Down to the Wire
The outcome of the AFC East may hinge on who stays the healthiest
Just another manic Sunday. That's what we witnessed last weekend
in the AFC East. The Colts lost a nail-biter to an underdog led
by an unheralded running back. The Bills won in Kansas City,
thanks in part to a replay reversal. The Jets, who were on a
three-game skid, defeated Miami, which had won three straight, in
such a snoozefest that the most dramatic moment of the day came
30 minutes after the game. That's when a media throng crowded
around a locker to hear every syllable from the injured Dolphin
whose availability may determine the winner of the league's most
So it has come to this. The outcome of the AFC East may be riding
on the health of quarterback Jay Fiedler, a former Ivy League
player who three years ago was offering to pay his own way to get
an NFL tryout. Fiedler went out on Miami's first snap with a
pinched nerve in his neck after being sacked by linebacker Mo
Lewis. Muscle spasms prevented him from returning. Then the
Dolphins' running game crashed when Lamar Smith went down with a
strained hamstring in the second quarter. It was only a matter of
time before the Jets ran to a 20-3 rout.
When the day was done, the Dolphins (8-3) were a game up on the
Bills, Colts and Jets. "This won't be decided until Santa comes
down the chimney," said Jets coach Al Groh. Let's handicap the
four-team horse race.
Dolphins (remaining games: at Indianapolis, at Buffalo, Tampa
Bay, Indianapolis, at New England). They have a tough schedule
and no margin for error. When the efficient Fiedler (no turnovers
in his last three starts) and Smith got injured, Miami was in
serious trouble because it has virtually no depth at either
position. Both players are expected back on Sunday. "This isn't a
season-ending thing," Fiedler said of his pinched nerve. "I'll be
back." He'd better be. After begging for a job since graduating
from Dartmouth in 1994, Fiedler is in his first year as a
starter, and his tools--a surprisingly good arm, excellent smarts,
nice touch, good mobility, poise in the pocket--have won over a
skeptical team and its fans. "He has earned my confidence to
throw any ball throughout the game," says Miami offensive
coordinator Chan Gailey.
Colts (Miami, at Jets, Buffalo, at Miami, Minnesota). Losses at
frigid Chicago and Green Bay in the last three weeks suggest that
Indianapolis needs to avoid a playoff trip to, say, Buffalo or
Denver. But getting a home playoff game will be difficult because
Indy's defense is the weakest in the division. On Sunday the
Packers' Ahman Green steamrolled the Colts for 153 yards on the
ground. Quarterback Peyton Manning can't win 38-35 shoot-outs
Bills (at Tampa Bay, Miami, at Indianapolis, New England, at
Seattle). Buffalo is a gutsy team with a stout defense that is
playing well enough to overcome erratic quarterbacking and a
running game that has been nonexistent. However, the Bills are
only 2-3 in the division, a tiebreaking negative. The biggest
positive for them is that they close with New England and
Jets (Chicago, Indianapolis, at Oakland, Detroit, at Baltimore).
Quarterback Vinny Testaverde is struggling without big target
Keyshawn Johnson. Testaverde has thrown 11 interceptions in the
last five games, and the pass rush is lacking. While that doesn't
sound good, remember that the Jets are the best streetfighters of
the four teams.
The call here: The Dolphins win their last three to take the
division. The Colts lose three of their last five to drop out at
9-7, while the Ravens land one of the wild cards. The Bills and
the Jets, along with the Broncos, finish 10-6, but New York loses
out on the conference tiebreaker.
Minorities Can't Even Get a Call
Before owners and general managers begin searching for a head
coach, they often seek out the wise men of the coaching
profession for recommendations. Bucs coach Tony Dungy, who in
1996 took over a team that had endured 13 consecutive losing
seasons and turned it into a Super Bowl contender, would seem to
be a perfect guy to contact. Dungy, however, said last week that
he has never gotten a call from a club executive asking for a
list of assistants who deserve to be considered for the top job.
He said he called officials from two teams last year imploring
them to speak with Tampa Bay assistant head coach Herman Edwards
about their coaching vacancies. Neither did.
Edwards, like Dungy, is black. Since the Bucs hired Dungy, 38 of
the 39 head-coaching hires have been white. The exception was Ray
Rhodes, who after four years as coach of the Eagles was hired in
Green Bay in early 1999. He lasted only one season.
"I thought [my hiring] would be a watershed event," says Dungy.
"There was a long fact-finding process by the Bucs, with a list
of candidates. And the team has had some success. I thought that
would change how coaches are hired. But the fact is that only one
other minority coach has gotten a chance while practically the
entire league has turned over coaching staffs, some teams twice.
What seems to be happening is that people in control pick up the
phone and call Bill Walsh, Jimmy Johnson, George Seifert and Bill
Parcells and ask, 'Who's good?'"
Some black assistants think the hiring process is a sham. "Teams
have found a way not to interview us," says Redskins passing game
coordinator Terry Robiskie. To make his point, Robiskie cited
five teams--the Dolphins, Jets, Bengals, Cardinals and Lions--who
have filled openings by promoting white coaches from within their
own ranks. Dave Wannstedt was hired by Miami after Johnson
anointed him as his successor. Parcells did the same thing for Al
Groh in New York. Dick LeBeau was promoted in Cincinnati when
Bruce Coslet resigned on Sept. 25, and Dave McGinnis took over in
Arizona when Vince Tobin was fired on Oct. 23; both are expected
to get long-term contracts. The Lions chose assistant head coach
Gary Moeller over two coordinators (one of them black) when Bobby
Ross resigned on Nov. 6, and they handed Moeller a three-year
"Let's say the Ravens have a lot of success this year," says
Robiskie, "and their defense keeps playing lights out. There's
[coordinator] Marvin Lewis, who has built that defense from the
ground up. What jobs will there be for him even to interview
Johnson Likes Titans, Rams
Tidbits from a 70-minute chat with former Cowboys and Dolphins
coach Jimmy Johnson:
On the NFL race: "I've watched more football this fall, college
and pro, than I ever have. In the AFC it's easy. Someone's going
to have to go to Tennessee and win, because with an easy schedule
there's no way the Titans won't earn home field advantage. The
NFC's muddied. I think St. Louis bringing Bud Carson back to run
the defense will pay big dividends."
On his failure to take the Dolphins to the Super Bowl: "Now,
remember. I said we would make a run at the Super Bowl. We made
the playoffs the last three years, and I left the team in
excellent shape for the future. People have dumped so much [Dan]
Marino stuff on me that I won't rehash it. But I do wish we could
have won a Super Bowl for Dan."
On his coaching future: "Never say never, but it's 99.9 percent
sure I'll never coach again."
Trades Keep Green Bay Alive
Packers general manager Ron Wolf is one of the few
wheeler-dealers in the trade-loathing NFL. "Whenever I want to
deal one of our players," Saints counterpart Randy Mueller says,
"the first call I make is to Ron. He's always willing to deal."
Give Wolf a big assist for Green Bay's 26-24 upset of the Colts
in the swirling snow at Lambeau Field, a victory that kept the
5-6 Packers in the playoff race. On April 14, Wolf made what
seemed an inconsequential trade, sending nickel cornerback Fred
Vincent and a sixth-round draft choice to the Seahawks for backup
running back Ahman Green and a fifth-round pick. Then a week
before the season, in another seemingly forgettable deal, he sent
a conditional middle-round selection to the Eagles for return
specialist Allen Rossum. In essence, Wolf traded a low draft
choice and the man projected to be Green Bay's fourth cornerback
for Green and a nickelback who is also the NFC's third-rated kick
On Sunday, Green led the Packers with 153 yards on 24 carries,
both career highs. Further, when the Colts scored to close to
19-17, Rossum returned a kickoff 92 yards for the touchdown that
swung the momentum back Green Bay's way.
"Trading," Wolf says, "is the only way to improve your team
without overpaying for overrated players." Lack of trading, he
says, "is the one thing in this league that makes no sense."
Send your pro football questions for Peter King's mailbag and
read more from Paul Zimmerman at cnnsi.com/football.
COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO The Jets' defense has had to pick up the slack for Testaverde, while Manning (opposite) has had to pile up plenty of points.
COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHEMEYER [See caption above]
The Bucs are growing impatient, and rightfully so, with
quarterback Shaun King, whose two interceptions and 91 passing
yards crippled Tampa Bay in a 13-10 loss at Chicago. "He's a pro
player," said Bucs guard Frank Middleton afterward. "All these
excuses about he's a young player--the hell with that. I've got to
make the blocks, he's got to make the passes."...
In the 45 games that Marc Trestman has been the offensive
coordinator in Arizona, the Cardinals have never scored on their
Shopping for a quarterback in the off-season? The Rams will seek
first-, second- and third-round draft picks for Trent Green.
That's what the Redskins paid the Vikings to get Brad Johnson in
1999. The Packers want two first-round selections for
25-year-old Matt Hasselbeck, but that's too high a price for an
Minnesota coach Dennis Green is being a team player about the
realignment that will occur when the league splits into eight
four-team divisions in 2002. The Vikings could end up in the NFC
West, which infuriates fans in the Twin Cities, who stand to
lose games against traditional rivals such as the Packers and
the Bears. "If we're picked to move, we'll have to sacrifice,"
Green says. With the expansion team in Houston apparently bound
for the AFC Central, Seattle is the leading candidate to switch
conferences, which would balance the NFC and AFC at 16 teams
apiece. The Seahawks could join the Vikes in the NFC West, along
with the 49ers and the Cardinals....
The XFL's Chicago Enforcers want 41-year-old quarterback Jim
McMahon to come out of retirement as a player-coach.