Roger Craig was an easy choice for Player of the Year. His slashing, full-throttle style of running set the tone for the 49er operation. John Stephens of the Patriots is Rookie of the Year. When New England switched to the running game midway through the season, Stephens carried the load.
Now here come the arguments. John Sandusky, the Dolphins' offensive line coach, is Coach of the Year. Where is it written that you have to pick a head coach? All Sandusky did was direct a unit that set the NFL record for fewest sacks allowed in a season (seven), and his group did it without center Dwight Stephenson, who missed the season with a knee injury, or any other Pro Bowlers. Some people argue that Dan Marino is nearly impossible to sack because he gets rid of the ball so quickly. Well, he also throws off a deep drop on occasion, which means the offensive line has to hold its blocks an extra couple of seconds, and opponents use all sorts of intricate schemes to put pressure on him. But this beautifully coached offensive line picked up everything the opposition threw at it.
The choice for my All-Pro quarterback came down to Randall Cunningham of the Eagles, Neil Lomax of the Cardinals, Wade Wilson of the Vikings and Boomer Esiason of the Bengals. Then I narrowed it to Cunningham versus the Boomer. I chose Cunningham because he had neither the receivers nor the offensive line that Esiason had.
The Falcons' John Settle, a second-effort type of ballcarrier and an effective pass receiver, joins Craig at running back. The Cowboys' Herschel Walker and the Colts' Eric Dickerson gained more yards than Settle, but they couldn't match his toughness, an almost forgotten quality these days.
December 26, 1988
The Rams' Henry Ellard, a possession receiver who can also burn deep, was the stick-out wide receiver. I hated to omit Al Toon of the Jets, Anthony Carter of the Vikings, Mark Clayton of Miami and Jerry Rice of the 49ers, who was nagged by an ankle injury. An off year for Rice is still better than a good year for practically anyone else. Cincinnati's Eddie Brown was the best wide receiver in the first half of the season but he tailed off. Ricky Sanders, my second choice, was consistently effective. He was also the only Redskin to pick up decent chunks of yardage.
Where would the Eagles have been without rookie Keith Jackson at tight end? He had more catches than any other tight end. Mickey Shuler of the Jets was my No. 2 at this spot, followed by the Bills' Pete Metzelaars, who's an outstanding blocker but didn't have enough receptions.
Tunch Ilkin of the Steelers repeats at tackle. He says he was shocked that he finally got some Pro Bowl recognition. I like Ilkin because he's old-world—a trapper and a tenacious pass blocker. I saw him throw an old-fashioned reverse body block this year. Most NFL linemen think that's something used in garages. Anthony Munoz of the Bengals is the second tackle, mainly because he has been overpowering as a run blocker. The heart of the Cincinnati offense is its big ground attack. Watch New England's Bruce Armstrong. He's a comer.
Houston's Bruce Matthews has emerged as the NFL's most dominating guard. He's the key to the Oilers' strong-side power offense. It's a shame to leave off Tom Newberry of the Rams, who was one of my choices at guard last season, but he said he had an off year. He still looked pretty effective to me. Seattle's Bryan Millard, a power type who's nimble enough to trap on the off-side, is the second choice at guard, with the Browns' Dan Fike, the Bills' Jim Ritcher and the Bengals' Bruce Reimers close behind.
At center the Jets' Jim Sweeney barely beat out Buffalo's Kent Hull. Sweeney started in the NFL as a guard in 1984, was switched to tackle and finally moved to center, his natural position, this season. The Jets were most successful when their trapping game was working, and Sweeney was the key to it. He constantly improved his play. Hull was very effective in the Bills' run scheme. Randy Cross of the Niners, now 34, also had a superior season.
Sometimes the blindness of the players and coaches who make the Pro Bowl selections is amazing. They didn't pick the Chiefs' Nick Lowery, who missed only three field goal attempts this year—one of them was blocked—and he was three for three from 50 yards and farther. Punter Mike Horan of the Broncos did make the Pro Bowl, as he certainly should have. He had the highest net average in the league, the true measure of a punter's effectiveness.
The easiest defensive position to select was end. For the second straight year the Bills' Bruce Smith and the Eagles' Reggie White made my team, and once again they had no real challengers. I've always liked the Pats' Garin Veris, but he missed much of the season with a knee injury.
Cincinnati noseguard Tim Krumrie, who plays a sliding, pursuit game, has produced tackle and assist numbers that are off the board. The 49ers' Michael Carter is powerful in the middle, but he doesn't make as many plays as Krumrie does. An intriguing character was Jerry Ball of Detroit, who's constantly being told to get his weight down (he's officially listed at 283 pounds) but always seems to make big plays.
The Bears' Dan Hampton is the choice as the 4-3 defensive tackle over the Vikes' Keith Millard, who's active but not quite as solid. Here's Cross on Hampton: "He's a man. When he gets held, he doesn't moan and whine like some guys do. He keeps his mouth shut and just drills you next time."
Tim Harris of the Packers is the most underrated player in the NFL. He's also the best outside linebacker. He's got a nasty streak on the field, though, which has made him some enemies. That's probably why he didn't make the Pro Bowl. If I were picking a coverage-type player for the other outside linebacker, I would go with the Browns' Clay Matthews. But that would mean leaving the Giants' Lawrence Taylor off the team. I can't do that. He was involved in too many game-turning plays.
Vaughan Johnson of the Saints is the league's most fundamentally sound inside linebacker. The Bears' Mike Singletary excels as a middle linebacker in the 4-3, but he has those great tackles, Hampton and Steve McMichael, to take some of the heat off. Critics of the Patriots' Johnny Rembert, my second inside linebacker, say he is a "side to side" player who's not that stiff at the point of attack. That's the style New England's coaches want him to play, and Rembert has more one-on-one pass-coverage responsibility than any other inside linebacker.
People say that Ram cornerback LeRoy Irvin has lost some speed and is relying on smarts. He looked as good as ever to me. Maybe he's getting a better break on the ball. He isn't troubled by the mistakes that flashier and more highly publicized cornerbacks make. I had a hatful of candidates for the other cornerback spot—Frank Minnifield and Hanford Dixon of Cleveland, Rod Woodson of Pittsburgh, Albert Lewis and Kevin Ross of Kansas City, Ronnie Lippett of New England, Mark Lee of Green Bay, Eric Thomas of Cincinnati—but Minnifield got the nod because of his consistency and courage. He played hurt a lot this season.
Minnesota's Joey Browner was always a freewheeling banger at strong safety. Now he has improved as a pass defender. Keep an eye on Phoenix's Tim McDonald. No strong safety plays the force better than he does.
Finally, at free safety, Buffalo's Mark Kelso has terrific range. He comes out of nowhere to make plays. The 49ers' Ronnie Lott is the biggest hitter at the position, and he's superb in nickel situations, when he plays close to the line. It wasn't an easy choice. Few of them were.
Wide Receiver: HENRY ELLARD, Rams
Tackle: TUNCHILKIN, Steelers
Guard: BRUCE MATTHEWS, Oilers
Center: JIM SWEENEY, Jets
Guard: BRYAN MILLARD, Seahawks
Tackle: ANTHONY MUNOZ, Bengals
Tight End: KEITH JACKSON, Eagles
Quarterback: RANDALL CUNNINGHAM, Eagles
Running Back: ROGER CRAIG, 49ers
Running Back: JOHN SETTLE, Falcons
Wide Receiver: RICKY SANDERS, Redskins
Kicker: NICK LOWERY, Chiefs
End: REGGIE WHITE, Eagles
Noseguard: TIM KRUMRIE, Bengals
Tackle: DAN HAMPTON, Bears
End: BRUCE SMITH, Bills
Outside Linebacker: TIM HARRIS, Packers
Inside Linebacker: VAUGHAN JOHNSON, Saints
Inside Linebacker. JOHNNY REMBERT, Patriots
Outside Linebacker: LAWRENCE TAYLOR, Giants
Cornerback: LEROY IRVIN, Rams
Strong Safety: JOEY BROWNER, Vikings
Free Safety: MARK KELSO, Bills
Cornerback: FRANK MINNIFIELD, Browns
Punter: MIKE HORAN, Broncos