LONG, HARD CLIMB
The Jets are discovering how difficult it is to get to the next
Rebuilding in the NFL usually goes something like this: You go
from bad to being a team that loses a lot of close games, then
to 9-7, next to 10 wins and a wild-card playoff spot, and
finally to 11 or 12 victories and far into the postseason.
When the Jets skipped a stage last year, improving from 1-15 to
9-7 in Bill Parcells' first season as coach, great expectations
got greater. So after New York lost two of its first three games
in '98, Parcells gathered his players and told them the ugly
truth. "It's a lot harder to go from nine wins to 10 or 11
wins," he said, "than it was to go from one win to nine. Now
you'll get viewed differently every week. Teams will compete
against you harder. If you're not ready, you won't even make it
back to nine, never mind get better."
"Probably the most important thing he'll say to us all year,"
guard Todd Burger said on Sunday in the wake of the Jets'
physical 20-9 win over the Dolphins. "Winning nine got the guys
believing they'd be competitive every Sunday, automatically. Now
we know it'll take more."
Much more. Although they knocked Miami from the ranks of the
undefeated, the Jets, in terms of talent, are nothing more than
a middle-of-the-road team that has to scratch by on defensive
moxie and special teams effort. They have a two-headed
quarterback (occasionally effective Vinny Testaverde,
occasionally healthy Glenn Foley), which means they really don't
have one. This team will win largely on guts. Walking through
the locker room after Sunday's game, Parcells conjured up a
memory from a decade ago. "It's like when I coached the Giants,"
he said, "and we'd go in to play the Cardinals or somebody like
that, and if we weren't ready to play, it'd be a three-point
game instead of 20. We have to play our best game every week to
have a chance."
Funny he should mention the Giants. Sunday's game brought to
mind the way football used to be played in the NFC East, and
it's no coincidence that both coaches are NFC East alumni.
Parcells continually fed the ball to Curtis Martin, who had 36
carries. (Martin, slowed by injuries in two of his first four
years, is on pace to run the ball a league-record 416 times this
season.) On the other side, Dolphins coach Jimmy Johnson, late
of the Cowboys, is trying to install a ball-control offense of
his own. Since Dan Marino arrived in Miami in 1983, no NFL team
has run for fewer yards and passed for more than the Dolphins,
but this season 29 quarterbacks have more passing yardage than
Marino (132 per game). It's definitely a new approach for Miami,
and sometimes a rocky one--against the Jets the Dolphins gained
just 34 yards on 15 carries.
During the week Johnson broke out the heavy motivational
artillery, showing a tape of the 1985 middleweight title fight
between Marvin Hagler and Thomas Hearns. Johnson told his
players that when they thought they had nothing left, they had
to reach back and find some strength, as Hagler did when he was
being hammered by Hearns early in the fight. Yes, Johnson had
brought out his A speech in preparation for the 1-2 Jets.
"Last year," said New York linebacker Dwayne Gordon, "teams
said, 'Oh, we've got the Jets. We'll have to play a half.' That
helped us. Now they know they'll have a war."
A Pause to Reflect
SO MUCH FOR PARITY
Now that every team has played at least four games, here are
1. The Broncos stand alone atop the sport. Denver is so good
that it can lose first-ballot Hall of Famer John Elway for 13
quarters and still win easily. The Broncos have played 300
minutes this season and have trailed for all of 4:23. Their
average margin of victory is 17.8 points. In this ever-changing
game, it's rare when the winner of the Super Bowl looks
significantly better the next season. Ranking just below the
Broncos are the Packers, 49ers, Jaguars, Vikings, Steelers,
Patriots, Dolphins and Chiefs, but from there the drop is
2. For all their offensive might, the Packers have the
least-feared running game in the league. Dorsey Levens (broken
right leg) might be out for the year, Travis Jervey has been
slowed by a bum hamstring, and off-season free-agent pickup
Raymont Harris is not much more than a plow horse. Add to this
mix 228-pound tweener Darick Holmes, who was acquired last week
in a trade with the Bills after starting just three games over
the last three years, and this is some motley crew.
3. Need a pass rush? Look to the 30-and-over crowd. The NFL sack
leaders through Sunday--the Panthers' Kevin Greene (nine sacks),
the Chiefs' Derrick Thomas and the Seahawks' Michael Sinclair
(seven each) and the Packers' Reggie White (5 1/2)--are 36, 31,
30 and 36 years old, respectively. The first four defensive ends
or outside linebackers taken in this year's draft (the
Cardinals' Andre Wadsworth, the Rams' Grant Wistrom, the
Cowboys' Greg Ellis and the Panthers' Jason Peter) have combined
for five sacks.
4. The once proud Eagles have disintegrated. They're winless,
having dropped their first five games by an average of 17
points. Philadelphia coach Ray Rhodes and defensive coordinator
Emmitt Thomas, two admired defensive minds, watched on Sunday as
the Broncos piled up 28 points and 242 yards in the first 14
minutes. "Bubby [Brister] was all happy he threw four touchdown
passes," Broncos tight end Shannon Sharpe said after the Eagles
had absorbed a 41-16 beating. "Hey, I told him, I could have
thrown three against that team."
MANY, MANY HAPPY RETURNS
Last year 29 punts or kickoffs were returned for touchdowns in
the NFL; through five weeks this season, 15 had already been
brought back for scores. One of the more scintillating return
men has been the Ravens' Jermaine Lewis, who has two touchdowns
on 10 punt returns (and a 23.1-yard average), giving him four in
his last 24 punt returns.
Lewis, a 1996 fifth-round draft pick out of Maryland, put
himself through a clever off-season regimen, fielding about 200
balls a week fed into a punting machine by Baltimore special
teams coach Scott O'Brien. "It's so important for a return man
to feel confident," O'Brien says. "Jermaine would catch one
ball, put it [under his arm]; catch a second one, put it away;
catch a third, put it away; and then catch a fourth. He'd have
all these balls in his arms and keep trying to catch more. He
got so confident catching and taking off by making it hard on
himself in practice."
A ROUGH GO FOR RAMS' BRUCE
Rams coach Dick Vermeil says wideout Isaac Bruce is the best
player he has ever coached, but team officials are frustrated by
Bruce's chronically sore hamstrings, which have caused him to
miss six of the 20 games that St. Louis has played under
Vermeil.... As the Oct. 13 trading deadline approaches, you'll
hear rumors that the Eagles are trading running back Charlie
Garner to the Chiefs, but that won't happen unless Kansas City
is willing to part with a second-round draft pick.... Raiders
kicker Greg Davis, whose 18 kickoffs on average have wobbled
only to the opponent's 13-yard line, is moaning about the
coaching staff's auditioning players for his job. "Not only am I
playing against the other team," he says, "but I also have to
fight for the support of my teammates. Now it's 10 times harder
for me to do my job. And it's harder on my family. I have to
prove myself to everybody on every kick. It's dreadfully hard."
Violins, please.... There is growing doubt around the NFL that
John Kent Cooke can come up with the more than $400 million it
will take to buy the Redskins from his father's estate. Looks as
though he'll have to form a consortium and be a partner or sell
the team outright.
The End Zone
DANIELS' DIRTY LITTLE SECRET
Reminiscing in the locker room last week about his days at
Bloomfield (Conn.) High, Cardinals tackle Jerome Daniels
recalled the time he blocked two East Hartford High female
defensive linemen. Upon hearing Daniels' story, center Mike
Devlin said, "I would never, ever, ever, ever let anyone know
COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS Ray Mickens (24) and the Jets limited O.J. McDuffie and the Dolphins to 153 total yards.
1. The Quarter Back The Broncos' Terrell Davis has three
100-yard rushing quarters this season. Only Jim Brown (104.3)
has had a career average of at least 100 yards on the ground per
game; in three-plus seasons Davis has averaged 101.2. He is 25,
and, barring catastrophic injury or the loss of his migraine
medicine, he can start working on his speech for Canton.
2. A Pathetic Waste Four weeks ago Redskins defensive tackle
Dana Stubblefield got in coach Norv Turner's face and asked what
he was going to do about the team's smelly play. Hey Stubby: The
fish stinks from the head. The Skins paid you and fellow tackle
Dan Wilkinson $13 million in signing bonuses alone during the
off-season, and the two of you have combined for 30 solo tackles
and 2 1/2 sacks. How bad is the defense? Leading 24-10 midway
through the fourth quarter on Sunday and pinned at their own
four-yard line, the Cowboys called 11 straight running plays,
the last a six-yard touchdown run by Chris Warren, who along
with Emmitt Smith ran for more than 100 yards.
3. Coming Attractions In the span of 35 days beginning this
Monday night, Jacksonville, which used to be a big Dolphins town,
plays its two biggest home games ever: against the Dolphins and