STUCK IN NEUTRAL
The Packers stumbled out of the preseason still trying to get
As the last of 52 preseason penalties was walked off against the
Packers in a desolate Pro Player Stadium late last Friday night,
Green Bay coach Mike Holmgren motioned referee Phil Luckett
within earshot. Fed up with his team's shoddy play this summer,
Holmgren said with a snarl, "Can we just go home? Can we please
just get this over with?"
Mercifully for the Packers the preseason is over. In the 21-7
loss to the Dolphins, Green Bay's third defeat in five
exhibitions, Holmgren didn't like the way his offense was
playing. Eliminate a steamrollering of the hapless Saints, and
the Brett Favre-led first unit was outscored by a combined 49-17
in preseason games against the Chiefs, Raiders, Broncos and
Dolphins. "We can't live off the last two years," says running
back Raymont Harris, a free-agent acquisition who filled in for
holdout Dorsey Levens. "Am I concerned? Ask me next week."
Holmgren, in fact, was so concerned about the offense last week
that he donned the headset linked to the quarterback and called
the plays himself for the first time since early 1994, his third
season in Green Bay. Customarily, offensive coordinator Sherm
Lewis sits in the coaches' booth giving suggestions to Holmgren,
who then picks the play and relays it to quarterbacks coach Andy
Reid, who relays the call to the quarterback. By eliminating the
middleman, Holmgren hoped to speed things up, but the offense
wasn't any smoother in Miami. The coach wasn't crazy about the
results of the experiment, either. "The problem is, I'm
concentrating on doing that, and I can't concentrate on the other
things--game strategy, special teams, the clock," he says. "I
don't know if I'll continue it."
Holmgren also felt compelled last week to summon Favre for a
fireside chat--they've had many such discussions during their
six-plus years together--about the quarterback's approach to the
season. "Brett would be the first to tell you he doesn't study in
the preseason," Holmgren says. "He's a wealthy young man. He's
accomplished a lot. I guess I wanted to ask him if he's still
hungry. I got the answer I wanted. I know him well enough to know
when he's ready to go, and he is."
The return of Levens, who rushed for 1,435 yards last season,
and wideout Robert Brooks, who caught 60 passes in 1997 and is
coming off back surgery, gives Green Bay 10 of the 11 offensive
starters from last year's NFC championship team. (Marco Rivera
replaces left guard Aaron Taylor, a free agent who signed with
Things aren't as settled on a defense that the Broncos' Terrell
Davis shredded for 157 yards in the Super Bowl last January.
Fourth against the run and first against the pass in its 1996
championship season, Green Bay fell to 20th and eighth,
respectively, last year. "Not really a fair stat," defensive
coordinator Fritz Shurmur says, "because in '96 we had no
injuries and last year we were patching it together every week,
and we still finished fifth in the league in scoring defense."
Nevertheless, in the off-season the Packers lost three valued
starters--defensive end Gabe Wilkins, cornerback Doug Evans and
free safety Eugene Robinson--to free agency. Their replacements:
Vonnie Holliday, the club's first-round draft pick who was
impressive but not impactful in the preseason; cornerback Craig
Newsome, who missed almost all of last season after undergoing
major knee surgery; and second-year man Darren Sharper, who will
move to cornerback in most nickel packages. The nickelback is
34-year-old Mike Prior, who was waived in the off-season and
"We'll bite the bullet and pray no one gets hurt," says Shurmur
of the secondary. Yet after final roster cuts were made on
Sunday, executive vice president and general manager Ron Wolf was
bullish about his cornerbacks: starters Newsome and third-year
man Tyrone Williams, with fourth-round pick Roosevelt Blackmon in
reserve. "We'll function as well as any team in the league at
that position," Wolf said.
Still, with Levens, Brooks and defensive tackle Gilbert Brown
(strained groin) rusty, Green Bay has a lot to do to get ready
for this Sunday's opener against the Lions. As Shurmur says, "In
six weeks of camp you're supposed to become what you're going to
be. But how would we know what that is right now? With free
agency, holdouts and injuries, we'll have to spend the first few
weeks of the season trying to find ourselves."
A lot of teams went into training camp with major questions, and
we still don't have the answers to some of them.
1. Can first-year coach Chan Gailey right the Cowboys' sinking
Real doubt remains. The Cowboys, 0-10 in regular-season and
exhibition games since Nov. 23, foolishly finished the preseason
cutting up (pun intended) on the sideline in a 22-point loss to
the Jaguars. Dallas continues to be plagued by off-field
shenanigans similar to those that helped bring down the Barry
Switzer regime, with the clumsy handling of the Michael
Irvin-Everett McIver dormitory episode dominating camp. On the
field the Cowboys have no pass rush, defensive tackle Leon Lett
has a sore knee, and cornerback Deion Sanders keeps getting
nicked. Dallas is down to its last wake-up call.
2. Can Panthers quarterback Kerry Collins revive his career?
He looked surprisingly mobile while running new Carolina
offensive coordinator Gil Haskell's West Coast-style offense,
completing 58% of his passes with two touchdowns and no
interceptions. That's a good sign from someone who sank to the
bottom of the NFL quarterback ratings last year. "All I can tell
you," says Haskell, sounding like a proud papa, "is that the
other day in practice he missed a throw on the goal line and
everyone stared at him, shocked."
3. Have the Chiefs tinkered enough to be a postseason threat?
Kansas City may have the league's second-best record this decade,
but the Chiefs haven't won a playoff game in four years, and
their preseason was horrendous. The starting backfield of Donnell
Bennett and Kimble Anders combined to average 2.7 yards a carry.
Pete Stoyanovich missed six of 11 field goal attempts. Defensive
tackle Chester McGlockton, a free-agent acquisition, has taken
two muscle-relaxant injections to treat an unspecified lower-back
injury and may not be able to play in the opener against the
Raiders, his former team.
4. Who'll be better as a rookie, Peyton Manning or Ryan Leaf?
Leaf had the better preseason, no doubt about it. Plus the left
side of his line, where free-agent pickups John Jackson and Aaron
Taylor protected his blind side, is significantly more effective
than Manning's. Still, one pro personnel director said something
last week that bodes well for Manning when the real bullets start
flying: "Every time he drops back, he reads his progression
quickly. On the tape I've seen, he hasn't made mental errors."
IN THE EYE OF THIS BEHOLDER
Best Team I Saw: the Broncos, who displayed not an ounce of
complacency. Worst Team I Saw: the Saints, who for the second
consecutive year will have the sorriest offense in the league.
Best Rookie I Saw: Steelers wideout-return man Hines Ward, who
will be a hero in Pittsburgh by Thanksgiving. Best Emerging Star
I Saw: Dolphins second-year defensive end Jason Taylor, who has
the speed of a wide receiver. Teams on the Rise: 1) Ravens, 2)
Raiders, 3) Vikings. Teams on the Decline: 1) Bengals, 2) Rams,
GREAT SUMMER FOR ELWAY HEIR
Broncos rookie quarterback Brian Griese played it smart in the
preseason, quietly eating up as much as John Elway would feed him
about coach Mike Shanahan's complex offense. At practice Elway
would sidle up to Griese after a play and tell him why he threw
to the split end when the logical choice would have been the
tight end, or why he audibled to one play instead of another. So
Griese sits and learns for the next season or two, after which he
will probably inherit the starting job. "It's the best situation
for me," he says. "I'm not getting my brains beat in when I'm not
ready, and I'm learning from the best."
Griese threw the winning touchdown pass in the Broncos' first
two preseason games--eight yards to running back Detron Smith
against the Rams and 48 yards to wideout Justin Armour against
the Saints. In four games Griese completed 27 of 50 passes for
372 yards and had just one interception. In the locker room he
is earning respect. "Brian is going to be a great player in this
system for a long time," says Elway.
The End Zone
FOR YOUR COPY, CALL 1-800...
Rams cornerback Ryan McNeil, who ended his holdout on Monday,
tried to sell his services around the NFL by publishing a 14-page
brochure that includes eight pages of multicolored pie charts and
bar graphs. "A destined Pro Bowler and Hall of Famer, in five
years McNeil has become the league's most complete cornerback,"
the brochure reads. While McNeil led the NFL in interceptions in
'97, he has yet to be selected to the Pro Bowl.
COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER Help in Sight Wideout Derrick Mayes should get some relief from a returning Brooks. [Derrick Mayes being tackled in game]
COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER Losing it An 0-5 preseason record left Irvin (88) and the Cowboys winless since Nov. 23. [Michael Irvin catching ball in game]
COLOR PHOTO: TIM DEFRISCO Summer school Griese took in whatever Denver threw his way. [Brian Griese in game]
THE INNER GAME
THE GOAL LINE DRILL
Pride's at stake whenever the Steelers' starting 22 lay it all on
the line for one intense series
"Goal line!" yells Steelers coach Bill Cowher, chin jutting out
and a game-day edge to his voice. "First-and-goal at the five!
Let's go!" Twenty-two starters scurry into position--the offensive
players in black jerseys, the defenders in yellow.
This is one of the last practices of the preseason at
Pittsburgh's training camp in Latrobe, Pa., and Cowher loves
this drill. It is mano a mano football at its best: on one side,
eight players along the offensive line in front of quarterback
Kordell Stewart, fullback Fred McAfee and running back Jerome
Bettis; on the other, a nine-man defensive front with two
linebackers trying to crash into the backfield.
As each side digs in, Cowher turns to conditioning coordinator
Chet Fuhrman and barks, "Gimme a whistle!" Fuhrman quickly
reaches for one but doesn't get to it fast enough. "Now!" Cowher
On the first play Bettis surges for two yards behind All-Pro
center Dermontti Dawson. Now it's second-and-goal from the three,
and inside linebacker Levon Kirkland gets on his mates. "No more!
It stops here!" he shouts, mindful of the fact that the last time
the team ran this drill the offense got zero yards in five snaps.
On the next play McAfee runs into a brick wall. "No!" someone in
a yellow jersey yells. "You get nothing!"
Third-and-goal from the three, with Jon Witman in for McAfee.
Stewart fakes to Bettis. Strong safety Lethon Flowers bites.
Witman slips outside to the flat and catches a perfect lob from
Stewart. Touchdown. "No!" one defender yelps from the pile, as
though in pain. The offensive players high-five each other with
gusto. Flowers rips off his helmet and throws it Frisbee-like
toward the sideline. Kirkland hollers, "Can't happen!" and tosses
his helmet too. Cowher stalks off, angry that his defense didn't
do its job.
Thirty minutes later Pro Bowl defensive back Carnell Lake walks
from the field, still glum about the defense's failure. "You've
got to care," he says. "You start uncovering the layers of
everything surrounding the game--the money, the hype, the
stardom--and it comes down to this: How bad do you want it?"