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In the Patriots' 33-6 rout of the Bills on Sunday, quarterback
Drew Bledsoe completed four passes to his favorite wideout,
Terry Glenn. Linebacker Ted Johnson had a team-high nine tackles
on a defense that limited Buffalo to 242 yards. And Curtis
Martin rushed for 99 yards, barely missing his 15th career
100-yard game. All of the aforementioned players are 25 or
younger. All have either played in Pro Bowls or are on the verge
of doing so.

The Patriots' youth movement is not unique. In fact, the league
is enjoying a player renaissance. A scant three years ago, as
many of the game's megastars--Joe Montana, Jim Kelly, Ronnie
Lott and Art Monk, to name a few--were on the verge of flaming
out, the woe-is-football signs were everywhere. Where would the
much needed infusion of fresh talent come from? "The talent was
lagging," New England coach Pete Carroll says. "But now you look
at the league, especially at quarterback. I think it's pretty
clear the young guys are back."

It is no coincidence that aging teams like the Cowboys and the
Bills have limped through the first seven weeks of the season.
The Broncos are gray too, but they are the NFL's deepest team.
The 49ers are old, but three kids under 27, wideouts Terrell
Owens and J.J. Stokes and running back Garrison Hearst, have
helped make up for the loss of Jerry Rice. Jacksonville will
make a run at the playoffs, and its five premier
players--quarterback Mark Brunell, running back Natrone Means,
offensive tackle Tony Boselli, defensive end Tony Brackens and
linebacker Kevin Hardy--are 27 or younger. The Super Bowl
champion Packers have only three key players over 30: defensive
end Reggie White, free safety Eugene Robinson and center Frank

"The young players are forced to play sooner," says Ravens vice
president of player personnel Ozzie Newsome, who notes that many
of them have had a positive impact. "For years we were
accustomed to kids sitting around three or four years before
they blossomed."

Not anymore.


The Bills have 10 games left, and their best player, defensive
end Bruce Smith, hopes he'll make it through the season. At the
team's Providence hotel on the eve of the game against the
Patriots, a downcast Smith said a cracked bone spur in his right
knee had sapped his confidence. "When you're playing hurt like I
am, you don't have the same faith in your pass-rush moves," said
Smith, the 1996 NFL Defensive Player of the Year. "You're
worried that your leg might not be able to take it. Now I'm
using my left leg more than I should. [The injury] is playing
mind games with me."

Smith didn't help matters when he banged knees with fellow
defensive end Jim Jeffcoat late in training camp, then had
physical games in the first three weeks of the season. "But I'll
keep playing until I stop being productive or the pain's too
great," he said. So far productivity hasn't been an issue.
During Buffalo's 3-3 start, Smith had 6 1/2 sacks, including one
in the loss to New England.


"Jeez!" Jets coach Bill Parcells said last week, fearful that
fans and the media were falling too much in love with rookie
kicker John Hall. "You've got this kid out in Canton already. He
hasn't even made it to Harrisburg."

Parcells likes to deflate promising players, but Hall looks like
one of the best rookie free-agent signings of the season. He
made only 14 of 21 field goals last year at Wisconsin, but he
caught the Jets' eye with the 53 touchbacks he produced on
kickoffs. His 20 touchbacks in the Jets' first seven games are
already as many as any NFL kicker had all of last season. New
York foes are starting drives after kickoffs seven-plus yards
deeper, on average, than they did a year ago. What's more, after
being tutored in training camp by erstwhile Parcells kicker Matt
Bahr, Hall has made 13 of 17 field goal attempts, including
three from beyond 50 yards.

Parcells is equally fond of Hall because of the way he handled
one of the four kicks he has missed--a 29-yarder at New England
on Sept. 14 that could have won the game in the final minute of
regulation but was blocked. The Jets lost in overtime, and
Parcells said nothing to Hall that night. In the parking lot the
next day, however, the coach asked the rookie, "What'd you think
of the kick?"

"Thought it was a bad kick," Hall replied.

That's what Parcells wanted to hear. He thinks a kicker must
remain even-tempered and never look for excuses. Reminded of the
story last week, Hall shrugged. "It was a bad kick," he said. "I
react the way I react because I don't want to get too high or
too low. That's not good for a kicker."


The best run-stopping tackle in football, the Packers' 360-pound
Gilbert Brown, is second only to Brett Favre as the team's MVP.
Brown, who's surprisingly powerful considering that he's
probably the roundest man in the NFL, bruised his hip in the
first half of the Packers' opener against the Bears, then
strained his right knee two weeks later against the Dolphins. He
missed a game against the Buccaneers and the rematch with the
Bears on Sunday, but the Packers, who are off this week, hope
he'll return on Oct. 27 at New England. Without Brown and
cornerback Craig Newsome, who's out for the season with a torn
anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, the Pack has fallen
from first in the league in team defense last year to 24th, and
from fourth against the run to 27th. The Bucs stunned Green Bay
with seven runs of 10 or more yards. "Not having [Brown] against
the run is a lot like playing defense against the pass without a
cornerback," says Green Bay defensive coordinator Fritz Shurmur.
"He takes up two people every play he's in there."

Brown's replacements, 295-pound Bob Kuberski and 310-pound
Darius Holland, don't begin to fill his shoes. "Gilbert Brown is
unblockable," says Tampa Bay director of player personnel Jerry
Angelo. "They miss him so much because there's nobody playing
today who can neutralize him one-on-one."


In August, Redskins holdout Sean Gilbert, who is somewhere
between the fifth- and 10th-best defensive tackle in the game,
turned down a chance to become the second-highest-paid player at
his position. Washington offered $3.6 million a year; Gilbert
wanted $5 million. So far he has missed seven paychecks. At $3.6
million a year, that comes to $1,482,352.94 he has forfeited.
Has there ever been a more senseless holdout?


The Packers' Fritz Shurmur believes the Buccaneers' 1-2
backfield punch of Warrick Dunn and Mike Alstott is the best he
has seen in years, even though neither player is 24 yet....
Here's how far Dick Vermeil and the 2-4 Rams have to go: In two
losses to the 49ers this season, the offense didn't score a
touchdown, and the Niners cashed St. Louis's seven turnovers
into 32 points.... Before the New England-Denver Monday night
game on Oct. 6, a woman roamed the lobby of the Patriots' hotel
in a Drew Bledsoe jersey asking for autographs on the jersey and
on a football. From there she went to the parking lot, took off
the jersey and threw it and the football in the trunk of her
car. Then, donning a John Elway jersey, she put a Broncos
pennant on her car and drove off.... Speaking of Elway, he makes
it sound as if this season will be his last when he says,
"Nothing heals. My soreness lasts the whole week. It used to be
I was through it on Wednesday. Then it went to Thursday and
Friday. Now I'm just getting over it, and I start a new game.
Essentially I'm sore for six months."... The Steelers' proposed
$185 million stadium, to be put before the voters in November as
part of a $700 million tax package, faces tough opposition.
Talk-show hosts on the club's flagship radio station are bashing
it, and some newspaper columnists are railing against the
half-percent sales-tax increase, which could generate up to
$92.5 million for the facility. Further hurting the prospects of
passage: Voters know Dan Rooney will never move the team.... The
fervor of Green Bay fans knows no bounds. The Packers have a
season-ticket waiting list of 38,000, and 269 companies are on a
waiting list for Lambeau Field's 198 luxury boxes.


"Our goal is to score 27 points a game," Cowboys coach Barry
Switzer says of an offense that has struggled mightily this
season. "If we get two touchdowns and three field goals, we've
got our 27."

You do the math.

COLOR PHOTO: RICHARD MACKSON Talk about on-the-job training: Third-year man Martin has already started 36 games for the Patriots. [Curtis Martin in game]

COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT ROGERS Sanders is in a league of his own. [Barry Sanders in game]

COLOR PHOTO: RICHARD MACKSON Smith's ailments didn't prevent him from sacking Bledsoe. [Bruce Smith and Drew Bledsoe in game]


O.K., we don't know which teams will pick when. But we do
know--more or less--the order the top 15 players would go in if
the NFL draft were held today. We asked college scouts from
seven teams for their top 10 seniors and compared their lists
with that of the National Football Scouting combine. We also
considered juniors and third-year sophomores likely to come out.
Here's how the first half of the first round shapes up.

1 Peyton Manning, QB, Tennessee
2 Ryan Leaf*, QB, Washington State
3 Brian Simmons, LB, North Carolina
4 Randy Moss*, WR, Marshall
5 Charles Woodson*, CB, Michigan
6 Andre Wadsworth, DE, Florida State
7 Keith Brooking, LB, Georgia Tech
8 Dre' Bly*, CB, North Carolina
9 Grant Wistrom, DE, Nebraska
10 Tavian Banks, RB, Iowa
11 Flozell Adams, OT, Michigan State
12 Michael Myers, DT, Alabama
13 Tra Thomas, OT, Florida State
14 Leonard Little, DE, Tennessee
15 Ricky Williams*, RB, Texas

* Junior or third-year sophomore


1. THE LEGEND GROWS It's official: Barry Sanders is the only
athlete who doesn't put his pants on one leg at a time. His
215-yard rushing day against the Bucs pushed his career total to
12,513 yards. He passed Jim Brown to move into fourth place on
the career list with an 80-yard touchdown run, and when he added
an 82-yard score later, he became the first player in NFL
history to score on two runs of 80 or more yards in the same
game. Walter Payton's record (16,726 yards) doesn't seem so far
off. Sanders is 29. At his career pace of 97.8 yards per game,
he would pass Payton on Sept. 18, 2000.

2. TUNA BOWL II For the Patriots, who were sky-high when they
met their old boss, Bill Parcells, on Sept. 14--the Pats beat
Parcells's Jets 27-24 in overtime--the emotional level will be
down a notch, but only a notch. "I didn't realize how
deep-seated the feeling was for guys like Drew [Bledsoe]," says
New England coach Pete Carroll.

3. DAN THE MAN After a 27-of-38, 372-yard, two-touchdown day
against the Jets, it's evident that reports of Marino's demise
were greatly exaggerated.

4. WANNSTEDT WATCH The most endangered of all Bears species is
not having a good year. Coach Dave is piloting only the second
0-7 team in franchise history. Two weeks ago he handed Rick
Mirer the quarterback job for the year. Last week he demoted
Mirer--to third string. On Sunday, trailing the Packers 24-23
after scoring with 1:54 left, the Bears went for two. The
attempt failed. Dumb move. Going ahead would have guaranteed
nothing, especially against the league's best two-minute offense.

5. NICE HANDOFF Until Sunday, Jaguars running back James Stewart
had shown little of the talent that made him a first-round draft
pick in '95. But in a 38-21 win over the Eagles, Stewart ran for
five touchdowns and became only the fourth player in pro
football history--and the first since the Bills' Cookie
Gilchrist did it in a 1963 AFL matchup--to score five rushing
TDs in a game. Stewart gave the game ball he was presented to
Natrone Means, who was sidelined after spraining his ankle on
his second carry of the day. Classy gesture.


Send your NFL questions to Peter King and read more Dr. Z at