LIKE IT OR NOT, THE SALARY CAP BROUGHT PARITY TO THE LEAGUE IN '97--OUR ANNUAL AWARDS--TWO CLASS ACTS BID FAREWELL TO THE GAME

December 29, 1997

LEVELING THE FIELD

The 78th NFL season got its identity on Nov. 16, in a domed
stadium in the middle of Indiana, where the 0-10 Colts met the
Super Bowl champion Packers, who had won five straight games.
The final score: Indianapolis 41, Green Bay 38.

The Oilers were making a run for the playoffs when they traveled
to Cincinnati to meet the going-nowhere Bengals on Dec. 4.
Midway through the second quarter the Bengals led 28-0 en route
to a 41-14 win. The Dolphins could have clinched a playoff spot
with a victory at Indianapolis on Dec. 14. They lost 41-0. The
Saints won six games, the Falcons seven, the Jets nine, the Bucs
10. Is the earth still on its axis?

"No longer will San Francisco's third string be better than most
teams' first unit," Broncos coach Mike Shanahan said in early
December. "It's impossible. The [salary] cap has caught up to
everybody." Shanahan said this just before his team went from
dominant to defenseless, surrendering 69 points in consecutive
losses at Pittsburgh and San Francisco.

Now we hear that owners have begun discussions on a bylaw that
would create even greater parity by keeping teams from
circumventing the cap. The proposal would limit the total a team
could commit in salaries and signing bonuses in any one year to
115% of the cap. For cap purposes, the plan would allow for the
continued spreading of a signing bonus over the life of a
player's contract, but it would prevent an owner from doing what
the Cowboys' Jerry Jones did in 1995, when, with a $37 million
cap, he paid out $80 million in salaries and signing bonuses. If
the '98 salary cap is, say, $47 million, an owner wouldn't be
able to spend more than $54 million. The Cowboys and other
free-wheeling clubs would have to be more judicious with their
spending.

Which leads us back to the Packers-Colts game. Green Bay
defensive end Reggie White missed some of the game and defensive
tackle Gilbert Brown missed most of it with injuries. They were
replaced by Darius Holland and Bob Kuberski, respectively. "No
matter what you say about your backups, it isn't the same,"
Green Bay quarterback Brett Favre says. "The quality of player
drops off when you lose a Reggie or a Gilbert. [That's what the
cap is doing] to all of us."

THE ENVELOPES, PLEASE

MVP: Carnell Lake, Steelers defensive back. He's a symbolic
pick, for shuttling between strong safety and cornerback on a
defense firestormed by free agency. In the eight games that Lake
played at corner, opposing wideouts caught no touchdown passes.

Coach of the Year: Bill Parcells, Jets. We bow to the Chiefs'
Marty Schottenheimer for producing the AFC's best team, with 12
new starters in his lineup, the Bucs' Tony Dungy for remaking a
sad-sack outfit, the Giants' Jim Fassel for being an Einstein
and the Niners' Steve Mariucci for piloting an old team to 13-3.
But Parcells blew away the black cloud that has been hanging
over the franchise since the early '90s and made the Jets a
playoff threat overnight.

Executive of the Year: Tom Donahoe, Steelers. Every season
Pittsburgh serves as the NFL's Free Agency Superfund. Chad
Brown, Rod Woodson, Willie Williams and Andre Hastings were
among the players to leave for greener pastures after the '96
season, but the Steelers reached double digits in wins for the
fifth time in six years because Donahoe and his staff are the
best evaluators of college and pro talent in the business.

Inspiration of the Year: Darrell Green, Redskins. Faster at 37
than he was at 25, Green was selected for the Pro Bowl. His goal
is to make it again at 40. Don't bet against him. New running
mate Cris Dishman says his biggest regret in football is not
having had the chance to be teamed with Green sooner, so more of
Green's love of the game could have rubbed off on him.

Coordinators of the Year: Mike Shula, Buccaneers (offense);
Gunther Cunningham, Chiefs (defense).

Rookies of the Year: Bucs running back Warrick Dunn (offense);
Dolphins linebacker Derrick Rodgers (defense); Cowboys kicker
Richie Cunningham (special teams).

GAME OF THE YEAR

Chiefs 24, Broncos 22; Nov. 16; Arrowhead Stadium. It was the
game that changed the AFC's balance of power. A 16-point winner
when the teams met at Mile High in the season opener, Denver
cruised into Kansas City with a two-game lead in the race for
home field advantage in the AFC playoffs. But the Chiefs sacked
John Elway six times and held superback Terrell Davis to
minus-seven yards on his last seven carries. After Elway led the
Broncos to a go-ahead field goal with 1:00 left, the Chiefs
responded with a 39-yard drive, capped by Pete Stoyanovich's
54-yard field goal as time expired. Denver lost twice more in
the next four weeks while Kansas City won its last six and
gained home field in the AFC. Said Chiefs linebacker Anthony
Davis after the game, "The Broncos were talking all week about
how many of them should be in the Pro Bowl. They can have that
game. We'll take the Super Bowl."

MOST QUOTABLE

In October, Mike Ditka told a gathering of reporters, "I would
assume that you think I think you're my friends, but I know
better. The media is never a coach's friend." Maybe not, but you
could argue that Iron Mike was a reporter's best friend in '97.
Here are five of our favorite quotes from the first-year Saints
coach.

Sept. 19: "When I was a young coach, I had a perm. Because of
being in the sun all the time, my hair actually turned kind of
an orangish-red. A lot of people thought I dyed my hair orange
because of the Bears colors. But it's a fallacy. These things
are the illusions of life. I never dyed it. But if they want me
to--it made Rodman a lot of money."

Sept. 29, the day after a 14-9 loss to the Giants: "We had no
emotion. We could have been going down Fifth Avenue for a
shopping spree. We were like, 'Cabbie, over here.' If we think
we're going to roll up with three-button suits on and a copy of
The Wall Street Journal under our arm and conduct a businesslike
game, we're crazy."

Nov. 10: "I got a call this morning from my mother wondering if
I'm all right. I said, 'Why wouldn't I be all right?' She said,
'Well, you don't look all right.'"

Dec. 1: "I'm a flake. Just write that. I got a lot of split
personality. Some night, if you're at the right place at the
right time, you'll probably see me in a dress."

Dec. 8, the day after a 34-27 loss to the Rams: "I'm not going
to get excited anymore. It doesn't matter. It's only a football
game. Six billion people don't care about it. And that's only
this world. What about the other ones? There must be one out
there somewhere. They keep making movies about it."

HEAD OF THE CLASS

The NFC and AFC leaders in class, grit and overachievement
retired under very different circumstances last Saturday.
Panthers linebacker Sam Mills had a 13-tackle day against the
Rams, while in Green Bay, Bills wideout Steve Tasker, the most
decorated special teams player in NFL history, was ejected for
bumping an official 97 seconds into Buffalo's game against the
Packers.

At the end of the Carolina game, Rams linebacker Roman Phifer
waded into the crowd that had assembled around the 38-year-old
Mills and said, "Mr. Mills, Mr. Mills!" before shaking his hand.
Later Phifer explained his deference to the 5'9" linebacker:
"That's respect, man." After getting cut by the Browns and the
CFL's Toronto Argonauts, Mills stood tall for 12 seasons with
the Saints and the Panthers. The end left him drained. "I'm all
cried out," he said.

Tasker, 35, had to chuckle after the emotions that fueled his
kamikaze 13-year career betrayed him against Green Bay. Angry
when officials ruled that a punt he didn't field grazed the back
of a teammate--the Packers recovered the ball for a
touchdown--Tasker charged the crew. When he bumped back judge
Tom Sifferman, Tasker was tossed, as the rules mandate. "I want
to apologize to my wife," he said afterward. "It was her last
game too."

BRETT FAVRE STAT OF THE YEAR

John Elway set a Broncos record with 27 touchdown passes this
season. In the last four years Favre has had 33, 38, 39 and 35
scoring tosses.

THE END ZONE

The Panthers' nightmare season began last summer when linebacker
Kevin Greene held out during training camp, was released by
Carolina and signed by the NFC West rival 49ers. It ended on
Saturday with a listless 30-18 loss to the Rams amid a sea of
empty seats at Ericsson Stadium. As if a 7-9 finish wasn't bad
enough for a team that reached the NFC Championship Game last
season, the Panthers suffered the indignity of seeing Greene
pictured on tickets distributed for the game against the Rams.

Send your NFL questions to Peter King and read more Dr. Z at
www.cnnsi.com

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY AL TIELEMANS Albert Connell and the 8-7-1 Redskins were playoff-bound until the Lions rallied to beat the Jets. [Albert Connell in game] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN BIEVER Just as impressive as Sanders's rushing total in '97 was his gaudy 6.1-yard average. [Barry Sanders in game]

THE BUZZ

Here are the five stories that made the biggest headlines in 1997:

1. THE COWBOYS' COMA Nineteen teams won more games than Dallas
did. Chris Chandler outplayed Troy Aikman. Corey Dillon
outrushed Emmitt Smith. Jerry Jones could fire Barry Switzer any
minute, but don't expect magic from the new coach--not unless he
brings a tight rein, salary-cap relief and an offensive fountain
of youth to a team that lost its last five games.

2. BARRYBALL Sanders, the Lions' phenom, became the third player
in league history to crack the 2,000-yard mark in rushing,
finishing with 2,053. Sanders didn't even need a full season to
reach the milestone. After running for only 53 yards in his
first two games, he ran for an even 2,000 over the next 14 while
leading the Lions into the playoffs. "I don't know how it's
possible for a 29-year-old runner to be better than he's ever
been in his life," Bears coach Dave Wannstedt said. "But Barry
is."

3. STEAMED RICE Alas, the Comeback lasted nine plays and ended
in an end zone bog. Jerry Rice returned 15 weeks after
undergoing major surgery on his left knee, then cracked his left
kneecap in his Dec. 15 coming-out party against the Broncos.
Coincidence, the Niners say. A weakened knee shouldn't have been
tested so quickly, others retort.

4. NEW YORK FOOTBALL The men of the Big Apple, a combined 7-25
last season, finished a stunning 19-12-1. The Giants win the
pennant! The Giants win the pennant! "I'm looking for pioneers,"
Giants rookie coach Jim Fassel said earlier this season. He has
them, plus the best young defense in football. The Jets,
meanwhile, got a total makeover from despotic coach Bill
Parcells and came within a whisker of making the playoffs one
year after going 1-15.

5. RUSH HOUR Rushing average was up from 1996 (4.0 per carry to
3.8), and league records were set for most 200-yard (seven) and
100-yard (121) individual rushing performances in a season. --P.K.

COACHING HOT LIST

Don't expect the turnover there was last season, when 11 teams
replaced coaches, but there should be a handful of changes in
early '98. The Colts fired Lindy Infante on Monday, and the
Cowboys, Seahawks, Vikings and Raiders are among the other teams
most likely to make a move. Here's a short list of candidates.

COACH '97 POSITION

1. GEORGE SEIFERT UNEMPLOYED
Hunting and fishing for a year were nice, but the Seahawks'
Microsoft money beckons

2. BILL BELICHICK JETS ASS'T. HEAD COACH
He's a brilliant tactician, but he's no Jay Leno

3. NICK SABAN MICHIGAN STATE COACH
A former NFL assistant and a safe pick for the '90s: loves
defense, running game

4. TYRONE WILLINGHAM STANFORD COACH
Executives around the league say he has emerged as the hottest
black candidate

5. JON GRUDEN EAGLES OFF. COORDINATOR
The 34-year-old boy wonder could be among the top candidates in
Dallas

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)