SPIRIT OF GIVING
This season will be remembered for its lack of a dominating
Nineteen ninety-eight may be remembered as the year that respect
for game officials hit an alltime low. Or the year that Peyton
Manning began his march to Canton. Or the year that the value of
franchises went through the roof--a $530 million price tag on the
expansion team in Cleveland, the possible $700 million sale of
the Redskins and $17.6 billion in network TV contracts. Or
perhaps the year that the Broncos and the Vikings positioned
themselves to play one of the best Super Bowls of all time.
One thing that '98 won't be remembered for is dominating defense.
Quick: Name the three teams that lead the NFL in total defense
entering the last week of the regular season. The 5-10 Chargers
are on top, followed by the 10-5 Dolphins and the 7-8 Bucs. San
Diego is first in the league against the run, but the Chargers
are eighth against the pass, 20th in points allowed and 18th in
sacks. You call that great defense?
Putting a quality unit on the field requires not only Pro
Bowl-caliber players but also depth to offset injuries and
specialists to counter the multiple sets that have become the
norm for offenses today. However, teams can afford to pay top
dollar to only so many players, and even backups opt to go where
the money is instead of sticking with a proven winner. "You can't
stockpile players anymore," says Bills offensive coordinator Joe
Pendry. "The ['85] Bears had great players at every position on
defense, and they had a bench. Now, even if you get all those
great starters, nobody's got a bench, and you're going to need
one before the season's over."
Lacking depth, good defenses, by necessity, have become
increasingly complex. The Jets are 11-4 in large part because of
their ability to mix up their looks: They've played a 3-4, a 4-3
and even a 4-4 with only three defensive backs on regular downs,
which is virtually unheard of in today's game. "They make you
think more than you want to think, trying to figure out who's
playing what position," says Panthers quarterback Steve
Beuerlein. "They have so many personnel packages."
Here are four other trends that emerged this year:
KICKING ENTERED THE GOLDEN AGE. No aspect of the game has
improved as meteorically in recent years as field goal accuracy.
In 1986 kickers made 68.6% of their field goal attempts; heading
into the final week of this season, the conversion rate is
79.9%, and only five kickers are below 70%.
The 1994 rule change that returned the ball to the spot of a
missed field goal instead of to the line of scrimmage discouraged
many coaches from attempting long field goals. Nevertheless,
kickers are now better coached and less flaky. There are stronger
legs doing the work, too. In '94, when the league moved the
kickoff from the 35- to the 30-yard line, 7% of the kickoffs went
for touchbacks; this year that number is up to 17%.
THE ZONE BLITZ ALL BUT DISAPPEARED. Teams still employ the scheme
that drops linemen into short pass-coverage zones while
linebackers and/or defensive backs blitz, but they aren't running
it as much as they did a couple of years ago. Why? It takes too
long for young players to master the zone blitz, quarterbacks are
more mobile, and offensive coordinators are countering with
four-wideout sets that give the passer more quick options. The
Panthers ran the scheme 45% of the time in '96 using smart,
experienced linebackers and linemen. Not so with a new cast this
year: On 56 plays against the Bills on Oct. 25, Carolina called
two zone blitzes. "Offenses are spreading the field more, and
defenses will have to find a way to match that," says Patriots
quarterback Drew Bledsoe.
MOBILE QUARTERBACKS HIT IT BIG. The Vikings' Randall Cunningham
has the league's top quarterback rating. Doug Flutie unexpectedly
guided the Bills into the playoffs. Even Manning, who was
supposed to have feet of concrete, moves and rolls like a Steve
Young wannabe; against the Ravens on Nov. 29, Manning completed
13 of 16 passes when flushed out of the pocket or throwing on the
run. More than ever, scouts are looking at college passers who
can improvise--Kansas State's Michael Bishop, UCLA's Cade McNown
and Syracuse's Donovan McNabb, to name three--as high-round draft
QUALITY CORNERBACKS BECAME SCARCE. In the fourth quarter of the
Giants-Broncos game on Dec. 13, Denver was fighting to keep its
perfect season intact. New York saw dimeback Tito Paul--released
in the off-season by a Bengals team that ranked 29th in pass
defense in '97--in single coverage on wideout Amani Toomer. Bingo.
Toomer burned Paul for the winning 37-yard touchdown. "Week after
week," says Packers general manager Ron Wolf, "it becomes more
glaring how the lack of defensive backs is hurting teams in this
league. Just look at Dallas."
In their first nine games, before cornerback Deion Sanders
sprained his left big toe, the Cowboys surrendered 13 points a
game; in the next five games, mostly without Sanders, Dallas
gave up an average of 28 points. On Nov. 15 the Raiders lost
cornerback Eric Allen from a defense that was ranked first in
the league. During a recent four-game stretch, Oakland gave up
40, 29, 27 and 44 points. "We're turning it over more now," says
Raiders coach Jon Gruden, "but we miss Eric Allen. A lot."
San Francisco Sags
THE OLD NINERS AREN'T THE SAME
In the wake of their 24-21 loss to the Patriots on Sunday, the
49ers limped out of their locker room at Foxboro Stadium a
battered and confused team. Strong safety Tim McDonald, 33, an
ice pack taped to his ribs, winced as he walked. Steve Young, 37
and gimping along like Walter Brennan, didn't know the extent of
the damage to his left knee, which was screwed into the turf on
San Francisco's last play from scrimmage. With a league-high 13
players over 30 and ticketed for a wild-card game against a
Packers team that has knocked them out of the playoffs the past
three years, the Niners hardly look as if they have the vigor to
make a playoff run.
They certainly won't if the offense plays as it did against New
England. San Francisco still has potent offensive weapons,
including the most efficient quarterback and the most enduring
passing attack in NFL history. But after racking up 400 yards en
route to a 21-14 lead over the Patriots after three quarters, the
49ers had only 10 yards and one first down in the fourth. On
three straight possessions the Niners were as predictable as a
Republican impeachment vote: They ran Garrison Hearst on first
and second downs and tried to throw on third. Young's first pass
was intercepted. He was sacked the two other times he dropped
"On both sides of the ball," McDonald said, "we feel our way too
much rather than just attacking. I definitely think we have a run
in us, and I think it's good we've got the Packers right off.
It'll get us focused. We've got to get over that hurdle if we're
going to do anything in the playoffs."
The Bills Stay Put
WILSON GETS HIS DUE
It didn't get big headlines outside of Buffalo, but Bills owner
Ralph Wilson pulled off one of the biggest feats this season:
finding a way to sell $11 million in luxury seating, thereby
guaranteeing that the club would receive state funding for a
major refurbishing of Rich Stadium. Wilson lives in Detroit and
has only emotional ties to Buffalo. Other teams have pulled up
stakes and struck sweetheart deals in Baltimore, Nashville and
Hartford, but Wilson hired a marketing and sales force of 23 for
"People laugh at us owners if we say we're not in it for the
money," Wilson says. "Let them laugh. I'm not in it for the
money. I love the game. I never asked for a $350 million stadium,
just to try to be somewhat competitive with everybody else. Plus,
I love this community. Plants are closing. Businesses are being
shuttered. Taxes are high. Buffalo needs the Bills."
Buffalo knows it needs Wilson too. Last Saturday, one day after
Wilson signed a 15-year lease that will keep his team in Buffalo
through 2013, the Bills played their first game in newly named
Ralph Wilson Stadium.
DALLAS ANYTHING BUT PERFECT
The Cowboys, who staggered to their sixth division title in
seven years by virtue of a 13-9 win over the Eagles, need a
victory over the Redskins on Sunday to become the first NFC East
team to go through division play undefeated--a dubious
achievement given the state of the division and the fact that
Dallas hasn't looked anything like a playoff team in the past
month. The Cowboys have won two games out of the division,
against the 3-12 Panthers and the 8-7 Seahawks....
Talks the 49ers have had with coach Steve Mariucci about
extending his contract through 2005 have stalled. "It's not me,"
a grim-faced Mariucci, who has three years left on his current
deal, said on Sunday. Could minions of suspended owner Eddie
DeBartolo, who could return to power in February, be hoping to
lure Packers coach Mike Holmgren back after the season? ...
Some treasure could be found this off-season among the ranks
of the restricted free agents, the three-year veterans whose
contracts have expired but whose teams have the opportunity to
match another club's offer. The Jets got running back Curtis
Martin last March for first- and third-round picks after the Pats
declined to match a six-year, $36 million contract. Martin has
had seven 100-yard games and has rushed for eight touchdowns this
season. This year's restricted free-agent gems: Oilers tackle Jon
Runyan, Patriots outside linebacker Tedy Bruschi, Chiefs
defensive tackle Tom Barndt and 49ers wideout Terrell Owens.
The End Zone
O COME ALL YE ZEBRAS
Referee Bob McElwee's officiating crew visited Children's
Hospital in Boston last Saturday. Stephen Harling, a 21-year-old
cancer patient, buttonholed McElwee and said, "You've got to have
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH The 5-10 Chargers may lead the league in total defense, but that isn't saying much these days. [Gary Brown running with ball against Chargers defense]
COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS Hearst (20) and the predictable Niners ran into a brick wall against the Patriots. [Garrison Hearst being tackled]
COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS [Marshall Faulk in game]
Here's how several NFL issues and personnel decisions could play
out in the off-season...and beyond.
1. White on White The league has put together an embarrassing
streak of not hiring a minority to fill any of its last 18 head
coaching vacancies. Expect seven of the teams that will be
shopping for new coaches--the Ravens, Panthers, Browns, Packers,
Eagles, Chargers and Seahawks--to make lily-white appointments.
2. Instant Success At the NFL's annual meeting in March, replay
is voted back in after an eight-year absence. An eye-in-the-sky
official will have 45 seconds to review a questionable call and
render a decision. Coaches will not have to issue challenges or
have anything else to do with replay.
3. He Doesn't Know the Meaning of the Word "Quit" After a 40-33
Super Bowl loss to the Vikings, followed by 27 rounds of golf on
three continents, John Elway decides to play the 1999 season. "I
can't bear the thought of working in TV," he says.
4. From the Ground Up The Browns get a lot of nothing out of the
Feb. 9 expansion draft but select Kentucky quarterback Tim Couch
in the April 17 college draft, deal for a couple of
linebackers--disgruntled Derrick Thomas of the Chiefs and hometown
hero Chris Spielman of the Bills--and spend like crazy in the
free-agent market. Cleveland goes 6-10 in its first season back
in the league.
5. It's Only Money The '99 salary cap will be about $59 million
per team. San Francisco enters the off-season having to shed
about $21 million of its cap load and facing the prospect of
(gulp) having to match another team's multimillion-dollar offer
to restricted free-agent wideout Terrell Owens.
6. Seeing Red Laser pointers become a leaguewide nuisance.
Players at the Metrodome in Minneapolis and Lambeau Field in
Green Bay have already been pestered by these needlessly
mass-produced toys. Wait until truly obnoxious fans get hold of
7. The Purple's Choice The Vikings go with Randall Cunningham as
their starting quarterback over Brad Johnson, signing the
free-agent Cunningham to a $6 million-a-year deal and trading
Johnson to St. Louis for the Rams' first- and third-round picks
in the '99 draft.
8. Speaking of Quarterbacks...The Raiders stick with Jeff
George. Dumb idea, giving George a contract-mandated $5 million
bonus? Not as dumb as going to camp with an unproven free agent.
9. They Love L.A. Owners address the absurdity of life without
Los Angeles and Boston by awarding the league's 32nd franchise to
former Hollywood superagent Michael Ovitz and his ownership
stable of stars. Ovitz's first big decision: whether to hire Ron
Wolf or Harrison Ford as the general manager of the Los Angeles
10. Coach of the Century Super Bowl XXXIV, Jan. 30, 2000, at the
Georgia Dome: Jets 30, Packers 20. New York coach Bill Parcells
demands not to be on the cover of SI, retires, hands the job to
defensive mastermind Bill Belichick, buys a minor league baseball
team and immediately signs Pepper Johnson to play centerfield.
LINING UP TO CASH IN
Here are the potential free agents who are expected to hit the
biggest jackpots in the off-season. Even if some of them re-sign
with their teams before they can test the market beginning on
Feb. 12, or if they are declared franchise players by their
clubs, these guys can expect a hefty jump in their paychecks.
1. Randall Cunningham, QB, Vikings
With all that firepower around him, he'd be crazy to leave
Minnesota--and the Vikings would be crazy to let him go
2. Marshall Faulk (above), RB, Colts
Best all-around back in the game, sure to have franchise tag
slapped on him by desperate Indianapolis
3. Korey Stringer, T, Vikings
Expansion Browns could make him the league's highest-paid
offensive lineman with $6 million annual package
4. Carnell Lake, CB-S, Steelers
Most versatile defensive back of the '90s should be a hot
commodity, but his age, 31, might scare some
5. Antonio Freeman, WR, Packers
This deep threat gambled by signing only a one-year deal in
off-season and is now poised to cash in
6. Dale Carter, CB, Chiefs
Hurt a little by his mediocre season, but he remains one of the
league's best cover guys
7. Orlando Brown, T, Ravens
Underachiever needs disciplinarian to whip his 340-pound body
8. Ed McDaniel, LB, Vikings
Excellent playmaker is sometimes a forgotten man on same defense
with All-Pro tackle John Randle
9. Carl Pickens, WR, Bengals
No one questions talent of a receiver who has caught 402 balls
since the start of the '94 season, but he'll be hurt by me-first
10. (tie) Earl Dotson, T, Packers, and Adam Timmerman, G, Packers
Green Bay needs to re-sign at least one of the players who
comprise the right side of Brett Favre's line