At the Colts' practice facility in Indianapolis the most direct
route from the locker room to the weight room, the parking lot
or the front door is down a corridor that runs past the training
room. On the way guys can grab a cup of coffee, enjoy the
symphonic sounds favored by the team's weightlifting coach or
read the Christmas cards taped to the wall in the trainer's
office. But lately Indy's players have forsaken this route for
more circuitous and less scenic ones--anything, it seems, to
bypass the Hall of Pain.
Some are superstitious. Others want to avoid being trampled by
the stampede of injured Colts. In all, 18 starters have missed
an NFL-high 69 games this year. While a typical team can expect
to lose 10% of its players for a game or more to injury, 33% of
Indy's roster has been sidelined at one time or another in 1996.
But as we learned in '95, when a band of self-described
ragamuffins came within a Hail Mary pass of the Super Bowl, the
Colts are far from a typical team.
"I don't go in that room, I don't go by that room, and I don't
go down that hall," says free safety Jason Belser, the only
starting defensive player who has not been hurt. "Whatever
injury virus or disease has spread through this team, man, I
just don't want to risk catching it. This year, around here,
that stuff is contagious."
There have been knee tears, turf toes, dislocations, dental
problems, kidney stones and enough titanium plates and screws
inserted by doctors to build a bridge. Last season's endearing
slogan, Let 'er rip, now applies to the team's tendons, muscles
and ligaments. Somehow, though, after improving to 9-6 with a
scrappy 24-19 win on Sunday at Kansas City, the Colts are being
fitted for another glass slipper (one that will fit over a
swollen ankle, no doubt). "You feel like the magic's coming
back," says quarterback Jim Harbaugh. "At times it appears that
we're going to run out of bodies. We're getting guys, literally,
off the street, and they're playing hard. I don't know how they
do it, but God bless 'em."
Against the Chiefs, Harbaugh, who had sat out the previous two
games with a torn knee ligament, scooted and hopped on his bum
left wheel, courageously connecting on 16 of 28 passes for 227
yards and three TDs--all to rookie wideout Marvin Harrison, the
team's No. 1 pick from Syracuse. Tailback Marshall Faulk, up to
full speed after nursing a sprained toe all season, rushed for
71 yards. The Colts still need a win at Cincinnati, or two
losses by Buffalo, or one loss by either K.C. or Jacksonville to
make the playoffs. But once again they are an unlikely--and
"With all the injuries, every inch of every play in every game
matters, and that makes things, for us at least, fun," says
Harrison. "This team at full strength would be terrifying to the
rest of the league."
Indianapolis has had 41 players start games this season. The
Colts' sack leader, Super Bowl XX MVP Richard Dent, celebrated
his 36th birthday last Friday. And to form his offensive line,
coach Lindy Infante had to talk center Kirk Lowdermilk and right
tackle Tony Mandarich out of retirement.
Still, Infante's mix of spirited youths and cagey vets is
playing with a relaxed confidence few teams can muster during
the crunch time of December. Against K.C., Indy converted nine
of 13 third downs, had no penalties and turned the ball over
only once. The Chiefs, meanwhile, had injuries of their own to
overcome. With Pro Bowl cornerback Dale Carter out with a
strained knee, Harbaugh picked on backup Tony Stargell. And
halfway through the second quarter, quarterback Rich Gannon
strained his right hamstring and was replaced by Steve Bono.
With most of the Arrowhead Stadium crowd already in the parking
lot, Bono pieced together a 70-yard, 13-play drive that cut the
Indianapolis lead to 24-19 with 1:17 to play in the game. As the
scoreboard flashed, QUIET PLEASE--AUDIBLE ZONE!, K.C. went for
two. The Colts' Belser, a Kansas City native whose father,
Ceasar, was a linebacker for the Chiefs from 1968 to '71,
crashed through the line and nailed running back Marcus Allen.
"Dad," says Belser, "bleeds blue now."
Belser, though, was one of several Colts who bobbled the ensuing
onside kick, which allowed K.C. to drive 39 yards to the Indy
11. Three incompletes set up fourth down with just 13 seconds
remaining. In the huddle Belser screamed at his teammates,
"Someone has to step up and make a play right now! Right now!"
Bono fired a pass to wideout Danan Hughes, who was breaking for
the right front corner of the end zone. Rookie cornerback Dedric
Mathis, a fill-in for the injured Ray Buchanan, reached out and
with surgical precision knocked the pass to the ground.
In the locker room afterward the battered Colts dressed slowly.
Too sore to bend over and look for a lost dress sock, Harbaugh
snatched a stray white one out of his locker and tugged it onto
his left foot with a shrug. He then put on his suit coat and
gimped toward the team bus wearing wing tip shoes with one dark
sock, one white sock and one gigantic grin.
COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER Harrison (88), the Colts' top pick in '96, burned K.C. with six catches for 103 yards and three scores. [Marvin Harrison catching football]
COLOR PHOTO: JONATHAN DANIEL Pickens is headed to his second straight conference receiving crown. [Carl Pickens]
COLOR PHOTO: TIM DEFRISCO [Vaughn Hebron and others in game]
CHIEFS AT BILLS
Between them, these AFC stalwarts have failed to make the
playoffs only once in the '90s. Yet they are empires in
decline. Buffalo's Jim Kelly is the lowest-rated starting passer
in the AFC, while Kansas City has not had a quarterback throw
for 300 yards in its last 25 games.
STEELERS AT PANTHERS
Carolina has yielded just 13 second-half points at Ericsson
Stadium, where it is 7-0. If the Panthers' fierce pass rush gets
to Pittsburgh quarterback Mike Tomczak, they should win the
game and thus the NFC West.
LIONS AT 49ERS
Should the Panthers stumble, San Francisco can seize the
division title--and a first-round bye--with a win. Disappointing
Detroit can take solace in Barry Sanders, who will quietly earn
his fourth NFC rushing title in eight seasons.
VIKINGS AT PACKERS
The quarterbacks demand attention: Minnesota's Brad Johnson may
be the NFL's most improved player, Green Bay's Brett Favre its
most valuable. But keep an eye on the Pack's Desmond Howard, who
this season has returned three punts for TDs, one fewer than the
COWBOYS AT REDSKINS
It's the final game at 35-year-old RFK Stadium, and who better
for Washington to host than the much-despised Cowboys? No foe
has paid more visits to RFK than Dallas (37), and no team
besides the Skins has won more games there (18).
Bengals wide receiver Carl Pickens leads the AFC in catches, but
he's content to let publicity slip through his fingers. After a
game he is apt to snap "Go away!" to an approaching reporter,
even before a question is asked. His coach, Bruce Coslet, admits
that when he met Pickens in 1994, "I thought Carl was a jerk."
Now Coslet sees Pickens's testiness as a manifestation of his
intense desire to win. When Coslet took over the 1-6 Bengals on
Oct. 21, he challenged the team's veteran players to step up and
"make a statement." Pickens's response has been loud and clear:
56 catches for 651 yards and nine touchdowns as Cincinnati has
won six of eight.
A second-round pick out of Tennessee in 1992, the 6'2",
206-pound Pickens uses his speed and his 7-foot high-jumping
ability to advantage. With 94 catches--five fewer than the team
record he set last season--he is closing in on back-to-back AFC
receiving titles. And over the last three years Pickens has
hooked up with quarterback Jeff Blake for 35 TDs, making them
the league's top scoring duo. "I'm not always the easiest person
to get along with," says Pickens. "I'm not trying to scare
anybody, but I like my space." Just ask any reporter, or any
defensive back. --William F. Reed
Kudos to the Panthers, who have been penalized for fewer yards
than their opponents in 19 straight games. They have also
averaged better starting field position than the opposition in
12 of their 15 games....When Cardinals quarterback Boomer
Esiason, 35, was benched last week in favor of Kent Graham, 28,
he wondered aloud whether Graham or his agent had gone to
management to force the issue. That chilled what had been an
amicable relationship between the two players. "Honestly, I do
have different feelings toward him now," said Graham after
leading Arizona to a 27-26 defeat of the Redskins. "That's all I
want to say."...Cowboys running back Emmitt Smith has just three
runs of 20-plus yards this season in 327 carries; last year,
when he led the league in rushing, 10 of Smith's 377 runs
eclipsed 20 yards....Tyrone Hughes of the Saints, who ranks
fifth in the NFL in kickoff return average (25.5 yards), broke
the dubious record for most returns in a season with his 67th
against the Giants. The old record was set last year by--you
guessed it--Hughes....In each of their 15 games the Falcons have
allowed the opposing quarterback to exceed the efficiency rating
he had before the opening kickoff. On Sunday, Rams rookie
quarterback Tony Banks completed 11 of 16 passes for 304 yards
and three TDs in a 34-27 defeat of Atlanta.... The Redskins led
the NFL in red-zone touchdowns through their first 10 games,
when they went 7-3. But in the last five they have converted
just five of 19 chances inside the 20 for TDs and are 1-4....
Eagles running back Charlie Garner, who led the NFL in yards per
carry in 1995 (5.4), has bettered that average in '96 (5.5).
This season, however, Garner has 41 rushes fewer than the 100
necessary to qualify him among the league leaders....In the
49ers' last two games quarterback Steve Young has rushed for 85
yards on 11 carries; his starting backfield mates, William Floyd
and Terry Kirby, have combined for 40 yards on 24 carries.
NO RETURN TO GLORY
It has been 24 years since Randy Montgomery brought back a kick
94 yards against the Chargers, marking the last time a Denver
kickoff return man went all the way. If that scoreless streak
bothers the Broncos, you wouldn't know it by speaking to running
back Vaughn Hebron (below), who wasn't aware of the team's
futility until he was told about it last week. And it is mainly
up to the 5'8", 195-pound Hebron, the Broncos' primary return
man, to end a 377-game drought that is the longest of any
franchise since the AFL and NFL merged in 1970.
Hebron rarely ran back kicks at Cardinal Gibbons High in
Baltimore or at Virginia Tech, and he returned only 24 in three
years with Philadelphia before being waived this off-season. "I
will end that streak," vows Hebron, who ranks eighth in the NFL
with a 24.2 average. "If not this year, then next. That inspires
Here are the five teams that have gone the longest without
returning a kickoff for a score. --Richard Deutsch
TEAM GAMES WITHOUT A KICKOFF RETURN TD
1 BRONCOS 377 (OCT. 1, 1972-PRESENT)
2 BUCCANEERS 323 (SEPT. 12, 1976-PRESENT)
3 GIANTS 309 (SEPT. 24, 1972-NOV. 22, 1992)
4 CARDINALS 271 (OCT. 28, 1979-PRESENT)
5 COWBOYS 214 (OCT. 6, 1975-OCT. 15, 1989)