GETTING A GRIP
Vikings quarterback Brad Johnson awoke in his suburban
Minneapolis home last Dec. 1, the day of a Monday-night showdown
against the Packers, with a jabbing pain in his neck. "It was
like a crick in my neck," Johnson said last week, "but it
bothered me so much as the day went on that my mom had to drive
me to the stadium." Minnesota's medical staff massaged the neck,
but the pain continued, and as that night's game progressed,
Johnson began losing the strength in his right hand. Twice
during the 27-11 loss to Green Bay, he lost his grip on the ball
as he went to throw, and in the fourth quarter he was replaced
by Randall Cunningham.
The next day an MRI showed that Johnson had a herniated disk
near the top of his spine and a bone fragment was pinching the
nerves that control his right hand. Johnson was found to have
lost 75% of his strength in the hand. That night, he went to bed
not sure whether he would play football again. If doctors had to
fuse his fifth and sixth vertebrae, his career was probably
over. If they only had to clean up the disk and remove the bone
fragment, he would probably play again.
"You know what I was thinking, lying there before surgery?"
Johnson said last week at a Vikings minicamp. "That life's not
fair. But also I was thinking, I'd hate for my career to end
without people seeing what I could have done over the long haul.
Basically, I was just beginning."
A ninth-round pick from Florida State in 1992, Johnson replaced
the injured Warren Moon in Minnesota's lineup midway through the
'96 season. He was 5-3 as a starter, and in December of that
year, the Vikings rewarded Johnson with a four-year, $15.5
Fortunately for Johnson, the surgeons didn't have to fuse his
vertebrae. However, his rehab has been agonizingly slow. His
right hand is still only 70% as strong as his left. At the
minicamp he lobbed passes of 10 or 15 yards to his receivers,
but he had no idea when he would be able to throw a fastball.
"Doctors tell me the nerves will heal, and I'll regain my
strength," Johnson said. "I'm confident I'll be ready for the
season, but no one knows how long it'll take. Will it be three
weeks or three months? Or longer?"
With Johnson, the Vikings might field the NFL's best offense. A
strong line returns intact. First-round pick Randy Moss
complements receiving stars Cris Carter and Jake Reed. The
backfield features the oft-injured Robert Smith, who ran for a
team-record 1,266 yards despite missing two games with a
sprained ankle. Johnson is the perfect maestro because he
doesn't care to be a star. Nevertheless, along with the 49ers'
Steve Young, the Packers' Brett Favre, the Broncos' John Elway,
the Patriots' Drew Bledsoe and the Jaguars' Mark Brunell, he's
one of only six players rated among the league's top 10 passers
in each of the last two years. In schematically similar
offenses, Johnson has fewer interceptions and a better
completion percentage in the last two seasons than Favre, the
three-time league MVP.
STEELERS ADD A PAIR OF WEAPONS
Write this down: The Steelers will be the most compelling team
in the NFL in 1998. We will get to see the growth of exciting
quarterback Kordell Stewart, the maturation of a smothering
defense, the soap opera focused on coach Bill Cowher and his job
prospects, and much, much more.
Take third-round draft choice Hines Ward, the
passer-receiver-runner-returner out of Georgia who was named MVP
of the 1995 Gator Bowl after throwing for 413 yards. Though
Pittsburgh envisions Hines primarily as a wideout, you just know
he'll line up under center as an option quarterback at some
point next season. Then there's the sixth-round pick, 252-pound
running back Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala of Utah. You talk to Cowher
about Fuamatu-Ma'afala, and he starts bubbling over as if he's
on one of his sideline rants. "He made some unbelievable cuts at
our minicamp, cuts I haven't seen since Barry Foster was here in
his prime," Cowher said last week. "Can you imagine if we come
in with him for a few plays after throwing Jerome Bettis at a
defense all day?"
You know Cowher will do some wild things. He's not afraid to
experiment with quirky lineups, knowing that the unexpected
keeps the Steelers revved up, and he just might lead the league
in throwing young players into the fire. Here's a possible case
in point: If outside linebacker Greg Lloyd can't rebound from a
badly sprained right ankle and subsequent staph infection that
sidelined him late in the 1997 season, second-year defensive
lineman Mike Vrabel could take his spot. "Mike's a lot like
Kevin Greene," said Cowher, who firmly no-commented reports that
he might try to leave the Steelers in 1999 for a lucrative
coach-general manager position. "Put him in the game and he
makes plays." That's a common thread running through the
Steelers of the '90s.
Giant among Men
JUREVICIUS IS MR. VERSATILE
When the Giants' offensive coaches met after a postdraft
minicamp to discuss how their prospects fit in, they couldn't
figure out what to do with rookie wideout Joe Jurevicius, the
6'4", 231-pound second-round choice out of Penn State. He could
line up inside when New York goes to a three-or four-wideout
formation or he could be split wide or he could be a flanker.
"We decided that he could fit in all those spots," says coach
Jim Fassel, "and we'll try to train him at every one. I was in
Denver with Shannon Sharpe, and you could see he was too
physical if the other team put a defensive back on him and too
fast if it put a linebacker on him."
The Giants hope Jurevicius can become a cross between Sharpe and
another Bronco, wideout Ed McCaffrey, a big man who's more than
a possession receiver. "In college I caught a lot of deep posts
and streaks," says Jurevicius, who averaged 20.3 yards per catch
at Penn State. "I think I have deceptive speed."
If he can get off the line against the quick and physical
cornerbacks in the NFC East--one rival personnel man said last
week that slowness off the line will be Jurevicius's
downfall--the Giants might finally have the receiver to
complement their run-oriented offense. That would be welcome
news for a team that hasn't had a Pro Bowl wideout since 1968.
He's No Bench Warmer
FULL-TIME DUTY FOR REGGIE
Forget all those stories about Reggie White's playing one last
season as a spot player for the Packers. Green Bay general
manager Ron Wolf sees White and rookie first-round pick Vonnie
Holliday starting at the defensive ends. The Packers sent White
to a back specialist, who told them that there was no need for
surgery to correct a damaged disk and that White could be at
full strength if he can handle strenuous off-season rehab. "If
he makes the commitment to get in shape for football," Wolf
says, "there's nobody we have who's better." Since his
announcement that he would return, White has been putting in
five-hour days at the Packers' training facility.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER TEST OF NERVE The Vikings are hoping Johnson can regain the strength in his throwing hand. [Brad Johnson in game]
COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO [Tim Couch in game]
The 1999 draft should be top-heavier with quarterbacks than any
since 1983, when six passers went in the first round. The
expansion Browns will almost certainly hold the first pick, and
their choice could be Kentucky's Tim Couch (above), assuming he
comes out after his junior season. Here's an early projected
order of selection.
PLAYER, SCHOOL HT WT
Tim Couch, Kentucky 6'5" 220
Threw for 476 yards in a duel with Peyton Manning last fall
Brock Huard, Washington 6'5" 222
A lefty with a strong arm for going deep and an accurate
Cade McNown, UCLA 6'1" 210
A smart-as-a-whip, Steve Young-type southpaw, but his arm is a
Daunte Culpepper, Central Florida 6'4" 235
Might have been a low first-round pick had he come out this year
Brian Kuklick, Wake Forest 6'3" 205
Emerged by passing for 15 TDs and 2,180 yards as a junior last