GOING THE DISTANCE
The night before new eras began for the Mike Ditka-led Saints
and the Dick Vermeil-led Rams, St. Louis special teams coach
Frank Gansz took the floor at a team meeting. "Men," Gansz said,
"this game's going to be a 15-round fight. And you guys are Joe
With that, Gansz popped in a tape of Ali-Frazier I, the 1971
heavyweight showdown in which Frazier knocked down Ali in the
15th round and won one of the greatest title fights of all time.
"What a man!" Gansz said of Frazier. "Most guys can't raise
their arms in the 15th round. But Frazier had the power to knock
down maybe the greatest boxer ever. That's what you have to be
against the Saints: 15-round fighters."
Through the NFL's longest training-camp practices, in the torrid
heat and humidity of western Illinois, Vermeil repeatedly
stressed one thing: "We won't die when things get tough. We'll
be a great second-half team." And on Sunday the Rams proved they
had Frazier's staying power.
During pregame introductions, Vermeil leaped into the arms of
right tackle Fred Miller, and the crowd went wild. Still, it was
the Saints who landed the first punch. On the game's opening two
plays from scrimmage, Heath Shuler passed 32 yards to Randal
Hill and then connected with Andre Hastings on a 39-yard
flea-flicker. Four plays later Doug Brien kicked a 31-yard field
Late in the first half, trailing by eight, the Saints stunned
the Rams on Eric Guliford's 102-yard kickoff return and added a
46-yard Brien field goal to take a 17-14 halftime lead. But in
the third quarter the Rams outgained the Saints, 197 yards to
minus-four and scored three touchdowns in one four-minute
flurry, taking control of a game that was up for grabs. Tight
end Ernie Conwell bulled his way for a score on a 46-yard pass
from Tony Banks, and Lawrence Phillips ran for his second and
third touchdowns of the day, as the Rams prevailed 38-24.
"Last year," Vermeil said, "this team was 0-6 [1-5 actually]
when it was down at halftime. This is not last year anymore."
There are a multitude of differences between the Rich Brooks
Rams of the past two seasons and this team, but the ability to
go the distance stood out in the opener. "I can't believe any
other team in the NFL had a camp like we had," middle linebacker
Robert Jones said after the game. "I mean, up at 6:45 and going
all day, then meeting until past 11 every night. You wonder if
your body can get by without rest. But I think the guys just
thought, Hey, we'll be ready in the fourth quarter this year."
As Vermeil repeated again and again, this was only one game. And
though he didn't say it, this was only the Saints. Toweling off
from a Gatorade bath and pondering the future, he saw more than
the 49ers, who pay a visit to the Trans World Dome this Sunday.
"We've got 15 more rounds to fight," he said. "And, oh, do we
have a lot of work to do to be good. But I do know this: We're
starting something good here."
On Sunday, for a change, the Rams also finished what they started.
SAME AS THE OLD BOSS
The Patriots beat the Chargers 45-7 last season. The Patriots
beat the Chargers 41-7 on Sunday. And the comparisons between
Bill Parcells, the old boss, and Pete Carroll, the new boss, are
wearing thin. "Last year," tackle Bruce Armstrong said, "when we
beat San Diego, Bill found something to complain about. This is
"With Pete," said Drew Bledsoe, who had one of the best games of
his life on Sunday (340 passing yards, four touchdowns, no
interceptions), "you're not working football. You're playing
For his part Carroll is tiring of the
Parcells-was-tough-and-Carroll-is-soft angle he's been hearing
since the day he was hired in February. Last week he rolled his
eyes when he was asked about the full-squad bowling trip he
organized during training camp. "Oh, so the headline here's
going to be PETE TAKES THE TEAM BOWLING," Carroll said. "Look,
my approach, to some degree, is all about bonding. It's all
about shared experiences. It's all about building a team."
Carroll is clearly frustrated that he's known as the Norman
Vincent Peale of coaches, not as a strategist. "I got criticized
for having a basketball hoop at the Jets' facility when I
coached there [in 1994]," he said. "And then I go to San
Francisco to interview for the defensive coordinator's job [in
1995], and right at their offices is a full-court basketball
court. So maybe my problem with the Jets was I only had one hoop."
NEW YORK STORIES
In the 12 seasons that Parcells and Dan Reeves served as coach,
the Giants started five rookies in season openers. In Sunday's
31-17 win over the Eagles, new coach Jim Fassel started five
himself. "I'm not going to play politics," Fassel said last
Friday. "It wouldn't be fair to the team if I didn't start a guy
just because he was a rookie."
Running back Tiki Barber, a second-round choice, gained 120
total yards, 88 on the ground, and strong safety Sam Garnes, a
fifth-round pick, returned an interception 95 yards for the
clinching touchdown. Punter Brad Maynard (third round), wideout
Ike Hilliard (first) and center Derek Engler, a free agent,
helped give the Giants the youngest opening-day team in the
league--with an average age of 25 years, 208 days. "Watching
Tiki and Ike raises the hair on the back of my neck," says
linebacker Corey Widmer. "If they can make these kinds of plays
now, what plays will they make later?"
Three time zones away, in Seattle, something interesting was
going on with the Jets. It had started in their 4-0 preseason
and continued with their 41-3 win over Seattle on Sunday. "It's
only one game," said wideout Wayne Chrebet, who scored a pair of
touchdowns. "It doesn't matter what we won by. I'm already
thinking about next week."
O.K., then we'll get excited for them. The Seahawks were the
NFL's most improved team in the off-season, adding a
run-stopping tackle (Dan Saleaumua), a terrific linebacker (Chad
Brown) and two new solid corners (Shawn Springs and Willie
Williams). And New York shredded them. It's only Week 1, but
there's one thing we can say with some certainty: The Jets are
already the league's most pleasant surprise.
SHOW OF SUPPORT
Eagles running back Ricky Watters, who led the league in carries
last season, has coach Ray Rhodes in his corner as he pushes for
a new contract. Watters, who rushed for a team-high 81 yards and
caught four passes for 58 more in the Eagles' loss to the Giants
on Sunday, wanted to redo the final year of his contract and
extend it--he'll make $1.8 million this year--but the front
"I've been a player in this league," Rhodes says, "and a lot of
what Ricky says has substance to it. He's been one of the most
productive players in the game the last couple of years, and you
want to reward the players who play the best. I can't knock the
Not only did the Cardinals blow an 18-point fourth-quarter lead
in losing to the Bengals 24-21, but they also lost their leading
tackler of the past three seasons, middle linebacker Eric Hill,
for four to six weeks with a broken left ankle. Bad timing.
Between now and Oct. 19, Arizona faces the Cowboys' Emmitt
Smith, the Redskins' Terry Allen, the Vikings' Robert Smith and
the Eagles' Watters....Though the organization would like you to
believe otherwise, the 49ers still consult Bill Walsh. He eats
lunch with club president Carmen Policy once a week and still
has a prime parking space (marked THE PROFESSOR) in front of
team headquarters.... No fewer than 18 franchises have built or
planned stadiums in the last five years, but the Patriots can't
settle on a site. Owner Robert Kraft is leaning toward building
a facility in Rhode Island, 18 miles south of Foxboro Stadium,
or at one of two eastern Connecticut locations.... After two
years as a soccer player, Jarrett Payton, the 6'3", 200-pound
son of NFL career rushing leader Walter Payton, had his debut at
quarterback for St. Viator High in Arlington Heights, Ill., last
Friday with some shaky passing numbers: 1 of 13 for 22
yards....Carolina had two streaks snapped in its 24-10 loss to
Washington. The Panthers lost for the first time at Ericsson
Stadium, and their NFL record streak for being penalized fewer
times than their opponent ended at 20 games. Carolina was
flagged 10 times for 101 yards, the Redskins thrice for 19 yards.
THE END ZONE
On a trip to gather ideas for a new stadium, a 49ers contingent
visited Ericsson last Friday, five days after the Panthers had
waived '96 NFL sack leader Kevin Greene in a contract dispute,
and three days after the Niners had signed him. Carolina owner
Jerry Richardson gave San Francisco counterpart Edward DeBartolo
Jr. a T-shirt to pass along to Greene. The front read WE HAD
HOPED KEVIN GREENE WOULD FIND A HOME IN THE AFC. The back
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO Phillips, who scored five touchdowns all last season, had three against the Saints. [Lawrence Phillips and Mark Fields in game]
COLOR PHOTO: BRAD MANGIN Parcells got New Yorkers' attention [Bill Parcells]
COLOR PHOTO: BRAD MANGIN Johnson (19) caught six passes, but Springs kept him out of the end zone. [Keyshawn Johnson and Shawn Springs in game]
THE INNER GAME
One Rookie's Rough Debut
Seahawks cornerback Shawn Springs, the third pick in the April
draft, made his NFL debut on Sunday against the Jets. It was a
rude introduction as Neil O'Donnell threw five touchdown passes
in a 41-3 New York win. Springs, who signed a seven-year, $20
million contract in August, wasn't burned for any of those
scores; nevertheless, this was like nothing he'd ever
experienced at Ohio State. Afterward, he took us through his
first NFL game day.
"I had my alarm at the hotel set for 8:15, but I woke up at 8. I
thought, Damn, this is the first time I ever beat the alarm
clock on game day. You know what's great about waking up on a
football Sunday on the West Coast? The football shows are on. I
watched CNN and ESPN for a while, then went down to breakfast. I
ate some eggs, but not much. I always eat light before a game. I
want to be hungry out there. Our team meal was real quiet. At
one point I said, 'Man, did somebody die in here?'
"When I was warming up on the field, I started to realize what I
was into: This is why they're paying me that $20 million. This
is big. I thought it was cool how they played a peewee game
before ours, and I'm watching, thinking how much fun those kids
were having. Then I realized, Hey, the game's still a blast for
me. I love it. And the kids talked to me. I went into the game
thinking I've got to play well for them.
"I got really pumped when they announced my name and the crowd
went wild. Then the game started. Don't ask me what happened.
They just made every play. I was shocked. But the game's not
much different from college. I covered Keyshawn Johnson almost
every play, and we really got into it starting in the second
quarter. Keyshawn [six catches for 68 yards] said to me, 'You're
overrated.' I yelled back, 'You're a bust. First pick in the
['96] draft, and you can't play! I'll cover you all day.' Stuff
like that. Fun stuff.
"One play that stuck with me: O'Donnell threw an out to Keyshawn
in the second quarter. The ball flew right by me, and I was an
inch from getting a pick. An inch! I told Keyshawn, 'You're
lucky. Four games from now, I don't miss that one. Four games
from now, that's a pick.'
"It's not fun getting your butt kicked. I would have been dying
if this were college, where you lose one game and your season's
over. It's not the way I wanted my career to start, but we'll be
all right. I'll be all right." --P.K.
WHAT SALARY CAP?
The 49ers' signing of pass-rush specialist Kevin Greene to a
six-year, $13 million contract last week demonstrated how easily
teams loaded down with big contracts can circumvent the salary
cap. Players like Greene, a Carolina holdout who was waived by
the Panthers on Aug. 24, were supposed to be obtainable only by
clubs with lots of money to spend, such as the Bengals, who are
$1.5 million under the cap. Cincinnati bid hard for Greene, but
the 49ers lured the end with a $750,000 signing bonus, a
$200,000 salary and $550,000 in makable incentives this
season--a package that could be worth $1.5 million to Greene
over the next five months but will cost the Niners just $325,000
(the '97 salary and one sixth of the bonus) against this year's
cap. Whatever incentives a player earns are charged against the
Factor in last week's signing of defensive tackle Bryant Young
to a six-year, $26 million extension, and the 49ers have 40
players under contract for 1998 at a cap cost of $62.1 million,
or about $16 million more than the projected '98 cap.
Nevertheless, club president Carmen Policy says, "We don't fear
the future. If guys perform, we'll find a way to keep them."
Which means this: The 49ers, who have renegotiated strong safety
Tim McDonald's contract four times in five seasons, will have to
restructure many of the deals of their stalwarts and release
others--the then 36-year-old Greene will be a prime candidate.
Here are the 11 players who have deals with cap costs of $2
million or more in '98.
Player, Pos. '98 cap cost
Steve Young, QB $10 m
Rod Woodson, CB $5.2 m
Tim McDonald, SS $2.92 m
Jerry Rice, WR $2.79 m
Chris Doleman, DE $2.7 m
Garrison Hearst, RB $2.6 m
Bryant Young, DT $2.5 m
Merton Hanks, FS $2.43 m
Ray Brown, G $2.27 m
Kevin Greene, DE $2.13 m
Roy Barker, DE $2.1 m
THE HOT LIST
THE BUZZ AROUND THE LEAGUE THIS WEEK
1. JERRY RICE Welcome to the NFL, Steve Mariucci. An MRI
confirmed the 49ers' worst fears when Rice wrenched his left
knee against the Buccaneers: torn anterior cruciate and medial
collateral ligaments. The 10-time All-Pro, who for the past
decade has held the Niners together, is out for the year. San
Francisco will be lost without him.
2. NEW YORK, NEW YORK Parcells for president. And Gotham will be
pushing Jim Fassel as his running mate. The underdog Jets won by
38 in Parcells's debut, the underdog Giants by 14 in Fassel's.
3. TV TALKS CBS czar Mel Karmazin met recently with influential
owners Bob Kraft and Jerry Jones, both members of the league's
television committee. Kraft and Jones came away thinking CBS is
serious about getting back into the NFL. Look for the next TV
contract, which will begin in '98, to increase by at least 40%
over the current $4.3 billion deal.
4. BILLS TO PAY Uh-oh, Buffalo. The Bills, having failed to sell
out their home opener for the first time since 1985, announced a
six-year, $28 million extension for defensive end Bruce Smith,
then gave up 385 yards in a 34-13 bludgeoning by Minnesota.
5. LAWRENCE PHILLIPS His totals in the Rams' 38-24 win over the
Saints: 26 carries, 125 yards, three touchdowns...and four hugs
from coach-father figure Dick Vermeil. "We've been through a lot
together," Vermeil said. "Visits to jail, talks about the most
amazing and personal subjects you can imagine. And you know
what? There will be more days like this one." --P.K.
Send your NFL questions to Peter King and read more of Dr. Z at