy office two nights a week.

Fisher, who took over the Oilers 11 games into last season,
isn't bothered by his minor league surroundings, but he made it
clear in training camp this summer that he would not tolerate
the country-club atmosphere that existed under his nice-guy
predecessor, Jack Pardee. Fisher threatened four-week
suspensions for curfew violations, and he put an end to the
tired tradition of rookies' being made to sing their school alma
mater in the cafeteria. "Rookies were skipping meals because
they didn't want to be forced to sing," Fisher says. "From Day
One, I wanted these players to know there would be respect for
one another and that the first-year guys would be treated like
the eight-year guys. We had to be consumed with improving
ourselves." To that end Fisher brought in respected offensive
coordinator Jerry Rhome to tear down the remnants of the
run-and-shoot in favor of a pro-style offense.

"No one will call us talent-rich," Fisher says. "We've had to
install a new system while making over the roster under severe
cap restrictions. We decided to get a quarterback [by drafting
McNair] and help the offensive line [by signing free-agent guard
Mark Stepnoski]. I was with Philadelphia, and I saw what happens
to a good team when attention isn't paid to the offensive line."

Will Fisher ultimately succeed? Hard to say, but he has been
able to give the troubled Oiler franchise something it hasn't
had since the awful wild-card loss to Buffalo three seasons ago:


Dolphin quarterback Bernie Kosar, who was one of the most
popular Browns of all time during his nine years in Cleveland,
says that if the Browns leave as expected for Baltimore, he
wants to be a point man for an ownership group that would bring
another team to Cleveland. Kosar says, "The money won't be a
problem. People are lining up to invest in pro football in
Cleveland." Financier Bob Gries, whose 43% share in the Browns
will be acquired by majority owner Art Modell if the Browns'
move is consummated, would probably be a partner in a new
ownership group.

In the meantime, after the fax numbers of all NFL owners and of
the league office in New York were publicized in northeastern
Ohio, Clevelanders began blitzing the NFL with thousands of
faxes protesting Modell's decision to abandon the city. Bill
owner Ralph Wilson received one such fax from a lifelong fan who
had grown up three blocks from the Pro Football Hall of Fame in
Canton, Ohio. "If the Browns move to Baltimore," the fan wrote,
"I will never watch another NFL game. I will never buy any more
NFL merchandise. I will never set foot in the Pro Football Hall
of Fame as long as I live. There are thousands of fans who feel
the same way I do."

The NFL may be powerless to stop Modell--or any other owner who
wants to move his team--from skipping town, but the cost of
ignoring this emotion from devoted fans may be the sort of fan
backlash that has beset baseball since its player strike.
Commissioner Paul Tagliabue must quietly set to work to persuade
some team that is not well supported by its fans (perhaps the
Bucs) to move to Cleveland.


In a seven-day, two-game span that ended Sunday, Steeler rookie
quarterback-wideout-running back Kordell Stewart threw a
two-yard touchdown pass, ran a quarterback sneak for a first
down, ran a pitch around end for 15 yards, caught a 71-yard
touchdown pass and, on a wishbone-type option play, pitched to a
back for a two-point conversion run. Pittsburgh won both games,
including Sunday's wild 49-31 defeat of the Bengals. Stewart
just might be the weapon that saves the Steelers' season. "I'm
not bragging or trying to be cocky or say anything wrong,"
Stewart said on Sunday, "but I just feel if a guy is in front of
me, just me and him, I'm going to get open."


Cardinal linebacker Eric Hill was talking about his teammates
after their embarrassing 27-7 loss to the Panthers on Sunday,
but he might have been talking about his coach, Buddy Ryan.
"Guys talk the talk, but on Sundays, you gotta walk the walk,"
Hill said.... Someday Charger tailback Ronnie Harmon might get
serious consideration for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Harmon
caught five passes Sunday in San Diego's last-minute 30-27 loss
to the Broncos, giving him 503 for his career. Only four runners
in history have caught more, and at age 31 Harmon may be good
for 200 more catches before he calls it a career.... Colt
running back Marshall Faulk had a very good rookie season last
year. Then he was featured in one of the costliest sports
commercials ever, in which Nike makes him look like Superman. He
becomes peevish with the press and public. This year, he has
fumbled in seven of his 10 games. He's struggling, averaging 3.9
yards a carry. Did he get too big too fast?

COLOR PHOTO: DAVID LIAM KYLE The oft-injured Chandler has the quarterback job until McNair is ready to take over. [Chris Chandler] COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER [Kevin Hardy]


With the college football season winding down, NFL teams have a
pretty good idea which players will be taken in the first round
of the April draft. Illinois linebacker Kevin Hardy (above) is
at the head of the pack, but it's a mediocre crop overall,
according to 10 scouts polled by SI, and a terrible one for
quarterbacks (the top prospect, Florida State's Danny Kanell,
will be lucky to go in the first round). It's also a
below-average year for underclassmen. The player judged by the
scouts to be the best in the nation, sophomore quarterback
Peyton Manning of Tennessee, will stay in school at least one
more year. Here is the consensus Top 10, which includes three
juniors (denoted by asterisks) who the scouts think will
probably enter the draft:

School Pos. Ht. Wt. Comment

1. Kevin Hardy Illinois OLB 6'4" 245
Classic speed rusher with a motor that won't quit

2. Keyshawn Johnson USC WR 6'4" 210
Alvin Harper's size, Michael Irvin's bravado

3. Jonathan Ogden UCLA T 6'8" 310
Natural left tackle could be quicker than any in NFL

4. Terry Glenn* Ohio State WR 5'10" 185
Clone of his Buckeye predecessor, Seahawk Joey Galloway

5. Leeland McElroy* Texas A&M RB 5'11" 198
Knee miseries may plague this Thurman Thomas playalike

6. Eddie George Ohio State RB 6'2" 229
Excellent tackle-to-tackle, NFC East-type runner

7. Willie Anderson* Auburn T 6'6" 306
Could step in and start for 25 NFL teams today

8. Simeon Rice Illinois LB 6'4" 251
Much-hyped, but scouts say he takes too many downs off

9. Cedric Jones Oklahoma DE 6'4" 271
Instinctive pass rusher who needs a strength coach

10. DeRon Jenkins Tennessee CB 6'0" 167
Could be highest pick of any corner in five years

The next five: 11. FB Mike Alstott, Purdue; 12. FS Walt Harris,
Mississippi State; 13. WR Eric Moulds, Mississippi State; 14. T
Jermaine Mayberry, Texas A&M-Kingsville; 15. DT Daryl Gardener,
Baylor .