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This is the 14th season that I have covered the NFL, and except
for the various labor wars between owners and players over the
years, this is as close as I've seen the league to being at a
crisis point. It would be silly to suggest that the most
successful and affluent sports league in the world--boasting a
product that causes an entire nation to suspend its activity for
six hours each autumn Sunday--is going to keel over. But the NFL
is in trouble. It has proved itself leaderless and powerless,
with neither the moral influence to prevent franchises from
holding cities hostage over stadium deals nor the legal means to
prevent teams from moving.

Bills owner Ralph Wilson--the leading critic of recent NFL
vagabonds like Art Modell, who moved the Browns from Cleveland
to Baltimore--now threatens to take his club out of Buffalo if
he doesn't get a sweet stadium lease with revenue guarantees.
The 49ers and the Seahawks both talked of leaving their cities
before voters approved new arena deals. The Broncos are pushing
Colorado voters to pass a stadium bill this fall. Other clubs
seeking new deals or new venues include the Colts, the Vikings,
the Patriots and the Bears.

The NFL's two intertwined ills are stadium deals and the salary
cap. Smaller-market owners like Buffalo's Wilson never planned
to spend $15 million to $20 million above the salary cap in a
given year on rich signing bonuses, but that's what those teams
must do to compete with San Francisco and Dallas, whose owners
seem to have bottomless revenue pools. The Cowboys made $41.5
million in stadium revenue in 1996, which is about $40 million
more than Minnesota or Indianapolis did.

It's not just the older teams that are struggling with the
proliferation of bonuses, which have made what was intended to
be a hard cap quite soft. "I want to blow up the labor agreement
and start over," says Jaguars owner Wayne Weaver. "It's
obviously not working. It's not what we were told it was."

The impending negotiations over a new NFL TV deal--which will
add at least a few billion dollars to the pot--may appear to be
the NFL business story of the year, but it won't take long
before the issue of unstable franchises takes center stage.
Watch Wilson, a successful businessman in his other ventures,
hold the line in his contract tussle with defensive end Bruce
Smith. "I have tried to maintain the competitiveness of the
Bills by draining money from all my other companies," Wilson
says. "That has to stop. I'm jeopardizing my other companies."
Wilson wants to add dozens of luxury boxes to the 88 already in
Rich Stadium, but will he be able to fill them? The Bills'
season-ticket base has declined by 23,000 since 1992. In the
meantime, Buffalo has had to compete on the field and in free
agency with teams that are raking in millions more than it is.

The NFL had better act quickly to address the instability. The
suggestion from here is for commissioner Paul Tagliabue to call
a summit with Jerry Jones, the Cowboys' power-broker owner;
money-crunched owners Wilson and Dan Rooney of Pittsburgh; and
players' association chief Gene Upshaw. Tagliabue, whose powers
of persuasion have been dubious during his eight-year tenure,
must somehow forge this group into a team that can achieve two
essential but complex goals: instituting a hard cap and making
revenues more uniform from team to team. If they cannot do that,
and quickly, the NFL will become a dysfunctional league of haves
and have-nots.


The end-of-the-season awards won't be handed out for six months,
but you don't have to wait to find out the winners. Here's who
we expect will carry home the big prizes.

MVP: Mark Brunell, quarterback, Jaguars. You have to love a guy
who, though battered and bruised last season, played every snap
in each of his team's 19 games and who each week played better
than he had the previous week. In Jacksonville's first 12
regular-season games, Brunell threw 20 interceptions; he had
none in the last four as he carried the Jags into the playoffs.
This season Brunell will throw 35 touchdown passes and end Brett
Favre's two-year streak as league MVP.

Offensive rookie of the year: Antowain Smith, running back,
Bills. The burden of being Buffalo's backfield workhorse has
taken its toll on Thurman Thomas, who hasn't averaged 4.0 yards
per carry in a season since 1992. New offensive coordinator Dan
Henning needs a big, durable mail carrier, especially with a
pass offense that will be horrible. Smith, a mature, 25-year-old
rookie out of Houston, is the man for the job.

Defensive rookie of the year: Jason Taylor, defensive
end-outside linebacker, Dolphins. Miami coach Jimmy Johnson, who
doesn't hesitate to play rookies, is dying for a fluid pass
rusher. He'll quickly turn this University of Akron product into
a 12-sack player.

Comeback player of the year: Neil Smith, defensive end, Broncos.
Smith had an off year for Kansas City in 1996, which allowed
Denver to get him as a free agent for a relatively paltry $1.5
million for one year. "All I know," says Broncos coach Mike
Shanahan, "is that every time we played the Chiefs, even last
year, he was the first guy we accounted for. If you don't block
him, you've got no chance."

Coach of the year: Dennis Erickson, Seahawks. The Seahawks will
win 11 games and one playoff matchup, making Seattle the hot
free-agency locale of 1998.

Other predictions: The 1997 scoring leader will be the Packers'
rookie placekicker, Brett Conway. San Francisco quarterback
Steve Young will top the passer-rating chart. Atlanta's Jamal
Anderson will lead the league in rushing. Jags wideout Keenan
McCardell will catch the most passes. Cardinals end Simeon Rice
will take the sack crown. And Shawn Springs, the Seahawks'
rookie corner, will lead the league in interceptions.


The Internet address grabs your eye, but it's the person behind
it who holds your attention. The Web site,,
belongs to Carolina's Matt Elliott, the 336th and final pick of
the 1992 draft, who now plays a fireman's role as an offensive
lineman for the Panthers.

Elliott is no football superstar, but in the past three years he
has succeeded in raising more than $250,000 for causes of all
sorts, under the banner of the funniest do-good name in the NFL:
Fatguy Charities, Inc.

"I do this because I want to be able to go to bed with a smile
on my face, with the feeling that I've done some good for
humanity," says Elliott. "I was never disadvantaged growing up,
but I've come to see pain and suffering, and learned there's
something I can do about it."

Elliott persuaded his fellow Carolina blockers to become
involved in a Fatguy fund-raising effort in which local
businesses pledge a dollar amount for the Panthers' season
rushing total, with bonuses for rushing TDs and 100-yard
performances by a back. Last year the program raised $60,000,
and with added community and corporate support, Elliott hopes to
reach $100,000 this year. The Internet site keeps fans and
sponsors posted on the progress of the effort.

As for the Fatguy name, it may not be flattering, but it's easy
to remember. "I didn't want some egotistical name like the Matt
Elliott Foundation," says the lineman. "Who's heard of Matt

"I want to raise money, period," he adds. "There's no end to
good causes." Nor, it seems, to Elliott's good deeds.


Emmitt Smith chafed at the medical treatment he received from
the Cowboys last year--his ankle injury, which the Dallas
doctors had him play through, required surgery after the season.
His displeasure, however, hasn't affected his commitment or his
intensity. "Emmitt," says quarterback Troy Aikman, "is working
out like a man possessed. I think he's going to have a great
year."... Looking for fantasy-league sleepers? Check out the New
Orleans running backs. Mario Bates will get first call in an
offense that will lead the NFC in rushing attempts under Mike
Ditka. But don't be surprised if Iowa State star Troy Davis
unseats Bates by October and logs 300 carries as a rookie.
"We're going to be a throwback team," says Saints G.M. Billy
Kuharich.... The Panthers' offense will get a big boost from
running back Tshimanga Biakabutuka (coming off knee surgery) and
receivers Rae Carruth (a first-round draft pick) and Muhsin
Muhammad (coming off a nagging hamstring injury). "Don't forget
Rocket Ismail," says coach Dom Capers, referring to the
fifth-year wideout who has yet to make a mark in the NFL. "He's
really become focused on football."... Speaking of the Rocket,
don't forget his brother, the Missile. Green Bay's signing of
free-agent receiver-returner Qadry Ismail of the Vikings was
somewhat overlooked, but only eight NFC receivers with at least
20 catches had a better average than the Missile's 16.0-yard
mark last season, and in 1995 he was second in the NFC in
kickoff returns. Desmond Howard may be gone, but Qadry should
step right into his shoes.

COLOR PHOTO: JOE TRAVER Without a renovated stadium, the Bills might bolt Buffalo. [Thurman Thomas in game]

COLOR ILLUSTRATION [Crossword puzzle superimposed on drawing of six football players all named Brown]

COLOR PHOTO: ALLEN KEE/NFL PHOTOS Elliott, an obscure lineman, has made a name for himself with hefty charity work. [Matt Elliott]


Art Modell may have hightailed it out of Cleveland and changed
his team's name to the Ravens, but the Browns maintain a strong
presence in the NFL. There are 27 players in the league with the
surname Brown who are expected to play this season. Included in
that group are a 2,800-yard passer, a 1,000-yard rusher, a
1,000-yard receiver, a six-time Pro Bowl offensive lineman and a
cornerback who was a Super Bowl MVP. In fact, if all the Browns
were collected on a single team, they would stand a decent
chance of beating Modell's Ravens--as long as they channeled
Paul Brown to be their coach and didn't have much-criticized
Bengals boss Mike Brown as their G.M. See how many of the 27
Browns you can identify by first name in the puzzle below.
(Helpful hint: Check out pages 88 and 134.) The answers are on
page 10.

2 $6 million-a-year Seahawks linebacker
3 Raiders wideout with 495 career catches
5 Maligned Giants quarterback
6 Bills third-year starting guard
7 Steelers cornerback picked up as a free agent from the
Dolphins on Feb. 7
9 Starting 49ers offensive tackle entering his 10th season
11 Lions linebacker with 50 tackles as a rookie last year
12 Ravens 6'7", 340-pound offensive tackle
14 Bengals third-year offensive lineman from Utah
15 Jets cornerback formerly with the Cardinals
17 Patriots linebacker who has played in two Super Bowls
19 Dolphins offensive tackle (the hardest-working man in football)
21 Raiders cornerback who was MVP of Super Bowl XXX
23 Chargers running back who rushed for 1,002 yards in '93 for
the Oilers
24 Jaguars tight end, once a first-round pick from Notre Dame

1 Packers behemoth of a defensive tackle
2 Patriots safety who recovered one fumble for a TD in 1996
4 Seahawks running back who also returned four kickoffs last year
5 Saints running back who ran for 705 yards as a rookie in '93
8 Rookie Eagles defensive back from Central State (Ohio)
10 Rookie Ravens linebacker who was an All-America at Virginia
13 Falcons defensive tackle, missed all of 1996 with a torn ACL
in left knee
16 Cardinals offensive tackle, has played in the Pro Bowl six
times--but never as a Cardinal
18 Patriots wideout, holds NCAA Division I-AA career mark for
kickoff-return average
19 Broncos offensive tackle, Michael Irvin's brother-in-law
20 Packers offensive tackle, originally picked by the Steelers
22 Rookie Cardinals running back from N.C. State


Mark these dates on your calendar

Sunday, Aug. 31
Raiders at Oilers
On the earliest opening day in NFL history, the league makes its
Tennessee debut. The Liberty Bowl in Memphis will be the Oilers'
home until a stadium in Nashville is completed in 1999.

Sunday, Sept. 14
Jets at Patriots
Jets coach Bill Parcells returns to Foxboro for a matchup with
the defending AFC champs. Pats coach Pete Carroll faces the team
that fired him.

Monday, Sept. 29
49ers at Panthers
In its first-ever Monday-night appearance, Carolina can assert
its NFC West supremacy. Last season the Panthers were 2-0
against the Niners and 9-0 at Ericsson Stadium.

Sunday, Oct. 5
Saints at Bears
Mike Ditka returns to prowl Soldier Field's sidelines for the
first time since 1992.

Monday, Oct. 27
Packers at Patriots
Super Bowl XXXI, Part II. At least this time New England has
home field advantage.

Sunday, Nov. 23
Cowboys at Packers
The current Super Bowl champions have lost seven consecutive
games to the Cowboys. But all of those were played at Texas


These marks are within reach in 1997

--San Francisco's Jerry Rice needs one TD to become the NFL's
first nonkicker to score 1,000 points. And if Rice catches a
pass in each of his first nine games, he will become the
league's alltime leader in consecutive games with a reception,
surpassing Art Monk's record of 183.

--If he hits his first five field goals, Chris Boniol of the
Eagles will break Fuad Reveiz's NFL record of 31 straight.

--Miami's Dan Marino needs 31 TD passes to be the first player
to reach 400.

--New England's David Meggett is 117 punt-return yards shy of
Billy (White Shoes) Johnson's career record of 3,317.

--Buffalo's Bruce Smith and Green Bay's Reggie White each need
at least 10 sacks to become the first NFL players to have 11
seasons with 10 or more sacks.

--Brett Favre needs six TD tosses to pass Bart Starr as the
Packers' alltime leader.


2 Chad
3 Tim
5 Dave
6 Ruben
7 J.B.
9 Ray
11 Reggie
12 Orlando
14 Anthony
15 Lance
17 Monty
19 James
21 Larry
23 Gary
24 Derek

1 Gilbert
2 Corwin
4 Reggie
5 Derek
8 Deaunte
10 Cornell
13 Shannon
16 Lomas
18 Troy
19 Jamie
20 Gary
22 Rod