1 What Will Bill Walsh's Presence Mean To the 49ers?
In June, as he sat in his windowless nine-by-nine-foot office,
San Francisco 49ers consultant Bill Walsh pondered the
following: What happens if the Niners lose two in a row and
impetuous owner Eddie DeBartolo pulls a Steinbrenner, demanding
you take over the offense? "It's not a possibility," Walsh said
smiling. "It will not happen. Everyone here understands that.
This is the time and place in my life to be a resource, not to
be a CEO. It's a pretty common role, the consultant's role, in
corporate America. It just hasn't happened much in football. One
of the unfortunate things about our country is that we turn
people out at a time in their lives when they have the most
knowledge and expertise they've ever had."
Walsh's role is to fine-tune a West Coast offense that has
strayed from its early '80s roots. Since his hiring in January,
Walsh has worked with the 49ers' quarterbacks, particularly
Steve Young, in about 15 on-field sessions, concentrating mostly
on footwork and release. He pops in on coaches, making
suggestions on how a technique might be taught differently. And
he counsels offensive coordinator Marc Trestman. On game days he
will sit in the press box, advising Trestman on play-calling.
Trestman and Walsh insist, however, that the coordinator retains
decision-making autonomy. "He's already told me several times,
firmly: 'Bill, we're going to do it this way,' instead of what
I'd suggested. Which he should. It's his job," says Walsh.
Observers around the league wonder, however, whether Walsh will
be able to sit quietly by if the 49ers struggle this year.
Trestman told SI he offered club president Carmen Policy his
resignation when Walsh came aboard, but Policy told Trestman he
viewed him as the long-term offensive coordinator. Trestman says
he's comfortable with Walsh looking over his shoulder. Coach
George Seifert says the same (page 102). Perhaps that's because
the 64-year-old Walsh says he will be around for only one year.
Although bringing back Walsh is a potentially unsettling move,
it's a smart one too. Walsh has already helped Young, whose
completion percentage dropped from 70.3 in the Super Bowl season
of 1994 to 66.9 last year and who admits that his mechanics also
got a little sloppy. Sure, Trestman's confidence was shaken, but
ask him five years from now whether the 49ers were a better
offensive team in 1996 because of Walsh, and he'll probably
answer yes. "If we put our egos aside," says Seifert, "and I
think we can, then this is an excellent move."
2 Which players should be feeling the most heat in '96?
In the AFC the answer is easy. New England Patriots quarterback
Drew Bledsoe lived a nightmare last season, his aching shoulder
and crummy offensive support ruining what should have been his
coronation as The Next Marino. What a comedown for a kid who set
the league on fire in 1994 and was rewarded with a seven-year,
$42 million contract. "We have to help him as much as possible
for this franchise to grow to its potential," owner Bob Kraft
said after the Patriots finished 1995 a disappointing 6-10.
Bledsoe, who enters his fourth season, seems to be at his best
when there's some slack in the leash. He had difficulty working
with tightly wound offensive coordinator Ray Perkins, so coach
Bill Parcells moved the easygoing Chris Palmer from receivers
coach to quarterbacks coach. Bledsoe enjoys practicing with
Palmer so much that he has spent more time than ever working out
during the off-season.
On draft day Parcells wanted to use the Pats' first-round pick
to bolster his defense, but Kraft insisted on Ohio State wideout
Terry Glenn because Glenn was rated much higher than the best
available defensive player on the Patriots' board. Glenn must
get tougher, but he should be Bledsoe's go-to guy, which Vincent
Brisby wasn't in 1995.
Competition for the NFC player under the most pressure is
tougher. For our money it is defensive tackle Sean Gilbert, whom
the Redskins acquired from the St. Louis Rams in a predraft
trade. When he was taken with the third pick of the 1992 draft,
out of Pitt, Gilbert was expected to develop into a poor man's
Reggie White, or at least a rich man's Leon Lett. He hasn't. In
his last two seasons with the Rams he had only 90 tackles and 8
1/2 sacks in 28 games. Injuries to his right knee and both
shoulders have troubled him over the past two seasons, though
the Rams thought Gilbert also had lost some of his fire. Gilbert
believes the Rams' attitude about him changed after he shed his
wild-man reputation and found religion in October 1994.
"I think I lost a lot of respect as a player when I became a
Christian," says Gilbert. "But Christians aren't soft. Look at
Reggie White, Darrell Green, Mike Singletary. They don't lay
down. They run through brick walls."
Gilbert had better do that, for several reasons. He's in the
final year of his contract, and the Redskins, so desperate for
an impact player on the defensive front that they gave up the
sixth pick in the draft for Gilbert, want him to prove himself
before they reward him. "I've got to perform," Gilbert says.
"But if I please God, everyone will be happy." In Washington a
dozen sacks will make everyone happy.
3 Can Green Bay win in Dallas?
To find out what is foremost on the minds of Packers coaches, we
peeked inside the defensive film room on the second floor of
Green Bay's offices. It was mid-May. For one week the Packers'
five defensive assistants were spending 10-hour days dissecting
film from the Cowboys' 1995 season, paying particular attention
to the four games that the Super Bowl champions lost. The
coaches studied the Washington Redskins' two upset victories,
the 49ers' wire-to-wire blowout and the Philadelphia Eagles'
bizarre win (the one in which Dallas coach Barry Switzer's
failed fourth-and-one call on his own 29 with two minutes
remaining in a tie game set up the Eagles' winning field goal).
The five men searched for a way to solve the team that in all
likelihood Green Bay must beat to get to the Super Bowl.
The Cowboys have become the Packers' Everest. In each of the
last three years the teams have met in Dallas during both the
regular season and the playoffs. The Cowboys have won all six
meetings and have not scored less than 27 points in any of them.
In last January's NFC Championship Game, Dallas triumphed 38-27.
Green Bay fans wonder why the Pack always faces the Cowboys in
Dallas. For the past four years, as a result of vagaries in the
NFL schedule-making formula, the Packers' regular-season finish
has earned them a trip to Texas Stadium, and the Cowboys have
always been the higher seed come playoff time.
The bad news for Green Bay is that the teams meet again in Texas
Stadium on Nov. 18. And with the NFC East as weak as it has been
since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger, it's a pretty safe bet that the
Packers won't get to the Super Bowl unless they can scale Mount
Dallas in January in a playoff game.
After all those hours of studying film, Packers defensive
coordinator Fritz Shurmur says, "I can't say a lightbulb went on
and we figured out some secret we didn't already know. When we
played them, their massive front really hurt us, and we couldn't
hold up in the front seven. We entered the fourth quarter [of
the NFC title game] with the lead, but they just wore us down.
That's what we've got to do something about."
The Packers have made four changes to strengthen their defense.
Santana Dotson, a free agent acquisition from the Tampa Bay
Buccaneers, and 330-pound Gilbert Brown take over full time at
the tackles, and both should be pass-rushing threats. The
Packers lost the bidding for free-agent linebackers Cornelius
Bennett and Bryan Cox and settled for Chicago Bears castoff Ron
Cox, who won't make a huge impact but will give the defense more
quickness. The most significant change could be at free safety;
33-year-old Eugene Robinson, who has 42 career interceptions,
was acquired from the Seattle Seahawks in a quiet June 27 trade.
His presence will allow strong safety LeRoy Butler to cheat
toward the line of scrimmage, creating more eight-man fronts to
add complexity to the pass rush and combat the steamroller made
up of Emmitt Smith and the Dallas offensive line. "When Troy
[Aikman] gets in his rhythm, forget it," Robinson says. "We've
got to put all kinds of different pressure on him and lay the
wood to his receivers on every play."
Green Bay will sink like a stone unless its own quarterback,
Brett Favre, who spent 6 1/2 weeks in a rehab clinic in Topeka,
Kans., makes a satisfactory recovery from his addiction to
painkillers. But there's little reason to think he won't, and
Favre is optimistic. Last week, after checking out of the
clinic, he told Packers general manager Ron Wolf, "I feel great.
We're going to the Super Bowl."
One thing Green Bay has going for it is determination. "Besides
meeting Halle Berry," Butler says, "the only thing I want to do
in my life is beat Dallas." But reality bites. Shurmur has seen
"I see us moving closer to them," he says, "but I don't see them
moving back much to us."
4 Who will be the league's MIP?
The NFL's Most Indispensable Player for 1996 sits at his
favorite burger joint in Manhattan Beach, Calif., and
contemplates his team's most telling statistic. Over the past
three seasons the Oakland Raiders are 27-17 with Jeff Hostetler
starting at quarterback and 1-5 without him. In the final six
weeks of last season Hostetler twice tried, and failed, to play
effectively with a torn left shoulder muscle that restricted his
arm movement and affected his throwing motion. Vince Evans and
Billy Joe Hobert did most of the quarterbacking during Oakland's
disastrous 0-6 finish.
"Last year we were 8-2 before we played Dallas, and my shoulder
was killing me," Hostetler recalls. "I had guys coming up to me
that week saying, 'You have to play!' So I played. The starting
quarterback is the glue. I had to try."
The Raiders lost to the Cowboys 34-21, and the slide began.
After averaging 25 points in its first 10 games, Oakland had
only 16 points per game over its last six. And a unit that was
ranked second in the NFL in total offense in early November
finished the season No. 11.
Hostetler underwent surgery in December and says his shoulder is
healthy now. He knows he'll be carrying a lot of weight on it
this year. And he's ready to prove that Oakland's late-season
collapse was an aberration. "We were mixing the timing routes
and intermediate stuff and clicking perfectly," he says of the
Raiders' early success. "I really feel we can pick back up and
play that well again."
At 35 Hostetler is no spring chicken. One reason he attracted
little interest on the free-agent market after last season was
that quarterback-needy teams felt they couldn't plan a future
around him. But the Raiders, who signed Hoss to a four-year,
$13.3 million deal, are counting on him to play 16 games this
"There's no question in my mind that I can," he says. "I'm not
fragile. Before this injury, I'd started 39 games in a row. I
can do it again."
5 Who's the most important NFL player you've probably never
Clues: He grew up two blocks from Kirk Gibson's childhood home
in Waterford, Mich. He worshiped Gibson as a kid. As an
all-state quarterback in high school, he got a recruiting call
from Gibson on behalf of Michigan State, and he ended up going
there on a football scholarship. In summers during his college
years, he baled hay on Gibson's farm.
The mystery man plays for the Pittsburgh Steelers, was the fifth
quarterback picked in the '94 draft, is 25, stands 6'2", weighs
227 and, by October at the latest, will likely beat out Mike
Tomczak and Kordell Stewart for the job left vacant by the
free-agent departure of Neil O'Donnell to the New York Jets. He
is Jim Miller, a former sixth-round pick who despite throwing
only 56 passes in two seasons has already received a four-year
contract extension that will be worth $11 million if he starts
and takes more than 64% of the snaps this season.
The Steelers never mourned O'Donnell's departure because they
loved what they saw of Miller in his first two training camps
and during three mop-up appearances in 1995. Steelers coaches
say Miller has more arm strength than O'Donnell, meaning that
new offensive coordinator Chan Gailey won't hesitate to send
wideouts Ernie Mills and Yancey Thigpen on deep routes.
The gritty Gibson has been a good model for Miller. "Kirk's
helped me immeasurably by showing me you can accomplish what you
want," Miller says. "He sets his goals so high. He's so clutch.
And I'm an overachiever. My goal is to be the best damned
quarterback out there, and I won't rest until I get there."
Miller is in an ideal situation because Pittsburgh's scheme
doesn't require the quarterback to carry the load. He has to
hand off to Jerome Bettis and Erric Pegram. He has to find an
array of talented wideouts on primarily short and intermediate
routes. And he has to be able to handle the fact that Stewart is
going to get his share of snaps again this season to throw
changeups at the defense. "Whatever I have to do is fine with
me," Miller says. "I don't have to carry the team. We just have
COLOR PHOTO: BRAD MANGIN Walsh had Young (right) and his understudies going back to the basics during off-season drills. [Steve Young and other San Francisco 49ers players]
COLOR PHOTO: MIKE POWELL/ALLSPORT Gilbert was slowed by injuries with the Rams, but the Redskins hope he hasn't also lost his fire. [Sean Gilbert]
COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER The Raiders thrive when the 35-year-old Hostetler starts--and they flounder when he doesn't.[Jeff Hostetler]
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID LIAM KYLE With the Steelers' quarterbacking job open, look for the strong-armed Miller to take command. [Jim Miller and other Pittsburgh Steelers players]