Mike Ditka gets the award as the best handicapper of this NFL season. An hour after his Chicago Bears crushed the Miami Dolphins in Week 1, and people were already starting to call the Bears the monster team of 1988, Ditka said, "I'll give you the buzzwords for this season: no single dominating team."
What Ditka didn't foresee was that he would have the most trying season of his career. He would endure a heart attack, the loss of two quarterbacks to injuries and, with the playoffs on the horizon, a border war between two of his premier players, quarterback Jim McMahon and defensive end Dan Hampton. The battle was fought along modern lines—radio show versus radio show—and included accusations of exaggerated injuries and of bitterness over failing to win Pro Bowl recognition. What a way to set the tone for postseason play.
Every other team had its trials, too. For the first time, neither of the previous season's Super Bowl teams made the playoffs. In fact, the Washington Redskins and Denver Broncos didn't even have winning records. The Minnesota Vikings seemed to be the league's dominant team for a while, but a loss to the Green Bay Packers two weeks ago calmed people down.
The Houston Oilers were 7-1 in the House of Pain but were a very ordinary 3-5 on the road. On Sunday they lost any chance of playing a postseason game at home when they were beaten 28-23 by the Browns in frigid Cleveland. Houston has to go back there this weekend. The Bills, who were 8-0 in Buffalo, were also a different customer (4-4) once they left the home ice. The New Orleans Saints rose up in the first half of the season, but they went down in a heap. With a quarterback situation no one could figure out, the San Francisco 49ers were left for dead at 6-5, but then they put on a sprint.
December 26, 1988
The Browns, who were almost everyone's choice to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl, lost quarterback Bernie Kosar twice, first to an injured arm and then to an injured knee. Two other Cleveland signal callers were sidelined for the year. The Philadelphia Eagles made the playoffs with—statistically speaking—the next to worst defense in the NFL. The once mighty AFC West was a mess; only the Seattle Seahawks finished with a winning record. It has been a strange season, all right.
Once again the league's drafting order and weighted scheduling, which matches bad versus bad and good versus good, have been blamed for creating the gray mess. But those procedures aren't the problem. Teams have still gone 2-14 or 14-2 under the current system. Besides, why shouldn't good teams be put to the test to prove themselves?
The schedule doesn't cause teams to come together or fall apart. Many other reasons are apparent when we look at what happened to last year's Super Bowlers. The Redskins seemed to be a good bet to repeat as champions after they acquired a pair of All-Pros, linebacker Wilber Marshall from Chicago and offensive tackle Jim Lachey from the L.A. Raiders. Lachey didn't have much of a year. He was just another guy in a line that started six different combinations. Marshall was out of his element in Washington. On the Bears he covered receivers downfield and blitzed a lot from the weak side. With the Redskins he had to play closer to the line and was lost in the crunch.
In Washington's toughest loss of the year, the 17-13 defeat by the Browns on Nov. 27, which all but eliminated the Redskins from the playoffs, Cleveland won the game on a third-and-five trap that Earnest Byner broke for 27 yards and a TD. Marshall was the guy who should have made the play, but he didn't.
It's difficult to measure the psychological effect of bringing in two ballyhooed stars to a team, paying them big money and waiting in vain for them to do big things on the field. But it can't be good. Last season the Skins won ugly, pulling out games they should have lost. This year they lost those games. The offense struggled. Quarterback Doug Williams played hurt part of the season. Coach Joe Gibbs's search for that one ingredient his offense must have—the relentlessly pounding tailback for his one-back set—took him along some strange paths.
George Rogers, who took over for John Riggins a few years ago, was replaced by Timmy Smith, who ran for 204 yards against the Broncos in the Super Bowl. Smith got into Gibbs's doghouse early this year, and Kelvin Bryant, normally a third-down back, became the starter. The book on Bryant was that he wasn't durable enough to hold up in the tailback role. He wasn't. He went down in Week 10. Smith returned briefly before being benched for rookie Jamie Morris.
The Redskins' defense couldn't compensate. Their best lineman, Charles Mann, played hurt. Marshall was a bust. Both cornerbacks missed games with injuries. The effects were contagious, and the champions stumbled home with a 7-9 record.
Denver was an easier read. The Broncos were too small last season. The Redskins gave everybody a 1988 game plan to use against Denver when they ran that counter-gap play down the Broncos' throats in the Super Bowl. Denver had to address its size deficiencies either through the draft or by making a trade or two. It's not impossible to deal for big, sturdy run stoppers. A lot of good ones are around. It's the pass rushers who command a premium. The Broncos looked for help in the draft but made a big mistake with nosetackle Ted Gregory of Syracuse, who had a bad leg and wound up being traded to New Orleans for defensive end Shawn Knight, the Saints' No. 1 pick in 1987. Knight was strictly a reserve player.
When Denver's best run stopper, inside linebacker Karl Mecklenburg, went down with a broken thumb, the Broncos collapsed. Nine different backs rushed for more than 100 yards against Denver.
John Elway and the shoot-out offense couldn't bail out the Broncos. The Three Amigos were banged up. Troubled by various ailments, Elway wasn't right. He used to sprint away from the rush, stop and complete a pass 20 yards downfield. This season he was heaving flutterballs as the pursuit closed in. Tony Dorsett was imported to juice up the ground attack, but the Broncos ran for 18 fewer yards per game than they did last season. Last year's offensive coordinator, Mike Shanahan, became coach of the Los Angeles Raiders in the off-season, and Denver coach Dan Reeves assembled the largest staff in NFL history—17 assistants, including part-timers. "Next year there will be 11," said Bronco owner Pat Bowlen last Saturday. The housecleaning began on Sunday with the firing of all five defensive coaches.
Right now our pick to go all the way is San Francisco. In the preseason, we thought the Niners would meet Cleveland in the Super Bowl. The 49ers still might face the Browns, if Cleveland can get by Houston again on Saturday and if Kosar and running back Kevin Mack, who also has an injured knee, recover in time to play at Buffalo the following week.
The 49ers look formidable because of their defense. Forget what you saw in their 38-16 loss to the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday night. That game was L.A.'s Super Bowl; for the Niners it was a tune-up. The San Francisco defense has a bunch of players you don't hear much about, guys like linebackers Charles Haley, Bill Romanowski, Mike Walter and Riki Ellison, if he's healthy. They all play every down as if it were their last. In the 49ers' most important game of the regular season, against New Orleans two weeks ago, the defense kept making big plays until the offense settled down. The Niners alternate a lot of linemen to keep their legs fresh for the late going. With a week of rest, San Francisco should come out of the box flying.
Minnesota is another team with an exceptional defense. It is spearheaded by defensive coordinator Floyd Peters's multiple-stunting front four. Peters's outstanding foursomes of the past—the 1976-77 Gold Rush in San Francisco and the 1978-81 Silver Rush in Detroit—displayed a common trait: They had agile people who could run loops and end-tackle games. That's what Peters has now in tackle Henry Thomas, a finesse player who often will line up over the center on a shifted four-man line; in Keith Millard and Chris Doleman, who are pass rushers with speed; and even in veteran Bubba Baker, who has replaced the injured Doug Martin and hasn't forgotten how to rush from the outside.
Behind that group are linebacker Jesse Solomon, who's talented at single coverage, cornerback Carl Lee and strong safety Joey Browner, each of whom had the best year of his career. (To see what other players Dr. Z thinks had exceptional years, turn to page 135 for the rundown on his All-Pro team.) Together, they form a formidable defensive package.
The Bears will be tough to size up until it becomes clear who their quarterback will be. Still, they can win with defense, as they did in a 10-9 Monday nighter against the 49ers in October. That was perhaps the best NFL game in five years. When Chicago's defense plays with intensity, it can dominate a game. If the intensity is missing, the Bears are vulnerable. Offensive failings have knocked them out of the playoffs two years in a row.
The AFC seems to be a home-and-road show. The Bills are impregnable in Buffalo, as are the Bengals in Cincinnati. Buffalo opened the season by saying it was going to run the ball and win with defense. The Bills did win, even though their running attack suffered when right guard Tim Vogler hurt his knee early in the season and other linemen were forced to play out of position. Vogler came back and Buffalo started putting up serious rushing-yardage numbers again—until he hurt his knee once more. He is out now for the remainder of the playoffs.
Bills quarterback Jim Kelly has had an odd year. At times he has looked unhappy in the conservative attack orchestrated by passing-game coach Ted Marchibroda. At other times Kelly would settle down and move the yardsticks. But shoot-out football isn't Buffalo's style. The defense has to play well.
The Bengals, though, can score against anybody. So can the Seahawks, who proved they could win outside the Dome by piling up 43 points and nearly 500 yards against the Raiders in L.A. Don't be surprised if Seattle, which won three of its last four games, gives the Bengals trouble when they meet for the divisional playoff in Cincinnati.
Still, we won't cop out on our original picks. Watch for Cleveland to meet San Francisco in Miami on Jan. 22.