With both marquee quarterbacks injured, how far can the Vikings
At the end of the strangest football weekend of his life,
Vikings quarterback Brad Johnson could offer only a wry smile.
In 24 hours he had gone from second-fiddle passer to a player
who apparently had won back his starting job to a patient of a
Minneapolis hand specialist. By Sunday night Johnson had been
relegated to sideline spectator again, the result of a broken
right thumb he had suffered during an otherwise sterling relief
appearance in a 31-24 win over the Saints earlier that day.
"That's the way life goes, I guess," Johnson said in his soft
North Carolina drawl. "Hopefully I can come back to play Chicago
[on Dec. 6], then take a run at the playoffs."
In one afternoon the Vikings went from having the healthiest
quarterback situation in the league to one that's sickening.
Ready to play for the first time since he broke his right leg in
Week 2 against the Rams, Johnson was listed as backup to Randall
Cunningham against New Orleans. Cunningham, who had taken over
as the starter, was the NFL's highest-rated quarterback.
Yet as Vikings coach Dennis Green walked out of the Metrodome on
Sunday night, he didn't know if either of his passers would be
available for the stretch run. Cunningham was undergoing an MRI
on his injured right knee, and Johnson was on his way to the
hand specialist. "I've always said you need two good
quarterbacks," Green said glumly. "I just hope I don't need
He does. Johnson had his hand put in a cast. On Monday morning
Cunningham had arthroscopic surgery. The double hit could hardly
have come at a worse time for Minnesota, which, in a 12-day
stretch beginning this Sunday, plays host to Cincinnati and
Green Bay and then visits Dallas.
The Vikings' two healthy quarterbacks are Jay Fiedler, a
third-year pro out of Dartmouth who has thrown four NFL passes,
and Todd Bouman, a rookie out of St. Cloud State who has been
inactive for each of Minnesota's first nine games. Barring a
miraculous recovery by Cunningham--"I know I'll be back in a
week," Cunningham, a born-again Christian, said late Sunday.
"God will make me well"--Fiedler will get his first NFL start
against the Bengals. As of late Monday, Minnesota was hoping
that Cunningham would be healthy enough to start in the showdown
against the Packers on Nov. 22.
The bizarre injuries to Cunningham and Johnson occurred,
coincidentally, on Minnesota's third offensive plays of the
first and second halves. In the first quarter Saints defensive
end Jared Tomich jumped offside, and the Vikings tried to take
advantage of the free play. But Tomich pulled Cunningham down
with an awkward tug on the quarterback's right leg. Cunningham
also sprained his ankle on the play. In the third quarter
Johnson banged his passing hand on the helmet of a New Orleans
defender after releasing a throw. "I knew it was bad," Johnson
said. "I looked down, and it was bent sideways. But there was no
way I was coming out of the game."
From that point on Johnson completed 11 of 14 passes, though
free safety Sammy Knight's interception return for a touchdown
tied the game at 24-24. Johnson completed 12 of 13 third-down
passes, the most notable of which came with about five minutes
left in a tie game. Facing third-and-eight at the Saints 25,
Johnson was caught from behind by defensive tackle Wayne Martin.
But as he was falling, Johnson switched the ball from his right
hand to his left and shot-putted a pass to running back Leroy
Hoard, who raced to a 19-yard gain. Three plays later Hoard
scored the winning touchdown.
Though now 8-1, the Vikings face their first crisis. Who could
have imagined Minnesota being in such a predicament before
Sunday's game? "This could end up being like the '72 Dolphins,"
Johnson said last week. "Randall could be Earl Morrall."
Twenty-six years ago the 38-year-old Morrall replaced the
injured Bob Griese and led the Dolphins down the stretch of
their 14-0 season and into the playoffs. Griese returned in the
second half of the AFC title game and started the Super Bowl
victory over the Redskins. If Cunningham is Morrall, that means
Fiedler is Jim Del Gaizo, the Dolphins' third-string quarterback
that year. Now it's up to Fiedler--whose grandfather was famed
Boston Pops conductor Arthur Fiedler's second cousin--to keep
the fine-tuned Vikings offense playing smoothly.
"We won't change what we do to accommodate Jay," Minnesota
offensive coordinator Brian Billick said on Monday. "He was a
pentathlete in college. He knows all our routes well. You'll see
he throws a nice, deep ball. Cincinnati obviously will load up on
the run and force us to win with Jay. Great. Bring it on."
Bobby Taylor's New Deal
AVOIDING THE FRANCHISE TAG
In the wake of the pathetic Eagles' signing of Bobby Taylor to a
seven-year, $27.9 million extension, which made him the league's
fourth-highest-paid cornerback, here's what the two parties who
made the deal would like you to believe: Taylor felt loyalty to
the team that made him a second-round draft pick in '95, and
Philadelphia wanted to reward him for that loyalty.
In truth, here's what sealed the deal: The 2-7 Eagles were
desperate to make a move that their fans, who despise thrifty
owner Jeffrey Lurie, would perceive as a positive step. More
important, Taylor knew that if he didn't sign an extension,
Philadelphia could have slapped its franchise player tag on him
in February, severely limiting his earning potential. With such
a designation, the Eagles would have been obligated to offer
Taylor a one-year deal in '99 for about $4 million, the average
'98 salary of the five highest-paid corners in the league.
Taylor could have negotiated with other teams, but any club that
signed him would have had to send Philadelphia two first-round
draft choices or some other agreed-upon compensation.
"I knew they would have put the tag on me, and that's the last
thing you want," Taylor said last week. "You get no money up
front, and you'd never see free agency."
Packers wideout Antonio Freeman and Vikings middle linebacker Ed
McDaniel would be wise to follow Taylor's lead. Both are
free-agents-to-be who are sure to be labeled franchise players
if they don't get deals done before the end of the season.
Cade McNown's Low Rating
THE FLAWED VIEW OF QUARTERBACKS
One team's college scouting board, which rates seniors by
position, has a particularly rank ranking at quarterback. Listed
at No. 11--behind such big-timers as Mickey Fein of Maine, Ted
White of Howard and Mike Cook of William and Mary--is UCLA's
Cade McNown, who is only on an 18-game winning streak, is a
four-year starter in a league renowned for preparing NFL
quarterbacks, is running the same pass offense as the Packers'
and has guts and guile. At worst the 6'1", 214-pound McNown, who
has thrown for an average of 279.8 yards a game, with 17
touchdowns and eight interceptions this season, should be the
third-rated senior passer, behind Central Florida's Daunte
Culpepper and Syracuse's Donovan McNabb.
You would think that NFL scouts would have learned something
from watching Doug Flutie. The Steelers' director of football
operations, Tom Donahoe, who remains impressed with McNown,
says, "Some people are maybe concerned with his measurables:
You'd like a guy a little taller and maybe a little faster, but
he's been a very productive quarterback at a high-level program,
and you can't disregard that."
Oilers scout C.O. Brocato says, "He's got great touch, but what
I worry about is the zip he needs for the 15-yard out." After
watching McNown this fall, a scout for one NFC team wrote in his
report, "Arm's a little short for throws he'll have to make....
Probably a West Coast [offense]-type player who can move around
and make things happen."
Too many scouts operate on the assumption that every quarterback
prospect has to be 6'3" and have an Elway-like arm. McNown may
come up a couple of inches short, but consider this: This season
6'5" Colts rookie Peyton Manning has had 11 passes batted down
at the line, seven more than Flutie. As one personnel director
who likes McNown as a low first-round pick said last week, "If
Doug Flutie hasn't proven anything to us, we all ought to be
Last Saturday, after his 377-yard, four-touchdown game in the
rain at Oregon State, McNown said, "Wait until the combine. Then
they'll see my arm strength. And I'm not five eight, five nine."
OILERS CONSIDER HIRING HEADRICK
Commissioner Paul Tagliabue is pushing Oilers owner Bud Adams to
hire former Vikings president Roger Headrick to run the team.
Headrick interviewed with the club last week....
Raiders free safety Albert Lewis is bemused by those who doubt
that Oakland's defense is as good as its stats. The Raiders have
rocketed from last in the league last year to the No. 2 ranking
this season. "Well," Lewis says, "Mike Tyson doesn't think
Evander Holyfield's a good fighter either."
The End Zone
HE'S ELVIS IN NAME ONLY
Last week People named Chiefs quarterback Elvis Grbac its
sexiest athlete of the year. The news stunned his teammates.
"Was that the Braille edition?" one player wondered.
COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS Cunningham went from backup to top-rated quarterback in the league before getting hurt. [Randall Cunningham in game]
COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER [Emmitt Smith in game]
COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK For all that McNown has to offer, scouts can't stop talking about his lack of arm strength. [Cade McNown in game]
THE OLD EMMITT IS BACK
In a mostly empty Cowboys locker room last Friday, guard Nate
Newton turned to running back Emmitt Smith and said candidly, "I
can tell the difference in how you're running this year. Last
year you were running on your heels because you just weren't
sure [where to go]. It was my fault and the fault of the other
guys on the line. Now I see you running on the balls of your
feet. You've got confidence again." His 1,074 yards rushing last
season was his lowest total since his rookie year, in 1990, and
it looked as if the then 28-year-old Smith was past his prime.
This season, new coach Chan Gailey has shown his confidence in
Smith by calling more runs to the outside. On plays to the
inside, Smith is more aggressive and is finding wide alleys to
run through thanks to the dominant play of Newton and left
tackle Larry Allen. On Sunday, in the Cowboys' 16-6 win over the
Giants, Smith carried 29 times for 163 yards--his biggest
rushing day since Oct. 29, 1995, when he had 167 yards against
the Falcons--and passed Tony Dorsett to become Dallas's career
rushing leader, with 12,105 yards. Now Smith, in his ninth
season, needs 208 yards to pass Jim Brown, who quit after nine
seasons, and move into fifth place on the alltime rushing list.
Here's how Smith's 1998 totals stack up against his past top
performances nine games into a season.
YEAR YARDS RUSHES AVG. PER RUSH
1995 1,137 216 5.3
1992 963 219 4.4
1994 911 219 4.2
1998 871 194 4.5
1991 829 186 4.5
1. GUT CHECK Here's how great the 49ers have it in the NFC West:
On Sunday they sat Steve Young because of an abdominal pull,
committed six turnovers and still beat the Panthers 25-23. Now
they travel to 7-2 Atlanta. Take away a one-point Falcons win in
1995, and the Niners have won eight meetings between the two
teams since 1994 by an average of almost 25 points. Time for the
Falcons to prove they belong.
2. ENIS'S PLIGHT Lost for the season after tearing the ACL in
his left knee during the Bears' 20-12 loss to the Rams, Chicago
running back Curtis Enis might now regret his decision this
summer to turn down a six-year deal with a $7.2 million signing
bonus. Instead, Enis agreed to a three-year pact with $3.6
million up front because he wanted to be able to test free
agency earlier. Now he'll be fortunate to be a starter in the
third year of his contract.
3. HARDLY A NEW LEAF During the Chargers' bye week at the end of
October, rookie quarterback Ryan Leaf returned to his college
haunts at Washington State and, according to published reports,
threw beer on two students, made obscene gestures and was thrown
out of two bars and a convenience store. Leaf, who admits he and
some old friends visited "places we used to frequent to have a
good time," denies all the allegations of misbehavior. Leaf also
looks immature on the football field--four completions in 15
attempts against the Broncos on Sunday--so it's no wonder that
the Chargers are crying in their beer about their supposed
franchise savior. "You've got to constantly work on him about
being professional and having class," says coach June Jones.