A speed-oriented defense is the key to Seattle's rapid resurgence
Darrin Smith has done a lot of things in his football life. He
was a 185-pound pulling guard during his junior year at Norland
High in Miami. He played strongside linebacker on two national
championship teams at Miami. He was an outside linebacker for
the Cowboys for four years, during which he won two Super Bowl
rings. He was a nobody for the Eagles last year, missing nine
games because of injuries. And on Sunday, for the
injury-depleted Seahawks, he moved from his outside linebacker
spot to middle linebacker--all 6'1", 230 pounds of him.
After taking pain-killing injections for one broken rib and one
bruised rib before the game, Smith went out for his first play
and lined up across from 326-pound Redskins left guard Tre'
Johnson. What was going through Smith's head? "All I thought
was, I'm Dick Butkus," he recalled later, "and I'm going to make
every play today."
In fact, he played four strong quarters, making seven tackles
(he continues to lead the team in that department) and
intercepting a Trent Green pass to set up the touchdown that put
Seattle ahead 17-7. Then on fourth-and-goal from the Seattle
five midway through the fourth quarter, he hog-tied 249-pound
fullback Larry Bowie four yards short of the end zone. Walking
off the field after Seattle's 24-14 victory, Smith's exultant
voice could be heard above the blaring music. "We play like a
bunch of crazed dogs!" he yelled. "And I'm a big-time player,
Smith exemplifies the new breed of Seahawks. "Winners," says
defensive tackle Dan Saleaumua, the former Chief who signed with
Seattle as a free agent in 1997. "Darrin Smith. Chad Brown. Mark
Collins [from Green Bay]. Shawn Springs [from Ohio State].
Winning guys, winning programs. There's no old Seahawks
With smart draft moves and expensive free-agent signings,
Seattle built a defense keyed by speed rushers. Traditionally a
slow-starting team, the Seahawks have bolted to their first 3-0
start since 1986, attacking weak sisters Arizona, Philadelphia
and Washington (combined record: 1-8) with blitzes almost 60% of
But in the next three weeks Seattle travels to Pittsburgh and
Kansas City, then returns home to face Super Bowl champion Denver
(combined record: 7-2). "We need to win a game we're not supposed
to win to find out how good we are," says Randy Mueller, the
club's vice president of football operations.
"Sometimes guys are so hungry to make plays that I feel like an
auctioneer in the huddle," says defensive end Mike Sinclair, who
has racked up six of the team's league-high 19 sacks. "I'll say,
'Who's going to make the next play?' And everyone will start
saying, 'Me!' It's like, Going once, going twice...sold! To
Darrin Smith! Or whomever."
A second-round draft pick by the Cowboys in '93, Smith has
always been known for his speed (4.55 in the 40). But Dallas has
never paid its linebackers big money, and Smith became a free
agent after the '96 season. He signed a one-year deal with the
Eagles, but a sprained left ankle and torn ligaments in his
right ankle shelved him for most of the season. His days as an
NFL standout appeared to be over. But Seattle, the only team
talking to Smith about a starting job, came up with a four-year,
$11 million deal.
"Call it blind optimism," Smith says, "but I never stopped
believing I was an impact player. In Dallas I was a system
player. In Philly I was hurt. Here I'm in the game all the time.
I blitz. I cover. I make plays. I'm part of an arsenal, and
nobody's going to work harder than me to make plays."
WILL RELOCATE IF PRICE IS RIGHT
Come February, if another team offers Packers coach Mike
Holmgren the lucrative coach-general manager job he craves, the
club that secures his services will have to give Green Bay only
a 1999 second-round draft choice as compensation. That's amazing
when you consider what the Jets had to give up to get Bill
Parcells from the Patriots after Super Bowl XXXI: a fourth-, a
third-, a second- and a first-round pick over three years
beginning in '97. Parcells came to the Jets with a .576 winning
percentage and three Super Bowl appearances. Entering this
season Holmgren had won at a .667 clip and coached in the last
two Super Bowls, and his team is a favorite to reach the title
game this season. So why would Holmgren come so cheap?
Several days after Green Bay's Super Bowl loss to Denver last
January, Packers president Bob Harlan told Holmgren the club
wouldn't release him from his contract, which runs through the
'99 season, to take a coach-G.M. job elsewhere. Convinced that
the Seahawks would have pursued him for the dual role if he had
been available, Holmgren was steamed. Although contractually
bound to the Packers, he felt he had been denied an opportunity
to advance his career and in the off-season sent in his agent,
Bob LaMonte, to negotiate the exit clause. Green Bay agreed to
The Packers, of course, hope Holmgren returns to Green Bay, but
they realize some teams will be desperate for a savior after the
season and may look in Holmgren's direction. One of those clubs
could be the expansion Browns, despite a clause in the player
stocking plan that prevents them from using draft choices to
pursue a coach who is under contract. Cleveland president Carmen
Policy said last Friday he'll press commissioner Paul Tagliabue
to throw out the clause on the grounds that it gives the other
29 teams an unfair advantage over the Browns.
If Holmgren gets the chance he covets, he may not come cheap
after all. At about $2.4 million a year, Parcells and the
Broncos' Mike Shanahan are the highest-paid coaches. Look for
LaMonte to seek twice that amount.
CINCINNATI JOB IS HIS TO LOSE
In early July teams like the Bears, Bengals, Rams and Saints
entered camp with great uncertainty at quarterback. Meanwhile,
Neil O'Donnell, an unspectacular but efficient passer who had
been released by the Jets on June 24, couldn't get a team to
express serious interest in signing him.
The summer is a horrible time for a quarterback to look for work
because of the amount of time it takes to learn the intricacies
of a new offense. "I didn't exactly have 15 teams beating down
my door," O'Donnell, 32, said last week. "There was one." On
July 8 the Bengals signed him to a four-year, $17 million
contract, handed him a six-inch-thick playbook and gave him
seven weeks to learn everything in it. When incumbent Jeff
Blake, who lost his starting job to Boomer Esiason (now retired)
late last season, continued to struggle during the preseason,
O'Donnell moved up to first string.
"I've always started on opening day, and I was thinking in
training camp, Stay a day ahead of everyone mentally, keep
learning and study hard every night," says O'Donnell. "And the
offense came to me."
After the first two games, which Cincinnati split, O'Donnell led
the league in completion percentage (.721). But on Sunday the
Bengals' bid for an upset of the Packers fell short, 13-6, when
O'Donnell was sacked three times and completed only 16 of 30
passes for 151 yards.
"I'm no savior, and I never have been," O'Donnell says. "But I've
won a lot of games in this league. I think my strength is being
smart with the football. Turnover ratio means so much in deciding
who wins and loses games, and I'm not going to hurt you there."
Quote of the Week
AT LEAST HE DELIVERED
Cardinals defensive end Simeon Rice hadn't had a sack since last
Nov. 2, but before Sunday's game against the Eagles he predicted
that he'd have a multiple-sack performance. Rice then got a pair
in Arizona's 17-3 win. Asked about his prediction after the game,
Rice said, "Just call me the great Mussolini."
AN EARLY EDGE FOR HOUSTON
If a straw vote by the owners were taken today, Houston would
probably edge Los Angeles as the city that would receive the
league's 32nd franchise, which is scheduled to begin play in
2001. Houston has a clear-cut prospective owner, Robert McNair,
president and CEO of Cogen Technologies (an independent power
producer), and has a plan for a $315 million, retractable-roof,
70,000-seat stadium. Los Angeles, on the other hand, has two
competing ownership groups and isn't close to finalizing a
stadium plan. Expansion is on the agenda of the NFL fall
meeting, on Oct. 27.... Former Denver tackle Gary Zimmerman is
working out rigorously at his home in Bend, Ore., and has told
his agent, Frank Bauer, that he will come out of retirement if
the Broncos ask him to. Expect the club to take Zimmerman up on
his offer if one of its starting tackles, Tony Jones or Harry
Swayne, gets hurt.... What a waste: In his last 17
regular-season games, the Lions' Barry Sanders has rushed for
2,324 yards (an average of 137 per game), but Detroit has gone
The End Zone
HE TALKS TO HIS PLANTS, TOO
Ravens quarterback Jim Harbaugh has tried just about everything
to relieve the aching in his ring finger and throwing elbow.
Baltimore running back Errict Rhett got him to try one more
thing to ease the pain: soothing words. Last week Harbaugh was
overheard saying to his injured finger, "We've got a home here.
The wife and kids like it. They want to stay. So you've got to
get better. There's a lot riding on this."
COLOR PHOTO: BILL CHAN Playmaker Smith got the Seahawks rolling with his third-quarter interception. [Darrin Smith with football]
COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER [Jerald Sowell with football evading Indianapolis Colts defender]
COLOR PHOTO: RIC FELD/AP Back on track O'Donnell didn't need much time to get a hold on the Bengals' starting job. [Neil O'Donnell in game]
1. The Dolts. How bad is Indianapolis? The Jets, who entered
Sunday's game ranked 29th in the league in rushing, piled up 302
yards on the ground, including 82 yards from fullback Jerald
Sowell (above), in a 44-6 thrashing of the Colts. "A disgrace,"
Indy president Bill Polian said afterward. "People aren't going
to pick up a paycheck to play like that."
2. Time Management. After an 0-2 start the Rams complained last
week that practice was too long, so coach Dick Vermeil shortened
the three-hour daily sessions by 45 minutes--but he did not cut
back on his team's preparation. He just ran various drills
concurrently and took away 30 minutes from the time allotted for
lunch. "If a guy thinks he can run faster by drinking pink
buttermilk," Vermeil said last week, "get him all the pink
buttermilk he can drink." Result: Rams 34, Bills 33.
3. The Norv Watch. In four-plus seasons Norv Turner's record as
Redskins coach stands 14 games below .500, and a loss to the
Broncos this Sunday would give Washington its first 0-4 start in
17 years. Turner's lucky to have Bill Clinton taking all the heat
in the nation's capital these days.
Even after doling out contracts totaling $82.7 million to free
agents Sean Gilbert, Doug Evans and William Floyd and
first-round draft choice Jason Peter, the Panthers stumbled out
of the gate 0-2. "It's not time to panic," Evans says. No? After
losses to the Falcons at home and to the Saints in New Orleans?
Here's how the four newcomers have fared in the early going.
Player, Position Contract Skinny
Sean Gilbert, DE Seven years, Two sacks against Saints,
$46.5 million but they rushed for 207 yards
Doug Evans, CB Five years, Beaten on 44- and 64-yard
$22.5 million touchdown passes
Jason Peter, DE Five years, Two games, three
$7.5 million tackles, one torn biceps
William Floyd, FB Four years, Threw wobbly end zone
$6.2 million interception against Saints