At this time last year Cincinnati and San Francisco had 3-8 records, on their way to 6-10. Same for the New York Giants, only they were fated for 4-12. Miami, Kansas City and Denver were hovering around .500, on their way to 8-8s. These were the ho-hums of the NFL, the two-paragraph wire-service stories in the Monday paper. Now they're all alive and contending, and four of them—the Bengals, Broncos, 49ers and Dolphins—have command of their division races.
In these days of Rozellean parity, it doesn't take much to tip the balance from also-ran to frontrunner: a rookie with wings on his feet who can turn a five-yard gain into a 50-yarder; rookie defenders who can bring the crowd to its feet with big hits; rookies who have not yet learned fear or caution; and, in the case of the Broncos, a rookie named Dan Reeves who wears earphones. These, then, are the new faces that have made the difference for half a dozen NFL teams.
When you direct the fortunes of the NFL's most visible franchise (from a media and advertising standpoint), you have to make sure the first man you draft—the second man picked overall—is something special. So last November, New York Giants General Manager George Young caught a plane south to scout North Carolina's game with Clemson and to see firsthand whether Lawrence Taylor, the Tar Heels' outside linebacker, deserved the raves he'd been getting.
"With North Carolina's pale blue numbers, it's tough to pick out one guy from the other," Young says. "But I didn't need any numbers to locate Taylor. All you had to do was wait for a big defensive play to be made, and he'd be making it. It was hard for me to believe that a linebacker could so dominate a game."
New Orleans had the first pick in the draft, and Saints Coach Bum Phillips had said South Carolina Running Back George Rogers was his man. That was good. But Taylor had spent three days in New Orleans right before the draft. That was bad. On the day before the draft Young called the airlines to find out if an L. Taylor was booked on a flight from New Orleans to New York, where he'd be headed if the Saints intended to make him the No. 1 pick.
"There were three L. Taylors listed," Young says. "My heart sank. I called Chapel Hill to find out if he was still there. He was. I felt better. But I didn't know we were getting him until 10 o'clock the night before the draft."
Taylor, with his 6'3", 242-pound body and his 4.59 speed for 40 yards, has been the Giants' blitz specialist, swooping in from the right side. He's playing as well physically as any outside linebacker in the NFL, and the Giants' defense, 10th in the NFC last year, was second after 10 games this season. Mentally, Taylor says, he still has a way to go. "Play-action fakes give me trouble," he says, "but I sure enjoy that blitzing."
New York Coach Ray Perkins doesn't like to come on too strong about rich rookies—Taylor reportedly has a three-year, $750,000 deal with the Giants—but he says, "Lawrence will make the kind of plays you just don't normally see. We had one scrimmage in camp where he was supposed to give inside support against a wide receiver. He went 40 yards downfield on a go pattern and broke it up."
The Giant veterans, who had grumbled about Taylor's big contract, became believers in July's first intrasquad scrimmage. The coaches awarded points—one for a fumble recovery, two for a fumble-causing tackle, three for a sack, etc. In 10 minutes Taylor had four sacks. Score—Offense 0, Taylor 12. On the sidelines Gary Jeter turned to Harry Carson and said, "I've seen the movie Superman and I intend to see Superman II but today I'm seeing Superman III in person."
And whatever happened to George Rogers, the Saints' hope? He's having a terrific year—second in the league in rushing with 1,137 yards. But the Saints are only 3-8, better than last season's 0-11, yet not quite a turnaround. Let's say they've turned it sideways.
San Francisco Coach Bill Walsh has a straightforward philosophy for drafting: You've got to improve where you're weak. As for the Best Available Athlete theory—well, that Russian decathlon man isn't ever going to play for the 49ers.
Last year San Francisco allowed the third most passing yards in NFL history (3,751). Even worse, opponents' receivers were allowed to cruise free and easy. The 1981 draft was overloaded with defensive backs, not only cover guys but hitters, big stickers. So on the first round Walsh took Ronnie Lott of USC, on the second he chose Eric Wright of Missouri, and on the third he picked Carlton Williamson of Pitt, defensive backs all. "Which one will start?" the writers asked him. "All three," Walsh said.
Imports Fred Dean, from the Chargers, and Jack Reynolds, from the Rams, put the finishing touches on a defense that now ranks second in the NFC, but the tone was set by the three baby backs, who team with holdover Free Safety Dwight Hicks to form the feared Gang of Four. Lott and Wright were both safeties in college; now they man the left and right corners. The prevailing drafting theory is that you take cornerbacks and make safeties out of them, but Walsh says colleges often put their best athletes in the middle, and there's no reason why they can't play outside. Williamson was a strong safety at Pitt, and that's what he plays now. His role is essentially the same as it was in college; he's the big hitter whose resounding shots are an inspiration to his buddies, as long as he doesn't go overboard and incur a yellow flag.
"At Pitt we had something called the Ding Dong Award, for best hit of the week," Williamson says. "Hugh Green and Ricky Jackson collected most of them, but I got my share."
Lott was a star in the USC secondary, where you don't play if you don't hit. He's a super athlete who can break up a screen pass as easily as he can scoop up a shoe-top interception and run it in for a score, as he did in the 49ers' 45-14 romp against Dallas on Oct. 11 in Candlestick.
Wright, who says he was never a particularly ferocious hitter at Missouri, mentions that after workouts on the Wednesday before the Oct. 25 victory over the Rams, 20-17, the coaches paid the Gang of Four the ultimate compliment. "They told us to take it a little easier in practice," he says. "They said we had a tendency to be too aggressive."
In Walsh's first two years in San Francisco the 49ers would win with finesse, with silk handkerchiefs in the air and rabbits popping out of a hat. Now they're getting down in the mud and winning the slugfests—low-scoring games against physical teams like Atlanta and Green Bay and L.A. and Pittsburgh. That's the difference.
Joe Delaney zipped into Arrowhead Stadium on little cat feet, and the Chiefs told him, yes, yes, you're a terrific little runner but this is the NFL, see, and you just have to have more respect for the tacklers; you can't keep taking them on the way you do. And they told the public, this was a hell of a second-round pick for us, and then they labeled Delaney a spot performer—a "situation" player—which is what coaches always do with halfbacks who are no bigger than 5'10", 184.
It took an injury to Ted McKnight in the season's fifth game to turn Delaney into a full-timer, and his 193 yards last Sunday against Houston gives him 920 yards, within striking distance of Mike Garrett's alltime single-season club rushing record of 1,087 yards. This blockbuster from Northwestern (La.) State may be the Chiefs' best runner ever. Delaney, you see, knows exactly what he's doing. When he cuts away from the sidelines, back into the flow of traffic—a daring and almost suicidal move, when he takes on the tackier ("Get him before he gets me"), he's merely putting into practice in public what he has studied in private.
"I study the linebackers and defensive backs, how hard they come, what kind of angles of pursuit they take," says Delaney. "Is he a good tackier, an overpursuer? I look at their balance. I try to judge what kind of shape they'll be in if I hit the crease in the line quickly and take them on before they're really ready. Of course, I know I'm leaving myself open for some real shots. That's where peripheral vision comes in; you have to keep the searchlights going."
Delaney has blinding speed—10.3 for 100 meters in college, 4.36 for 40 yards—but it's that unexpected cutback, the surprising disdain he shows for tacklers, that helped him break such biggies as a 61-yard pass play in a 27-0 defeat of Oakland on Oct. 11 and the 82-yarder that sewed up the 28-14 win over Denver on Oct. 18. It's a dangerous way to travel, but it's given the Chiefs something they haven't had in a long time—an offense with real zip to it.
How ironic that for four years Andra Franklin was the plow horse back at Nebraska, blocking for such noted I-backs as I.M. Hipp and Jarvis Redwine and Rick Berns, and now Franklin is the second leading ballcarrier for the Dolphins, and that Cornhusker trio is nowhere, nowhere and nowhere. How ironic that Miami Coach Don Shula prayed that Pitt's Randy McMillan would be available on the first round of the draft and, when he wasn't, settled for Oklahoma's David Overstreet, picking up Franklin one round later as insurance; and now Franklin has gained 63 yards more than McMillan, who plays for the Colts, while Over-street has fumbled his season away in Montreal.
Franklin got his chance when Woody Bennett, the Dolphins' regular fullback, went down in the season's third game, against Houston, and Franklin caught the winning pass in the fourth quarter. At Nebraska he caught six passes in four years. His blocking never had been a problem. At 5'10", 225, he's built for heavy duty. And he's not a fumbler—only two lost after 10 games. Shula also has to love the new toughness up the middle that Franklin provides, something that has been missing in Miami since the Larry Csonka glory years.
Right Guard Ed Newman sums up Franklin's power-running in this way: "Against the Colts, I got a stalemate with my man, Herb Orvis. I figured we'd get about a two-yard gain. But Franklin takes the ball and suddenly the Colts are looking at a mouthful. Andra got an eight-yard gain out of it. All I had to do was drive, and he's driving, too." Or as Dolphin publicist Bob Kearney says, "It looked like ants moving an apple."
The Bengals last made the playoffs six years ago, when they finished first in the NFL in passing. Since then the air routes have been a losing operation, and in the last two years Cincinnati slipped to 24th and 21st in the NFL pass rankings. How can you throw successfully when your receivers are always hurt? Along came Cris Collinsworth, a 6'5", 192-pounder who reminds Ohioans of Gary Collins of the Browns and reminds Bengals owner Paul Brown of his old superstar in Cleveland, Dub Jones. "He's built just like him; he's a sprinter, which you can't tell by looking at him," Brown says.
David Verser, a wide receiver out of Kansas, was Cincinnati's No. 1 draft choice, but the intricacies of pro pass routes have so far eluded him. Collins-worth, the No. 2 pick, out of Florida, has been the saver: 10 catches in an overtime win over Buffalo, 44 receptions on the year, second to Dan Ross on the team. Blessed with such an inviting moving target, Ken Anderson has become the Comeback Quarterback of 1981, and after 10 games the Bengals were ranked third in the AFC in passing. And once again the playoffs are in the cards.
Forget for a moment that Dan Reeves came to the Broncos armed with a Dallas playbook that had more formations than Napoleon's army. Forget that he brought from the Cowboys, for whom he had played and coached for 15 seasons, a concept that relied on the cerebral as well as the physical, that for once the Broncos just might outcomplicate somebody, as Dallas has been doing for so many years. The real contribution Reeves has made, say the Bronco veterans, is that he has brought back a spirit lacking since former Coach Red Miller's rookie year of 1977, when Denver went to the Super Bowl.
"He has definitely had a stabilizing effect on the team, because he's a consistent person, which I think is the key to leadership," Quarterback Craig Morton says. "Win or lose, he doesn't get uptight about it. He tries to get everybody to work harder, but he doesn't get all upset about it."
Or, as Halfback Dave Preston says, "Number One, he brought in a new offense that regenerated team enthusiasm. We believe in it. He understands the attitudes of the players and the demands and frustrations. I'm sure that a lot of times he'll call certain plays because he feels we need those plays. We need to know we can run them."
Morton is having his best year ever; the offense is more wide open, the defense is again No. 1 in the NFL. The personnel is basically the same as it was last year. The super-rookie on the Broncos is the coach.