Here in the heyday of tabloid journalism, it's tempting to beef
up our list of predictions for the 1996 season with some serious
steroids. Were we free to exaggerate and fabricate like some of
America's more shameless news outlets, we could come up with 10
foretellings that would cause even the most jaded of supermarket
shoppers to stop in their tracks.
You want Elvis sightings? The 49ers will win at least one big
game this season with Grbac at the helm.
You want miracle diets? Check out the Cowboys' offensive
linemen, who eat whatever they want, whenever they want, as much
as they want--and still stay in optimal playing shape.
You want infidelity, sex toys, cocaine, pain pills, secret love
nests, hits ordered from prison via cellular phone, overturned
manslaughter convictions, lawyers, guns and money? Hey, the
off-season is over. Can't we just let bygones be bygones?
Instead, we look to the future with 10 predictions that won't
generate any First Amendment debate.
1. Steve Young will be named the league's most valuable player.
Two seasons ago the San Francisco quarterback finally exorcised
his demons. He won his fourth consecutive NFL passing title, his
second MVP award in three years and led his team to a Super Bowl
victory over San Diego by throwing a record six touchdown
passes. Then, in '95, Young sprained his left shoulder, missed
five games, slipped to a 92.3 rating (fifth in the NFL) and
failed to guide the 49ers into the NFC Championship Game for the
first time in four seasons.
Young isn't quite the punching bag he once was, but he's still
getting bashed in the Bay Area for last year's performance. The
upshot is that Young--whose shoulder is completely healed,
thanks to an off-season of dedicated weightlifting--once again
has something to prove, and that's bad news for the rest of the
"If I know him, this is almost like a statement year," says
wideout Jerry Rice. "He's going to come out and he's going to do
the things that made Steve Young Steve Young. That means he's
going to throw the ball and he's going to run the ball."
This season the 49ers have brought in a new offensive assistant
to fine-tune the playbook and solidify Young's fundamentals.
That coach's name is Bill Walsh, and rumor has it that he has a
pretty decent grasp of the West Coast offense.
Because he's an assistant, Walsh won't be eligible to win coach
of the year honors, so that prize will go to Washington's Norv
Turner. Other awards will go to Kansas City defensive end Neil
Smith (defensive player of the year), Carolina running back Tim
Biakabutuka (offensive rookie of the year) and New Orleans
cornerback Alex Molden (defensive rookie of the year).
2. Jimmy Johnson will guarantee a victory for his Dolphins over
Dallas on Oct. 27.
Johnson is the king of hype among NFL coaches, and with his
former team coming to town--and bitter rival Barry Switzer
leading the Cowboys--he will be his brash and cocky self in the
week before the game. (In March he ruffled feathers in Big D
during the league meetings by proclaiming that Miami is the team
to beat this season.) By forecasting victory in October, Johnson
will take the pressure off of his players and direct it onto
himself--the same strategy he used with the Cowboys before their
1993 NFC Championship Game victory over the 49ers. He'll also
evoke several other welcome side effects, most notably provoking
former boss Jerry Jones and annoying Switzer, whom Johnson will
attempt to bait into a war of words.
One disclaimer: Johnson will take a low-profile approach only if
he thinks his team has no chance to win. So if Jimmy keeps his
mouth shut, bet on the Cowboys.
3. Air McNair will go on a tear.
He may not begin the season as Houston's starting quarterback,
but by year's end, second-year signal-caller Steve McNair will
emerge as the NFL's hottest young player. Chris Chandler is one
injury or bad performance away from being yanked, and McNair,
who showed promise in late-season action, has improved his
reading of defenses. As for leadership and big-play ability, the
kid's a natural.
"You never know how a guy is going to react when you throw him
into the fire, but last year Steve showed he had poise," says
coach Jeff Fisher. "He's going to be special. Right now it's
Chris's job, but Steve is going to make his run."
Thanks in part to McNair and to Fisher's barnstorming defense,
the Oilers will be the league's surprise playoff team.
4. The Chargers and the Vikings are headed for a fall.
For every up-and-coming team there must be a club that's going
down, and this year's most conspicuous failures will be in San
Diego and Minnesota. In the off-season the Chargers purged their
roster of players who weren't in step with coach Bobby Ross's
Boy Scout mentality, namely pass rusher Leslie O'Neal, running
back Natrone Means and third-down specialist Ronnie Harmon. It's
an interesting plan, with one catch: San Diego has no one nearly
as talented to replace those now departed. Look for the Chargers
to make a big drop in the AFC West and for Ross to step aside.
The Vikings are relying on quarterback Warren Moon, who turns 40
in November, and an aging defense that proved to be on its last
legs when the season was on the line in December. An improved
NFC Central, with Tampa Bay breaking through as an up-and-coming
team, will doom Minnesota to a losing campaign and spell the end
for coach Dennis Green.
5. Bill Parcells will not last the year in New England.
Neither Ross nor Green will be the first coach fired this
season, because Parcells, who has already made it clear that
this is his last year with the Patriots, will have to get his
team off to a quick start to avoid an unceremonious departure.
Robert Kraft is a savvy owner who respects his coach's
achievements and reputation, but if New England begins to
struggle and Parcells comes unglued, Kraft will cut his losses
and start building for the future. Here's one possible
resolution: Because of the language in his contract, Parcells
cannot quit before season's end without forfeiting his entire
1996 salary unless he resigns for health reasons. So if a
breakup looms, Kraft may grant Parcells a face-saving medical
Other coaches who will be looking for new jobs after the season
include the Lions' Wayne Fontes, the Jets' Rich Kotite and the
Giants' Dan Reeves.
6. Jerome Bettis will lead the AFC in rushing.
Call the Steelers' draft-day acquisition of Bettis from the Rams
a Steeltown Steal: Pittsburgh players and coaches watched him
run at the team's June minicamp and immediately began to gush.
Look for Bettis, whose bruising, straight-ahead style is perfect
for the Steelers' offense, to return to the form that made him a
two-time Pro Bowl rusher. With untested Jim Miller starting at
quarterback, Pittsburgh will lean on Bettis, a physical back who
only gets stronger as his workload increases.
7. Jim Harbaugh will lead the AFC in passing for a second
Harbaugh was the NFL's most unlikely success story in 1995. This
season he'll prove that last year's 100.7 QB rating was no
fluke. Captain Comeback may not have as many opportunities to
provide heroic finishes, because the Colts will find themselves
comfortably ahead in many games. With a healthy Marshall Faulk
in the backfield, an emerging tight end in Ken Dilger and
first-round draft pick Marvin Harrison lining up with the
improved Sean Dawkins at receiver, Harbaugh will continue to
spread the ball around. With three new starters, Indy's
offensive line is untested, but Harbaugh isn't sweating it. "I
don't need to play behind a great offensive line," he says. "As
long as I have enough time to spot somebody, I'll be fine."
8. Kevin Smith will lead the league in interceptions.
"The last two corners I played with [Eric Davis and Larry Brown]
are making almost $3 million a year," says Deion Sanders. "I
told Kevin, 'It ain't no coincidence.'"
Sanders may be the NFL's top cover man, but it is Smith, the
Cowboys' other cornerback, who will make opponents pay this
year. Before he ruptured his right Achilles tendon in the 1995
season opener, Smith had developed into one of the game's three
or four best cornerbacks. Teams look to throw away from
Sanders, which means that Smith will see plenty of action on his
side of the field. If he's anything close to his former self, he
will touch the ball more than most receivers.
"I think we'll be deadly," Smith says. "This year we're putting
in all kinds of stuff designed to dare people to throw the ball.
We're going to be aggressive, and we're not going to hide it."
9. Chicago sports stars Bryan Cox and Dennis Rodman will be
involved in a headline-making incident.
Come November, new Bears middle linebacker Cox, the NFL's most
volatile player, and Bulls forward Rodman, the NBA's most fun-
loving freak, will both be hanging out in the Windy City. Even
America's third-largest metropolis won't be big enough to keep
Will Cox and Rodman brawl? Not likely. Nasty game faces aside,
both are exceptionally good-natured off the field. The most
plausible scenario is that the two will hook up and engage in
some envelope-pushing partying that will create a
made-for-TV-news spectacle. We can't wait.
10. The 49ers will have their revenge on Jimmy Johnson.
San Francisco has never forgotten the humiliation it suffered at
the hands of Johnson's Dallas squad in the 1993 NFC title game.
Although the Niners have now spanked the Switzer-coached Cowboys
three times in a row, the team will finally get back at the man
with the immovable hair. After a narrow NFC championship victory
over--who else?--Dallas, San Francisco will crush Johnson and
the Dolphins 45-21 on Jan. 26 at the Superdome in New Orleans.
The Super Bowl MVP? Steve Young, of course.
COLOR PHOTO: BRAD MANGIN Young (top) will take top honors and the title, San Diego will take a nasty fall, and Johnson will take on the Cowboys. [Steve Young]
COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS [See caption above--Pittsburgh Steelers players tackling San Diego Chargers player]
COLOR PHOTO: DAVE CROSS [See caption above--Jimmy Johnson]
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID LIAM KYLECount on Bettis (above) to rack up the yardage in Pittsburgh and Smith to track down the ball in Dallas. [Jerome Bettis]
COLOR PHOTO: RICHARD MACKSON [See caption above--Kevin Smith tackling Jerry Rice]