Other than conceding that Jimmy Johnson's hair will remain in
place and that Mike Ditka's neck veins will be pumping
furiously, forecasts for the 1997 NFL season are based on an
inexact science. For all the energy the TV football shows'
talking heads devote each week to the cause of prognostication,
the fan looking for accurate predictions might as well tune in
to the Psychic Friends Network. As one of the sport's most
esteemed philosophers once said in response to a question about
his future, "I'm Deion Sanders, not Dionne Warwick."
Peering into the oblong crystal ball is a thankless task, but
this year we have some assistance. Our experts have decoded the
football bible--Keyshawn Johnson's Just Give Me the Damn
Ball!--and have discovered cryptic messages that unlock the
mysteries of the 1997 season. Because we care, we share them
1 Keyshawn Johnson will be MVP of the Pro Bowl. Scoff at his
book, hiss at his bravado, applaud his fellow Jets receiver
Wayne Chrebet as the symbol of all that is pure in football. But
the bottom line is that Johnson is a damn good player. He wasn't
the No. 1 pick of the '96 draft for nothing, and his cockiness
is not without foundation. Johnson the author may have ripped
Ron Erhardt's offensive system and questioned QB Neil
O'Donnell's manhood, but an open receiver is an open receiver,
and the Jets will have no choice but to sling balls Johnson's
way. Numbers, not hype, will earn Johnson a trip to Hawaii,
where he'll steal the show.
2 The Pro Bowl will remain in its rightful home. Speaking of
Hawaii, a movement is afoot to shift the league's postseason
All-Star extravaganza from Honolulu, where it has been played
since 1980, to Orlando. Given the commercial tie-ins an Orlando
Pro Bowl might yield, moving the game might make sense from a
business standpoint. But it would rob the annual event of its
character. Shifting from Hawaii, with its gorgeous shores and
distinctive culture, to Orlando, the epicenter of questionable
taste, would be like replacing Ted Koppel as anchor of Nightline
with John Tesh.
A decision on the move will come sometime this year. At a March
meeting of the players association, representatives voted
unanimously to lobby the league to keep the game in Honolulu,
with good reason: Hawaii would be a lot more fun for everyone.
3 Rod Woodson will score a touchdown in his first start with
the 49ers. Deion Sanders did it three years ago, and now
Woodson, the other great cornerback of this era, will supply
showstopping heroics in his San Francisco debut. Devalued by the
Steelers during free agency, Woodson has plenty to prove; two
years removed from major knee surgery, he'll finally have the
wheels to do it. A forceful pass rush and the 49ers' crafty
defensive leader, strong safety Tim McDonald, will give Woodson
the leeway to do what he does best: gamble, play aggressively
and keep opposing offenses off-balance. Assuming Woodson is
healthy for the 49ers' Aug. 31 opener at Tampa Bay, the
Buccaneers' offensive players will be chasing him into their own
end zone--the first of many big plays from Woodson in '97.
4 The Steelers will miss Dick LeBeau even more than they'll
miss Woodson or Chad Brown. Woodson's revival in San Francisco
will make the Steelers rue their decision not to re-sign him,
and the departure of Brown, who accepted a $24 million offer
from the Seahawks, will leave a huge void in the team's
linebacking corps. But the biggest reason for Pittsburgh's fall
from first in the AFC Central will be the absence of defensive
coordinator Dick LeBeau, who left to run the Bengals' defense.
Though Carolina coach Dom Capers, who preceded LeBeau in
Pittsburgh, is typically credited with popularizing the zone
blitz, it was LeBeau who devised the scheme while he was
defensive coordinator for the Bengals from 1984 to 1991. He
returned to Cincinnati because that's where he makes his
home--he kept a house there even after leaving for
Pittsburgh--and because the Bengals offered LeBeau significantly
more money than Pittsburgh did. The Steelers' failure to take
the steps necessary to keep their defensive mastermind will pay
off--for their AFC Central rivals.
5 Jeff George will find a home in Oakland. Neither George, the
Raiders' cannon-armed new quarterback, nor Al Davis, the team's
cantankerous old owner, has smiled much in public in recent
years, but their $27.5 million marriage is destined to be a
rousing success. George will provide Oakland the deep-passing
attack Davis loves, and Oakland will provide George the
unconditional acceptance he has been seeking throughout his
career. Helped by Napoleon Kaufman's emergence as a big-time
rushing threat, George will put up All-Pro numbers in Oakland.
While the Raiders are on track for improvement, the Bills will
suffer a dramatic fall. A playoff team last season, Buffalo will
find life miserable without retired quarterback Jim Kelly. If
underpaid All-Pro defensive end Bruce Smith isn't rewarded with
a hefty contract (as training camp opened he was expressing
disdain for the team's failure to renegotiate), the once-mighty
Bills could be looking at 3-13. Realistically, this team should
have crumbled long ago, but the wiles of coach Marv Levy and
veterans Kelly, Smith, Thurman Thomas and Andre Reed staved off
disaster. No longer.
6 Elvis lives! The last time the nation saw Elvis Grbac, he was
slogging through the mud and freezing rain of Lambeau Field in
January, filling in for an injured Steve Young during San
Francisco's divisional playoff game against the Packers. Though
he couldn't rally the 49ers to victory, Grbac threw for one
touchdown and ran for another; indeed, over the course of his
career with San Francisco he performed remarkably well when
called upon during Young's sojourns on the DL. But the 49ers
came away from that playoff loss to the Pack concluding that
Grbac was no longer Young's heir apparent, and so San Francisco
didn't blink when Elvis received a free-agent offer from Kansas
City in March.
Helped by the overhauling of the Chiefs' receiving unit, Grbac
will be a hit in Kansas City. The bargain-basement free-agency
signings of receivers Andre Rison and Brett Perriman will pay
huge dividends, and tight end Tony Gonzales, K.C.'s first-round
draft choice out of Cal, will be a rookie of the year candidate.
After George and Grbac, the success story among new '97 starters
will be--surprise!--Chris Chandler in Atlanta, where Falcons
players are already raving about their new coach, Dan Reeves.
(Chandler's emergence, though, won't be enough to keep the
defense-starved Falcons from finishing in the basement.) In
Chicago, Rick Mirer will ultimately turn his career around, but
he won't hit his stride until late in the season. As for Heath
Shuler in New Orleans, expect new Saints coach Mike Ditka to
make an early switch to fourth-round draft pick Danny Wuerffel
7 Warren Moon will rise again. With Microsoft cofounder Paul
Allen arriving on the scene as the Seahawks' new owner and
throwing around the cash (he okayed $11 million in signing
bonuses in February), expectations will be soaring. In fact,
word is that coach Dennis Erickson and his assistants must win
at least 12 games to avoid being fired. The Seahawks made some
bold off-season moves, but a dozen wins is a bit much to
expect--especially from John Friesz, who was anointed as
Seattle's quarterback of the future midway through last season.
The unproven Friesz had just 19 starts in his last four seasons;
unless he resembles Joe Montana in the early going--and he has a
better chance of supplanting Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze
in the next Batman movie--Erickson will call on Moon. The
40-year-old University of Washington product was hobbled by
injuries last year but threw for more than 4,000 yards in each
of the previous two seasons.
8 George Seifert's phone will be ringing off the hook. If the
former 49ers coach is enterprising, he'll bring a cell phone
along on those angling trips he's bound to be taking during the
next few months. Seifert, who was forced out of San Francisco
despite compiling the highest overall winning percentage in NFL
history (.766) in his eight years as head coach, will be a man
in demand this year. The first inquiry should come, oh, about 10
minutes after the season's opening weekend. He'll be wooed by
every owner who's not completely in love with his own coach.
Don't be surprised if Seifert, who won two Super Bowls with the
49ers, ends up in Seattle, even if Erickson takes the Seahawks
well above .500. Seifert's proven track record and championship
experience will undoubtedly be attractive to an aggressive owner
9 The Buccaneers will make the playoffs. This is not a misprint.
Long-suffering Tampa Bay has spiffy new uniforms and, what's
more, some talented players to fill them. It also has an
outstanding young coach in Tony Dungy, whose second season with
the Bucs will include at least one postseason game.
Remember all the Trent Dilfer bashing? This year the joke will
be on opposing defenses, as the Bucs' fourth-year quarterback
establishes himself as a frontline player. He'll benefit greatly
from an improved receiving corps and the emergence of fullback
Mike Alstott as an impact runner. Moreover, the Bucs' physical
defense will mean Dilfer won't have to do it all.
10 Green Bay will repeat as Super Bowl champion. More important
to the Packers, they'll finally beat the Cowboys. Even after
they won Super Bowl XXXI, the Pack was left with unfinished
business. Over the past four seasons they've lost all seven of
their meetings with Dallas, every one of the defeats coming on
the Cowboys' home turf, Texas Stadium in Irving. On Nov. 23 the
two teams will finally meet at Lambeau Field--and the Packers
will win convincingly enough to slay their remaining demons.
Green Bay is the class of the NFL. In fact, unless quarterback
Brett Favre gets hurt, the Packers are headed for another Super
Bowl victory. This team is just as good as it was at the end of
last season, and no other club has bridged the gap.
The Pack's victims in Super Bowl XXXII? The Broncos. Coach Mike
Shanahan guided Denver to a 13-3 record last year before it fell
to Jacksonville in a playoff shocker. This year he restocked the
Broncos through free agency, and they'll be at least as strong
in 1997. But not strong enough. Come January 25, 1998, Green Bay
will run Denver's Super Bowl record to 0-5 and take the NFC's
streak of Super Bowl victories to 14.
COLOR PHOTO: STEPHEN DUNN/ALLSPORT Book it: Acid-tongued author Keyshawn will shine in Hawaii. [Keyshawn Johnson]
COLOR PHOTO: JIM GUND Believe it: The Steeltown exodus will discombobulate the D. [Pittsburgh Steelers players in game]
COLOR PHOTO: AL MESSERSCHMIDT Be sure of it: Elvis will be king in K.C., Moon will get his shot in Seattle, and Dilfer will blossom for the Buccaneers. [Elvis Grbac]
COLOR PHOTO: CORKY TREWIN [See caption above--Warren Moon]
COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES [See caption above--Trent Dilfer]
COLOR PHOTO: WALTER IOOSS JR. Bank on it: The Pack will pile it on Dallas--and win it all. [Green Bay Packers players in game]