The essence of Cowboys owner Jerry Jones is this: He is as
competitive as the feistiest player, and he doesn't sulk.
Hanging up the phone last week after an hourlong conversation
with Jones on the sad state of his team, I thought, This guy can
handle the fans and the press and the football establishment
shoveling dirt on Dallas's coffin.
"A lot of people wondered if Lee Iacocca could rebuild Chrysler,
didn't they?" Jones said with a sly chuckle. "Our future is not
bleak. I don't like 6-8, but ask me my regrets, and I don't have
Jones, whose Cowboys were eliminated from playoff contention by
virtue of their ninth loss, 31-24 to the Bengals on Sunday,
refused to confirm what seems inevitable: Laissez-faire Barry
Switzer won't return for a fourth season. But listening to
Jones, you could easily conclude that Switzer will go back to
his couch in Oklahoma and offensive coordinator Ernie Zampese
will be looking for a job. Jones will try to keep the defensive
staff and special teams coach Joe Avezzano. "We're going to
change some things," Jones said, "and, more than likely, they
will have something to do with how we do things offensively."
Here are five things Jones must do with a team that is less than
two years removed from its third Super Bowl title in four seasons.
1. Hire the right coach. Jones knows there's no one Mr. Right
for this job. He dumped a dictator (Jimmy Johnson) for a Jimmy
Buffett (Switzer) in 1994, and the most important trait the new
guy must have is a Johnson-like firm hand. The next coach must
be at least as tough as Dave Wannstedt, who will be the
front-runner if the Bears fire him. Former UCLA coach Terry
Donahue will get consideration, and a surprise candidate, such
as Eagles offensive coordinator Jon Gruden, could emerge.
2. Find another offensive weapon. Dallas won't pick up the $1
million option on disappointing wideout Anthony Miller for 1998.
In the draft look for the Cowboys to focus on a precision
game-breaking wideout to pair with Michael Irvin. Best
first-round guess: Virginia receiver Germane Crowell.
3. Fix the offensive line. Except for the tackles--Larry Allen
on the left side, Erik Williams on the right--there's not much
to build with. The Cowboys can't afford a big-ticket lineman in
free agency and, because they need a couple of guys to play
immediately, shouldn't look for line help in the first round.
Instead they need to go after free agents they can sign at the
cap-friendly price of about $1 million a year. There are several
candidates: Cardinals guard Joe Wolf, Bears guard Todd Burger
and Broncos guard Brian Habib. If they can sign two of those and
live with incumbent Clay Shiver or reserve John Flannery at
center, the line will have a prayer of keeping Troy Aikman
healthy and Emmitt Smith productive.
4. Hire an on-the-rise pro personnel director. Jones is going to
function as the general manager. End of story. The Cowboys,
however, don't have a man who evaluates pro talent exclusively;
their scouts do double duty on NFL and college players. Jones
needs an egoless tapehead to tell him if a Seahawks
practice-squad tackle is worth picking up.
5. Keep Jerry out of the coaches' offices. Nobody likes the boss
looking over his shoulder, and it can be the kiss of death for
football greatness. Jones must hire the right guy and get out of
Jim Kelly has attended one NFL game as a fan this season, the
Bills-Dolphins Monday-nighter in Miami on Nov. 17, and he drove
his wife, Jill, nuts as he squirmed in his seat. "I wanted to be
in there so bad," he recalls. Now he may do something about it,
in part to raise money to find a cure for 10-month-old son
Hunter's fatal illness, Krabbe's disease.
In one breath Kelly, who will be 38 on opening day 1998, says,
"If I decided to play, I'd donate most of my salary to our
charity, Hunter's Hope Foundation. But honest to God it's less
than 50-50 I'll play again." In the next breath he says, "I know
I can still play. Look at my stats last year in Buffalo, after I
started calling my own plays."
In November, Kelly commandeered the play-calling from offensive
coordinator Tom Bresnahan. Before the change Kelly was a 57%
passer with four touchdowns, 12 interceptions and a 61.0 rating.
In the six games that followed, Kelly was a 59% passer, with 10
touchdowns, seven interceptions and an 89.4 rating.
Kelly would prefer to be on a team that runs primarily a
three-wideout set similar to what the Bills used. Nirvana would
be the freedom to call his own plays, as he did for much of his
career in Buffalo and as he would with the Ravens. The coach, if
he survives, would be former Bills offensive coordinator Ted
Marchibroda. The incumbent quarterback, Vinny Testaverde, has
fallen out of favor. All sides denied a report that an agreement
had been reached with Kelly last week, but the deal makes too
much sense not to happen. Plus, it's the type of
headline-grabber owner Art Modell drools over.
MR. SMITH STAYS HOME
The player robbed most glaringly in last week's Pro Bowl voting
was Falcons defensive end Chuck Smith, the most valuable player
on one of the league's most surprising teams. Rams coach Dick
Vermeil says Smith is the best defensive player his team has
faced this season. Smith had a five-sack demolition of the
Saints on Oct. 12, including three against Pro Bowl starting
tackle William Roaf, and leads the Falcons with 12 sacks.
Nevertheless, the Packers' Reggie White (10 sacks) and the
Giants' Michael Strahan (14 sacks) were voted the NFC starters,
and the 49ers' Chris Doleman (11 sacks) was named the reserve.
"I whupped a lot of people's butts the last three years, but I'm
not bitter," Smith says. "Reggie's our Michael Jordan and
Doleman's practically Scottie Pippen. For me to get to the Pro
Bowl would be kind of like a big underdog winning a championship
fight: I've got to knock the champ out, and I guess people think
I haven't done that."
THE IMMACULATE DECEPTION
The 25th anniversary of the Immaculate Reception, among the most
controversial, and famous, plays in NFL history, is Dec. 23.
There has always been debate about the legality of the catch
that Franco Harris took for the winning score, but now Harris
suggests that he might not have even made the catch.
The situation in the AFC first-round playoff game: Oakland led
7-6, but Pittsburgh had the ball at its 40, facing a
fourth-and-10 with 22 seconds left. A scrambling Terry Bradshaw
threw to halfback Frenchy Fuqua. The ball and Raiders safety
Jack Tatum got to Fuqua simultaneously, the ball ricocheted into
the air, and the next thing anyone knew, Harris had it and was
galloping 42 yards into the end zone. Tatum claimed the ball
bounced from Fuqua to Harris. At the time a pass that was
deflected from one offensive player directly to another would
have been ruled an incompletion.
Last week Fuqua continued to be coy about whether he--and not
Tatum--touched the ball, saying he had told the truth to only
one man, late Steelers owner Art Rooney. Rooney, Fuqua said,
told him to shut his mouth and "keep it immaculate."
NFL Films footage seems to show that Harris plucked the ball
cleanly off his shoe tops, but now he hedges on that. "I can't
really answer that question," he said. "I have never answered
that question." Which leads Bradshaw to moan, "I always thought
Franco caught it. Now I'm really depressed. These guys are
killing me. These guys have played with my mind for so long."
The Bengals have scored more than 30 points in a
franchise-record four straight games, which coincides with
Boomer Esiason's insertion into the starting lineup ahead of
Jeff Blake. Now the club wants to extend the 36-year-old
Esiason's contract, which has one year left at $750,000....
The 7-8 Seahawks will almost certainly fire coach Dennis
Erickson, and the stage is set for George Seifert to coach and
one of two terrific general manager types, the Panthers' Bill
Polian or the Steelers' Tom Donohoe, to run the personnel side.
THE END ZONE
It has been a tough autumn for the black and chocolate Labrador
retrievers of Oilers guard Kevin Donnalley, a North Carolina
grad. Mack and Dean were named in honor of Tar Heels football
coach Mack Brown and basketball coach Dean Smith. In a two-month
span, Smith retired and Brown defected to Texas. The dogs,
Donnalley reports, are taking the defections well.
Send your NFL questions to Peter King and read more Dr. Z at
COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO The Cowboys won't have a leg to stand on if they don't find some linemen who can protect Aikman. [Troy Aikman being tackled in game]
COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER Tasker has been special as a special-teamer. [Steve Tasker]
COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK Seau (55) kept close tabs on K.C.'s Gannon. [Rich Gannon and Junior Seau in game]
After this Saturday's game against the Bills, Packers running
back Dorsey Levens will have carried the ball almost as often
during the 1997 regular season as he did in his previous seven
years of college and professional football combined. In the
six-year Mike Holmgren era, only once before had a player
carried more than 300 times (Edgar Bennett, 316 in 1995, plus
another 56 in three playoff games). By the end of the playoffs,
Levens could tote the ball more than 375 times. Here's a look at
Levens's rushing numbers since his freshman year at Notre Dame.
YEAR TEAM CARRIES YARDS AVG. TDS
1989 Notre Dame 25 132 5.3 1
1990 Notre Dame 13 53 4.1 2
1992 Georgia Tech 55 213 3.9 2
1993 Georgia Tech 114 843 7.2 8
1994 Packers 5 15 3.0 0
1995 Packers 36 120 3.3 3
1996 Packers 121 566 4.7 5
1997 Packers 307 1,364 4.4 7
1. GIANTS AMONG MEN "Times don't change," former Giants and
Redskins linebacker Sam Huff said after New York won the NFC
East for the first time in seven years. "The Giants won the
division with defense. That's the way they've always won it."
2. SOMETHING'S FISHY Indianapolis led 17-0 and Colts quarterback
Jim Harbaugh was on his way to a four-touchdown passing day when
NBC's Bob Trumpy bellowed, "The Dolphins are playing like puke!"
Truth hurts. With an opportunity to take sole possession of
first place in the AFC East, Miami lost 41-0.
3. BOO, DREW Drew Bledsoe was just getting over this
crummy-in-the-big-games rap when he threw the Pick Felt Round
New England, a mindless pass that was intercepted by Steelers
defensive end Kevin Henry with two minutes left. The Patriots'
21-13 lead became a 24-21 overtime loss. Now, instead of a
first-week bye, the Pats will miss the playoffs if they lose in
Miami and the Jets win in Detroit.
4. DISAPPEARING ACT The Vikings have collapsed faster than
Dennis Green's book sales. Six weeks ago they were 8-2 and
fighting for the NFC's top playoff seed. Minnesota is 0-5 since,
the most recent loss a 14-13 defeat to the Lions in which the
offense had only 43 yards in the second half.
5. A SPECIAL RETIREMENT The Bills' Steve Tasker plays his last
game this week. In January 2003 he'll get serious consideration
for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and rightfully so. The 5'9",
181-pound wideout is the best special teams player ever. --P.K.
THE INNER GAME
Playing Out the String
In San Diego on Sunday, the AFC West-leading Chiefs predictably
pounded the Chargers 29-7. This is the first time since 1991,
Pro Bowl linebacker Junior Seau's second season, that the
Chargers (4-11) are playing for nothing but pride in December.
In the days leading up to the K.C. game, Seau took it upon
himself to jack up the energy level at practice by offering to
reward special teams players with cash for outstanding plays. "I
wake up hurting more on Sundays when we're on a bad streak like
this," Seau says. "But I still take every play personally." On
game day, we monitored Seau's moves from start to finish.
First half: Before the Chiefs' third play from scrimmage, Seau
works the crowd into a frenzy. Defensive end William Fuller
responds by sacking Rich Gannon. Seau jumps on his teammate and
screams, "Way to be a pro!" Disaster strikes on San Diego's next
defensive series. Leapfrogging a blocker in an attempt to get to
Gannon, Seau hyperextends his left knee, and he hops off the
field in pain. He tosses his helmet into a trash can, but he's
not done. He walks around, stretching the leg, then, having
missed only a few snaps, retrieves his helmet and jogs back onto
the field without saying anything to the coaches. Seau calls
plays and limps through the rest of the half.
Second half: "You could see him fighting it," K.C. tackle Dave
Szott says. "He's got as big a heart as anybody I play." On one
pass attempt Seau overpowers guard Will Shields, who outweighs
him by 50 pounds, and pressures Gannon into an incompletion. As
Seau limps back to the huddle, he and Shields bark at each
other. Late in the third quarter Seau runs down Marcus Allen
from behind and holds the back to a two-yard gain. On the next
snap Allen loops out of the backfield and, hearing Seau's
footsteps, pulls up to avoid getting leveled. The pass falls
incomplete. "Thought you were gonna get me," Allen says. Seau
pats his opponent on the rear and replies, "I won't do you like
that." With the game out of hand, Seau misses the last two
series, his left knee encased in ice. Totals: two tackles, two
assists in 45 plays. As he leaves the field, he flings his
jersey, his baseball cap and his gloves into the crowd. "I wish
I could give 'em more," he says. "They don't deserve a 4-10 team."
The record is now 4-11. If the knee allows, Seau will play in
the finale, against the Broncos in Denver on Sunday, because
that's what he does, no matter how the standings read. "I'm
playing every down like it's the most important I'll ever play,"
Seau says. "If I can't be that player, no matter what the record
is, believe me, I'll hang up the helmet." --P.K.