JUST DRAFT, BABY
No matter how proficient he is at his new job, Raider coach Art Shell, the league's first black head coach in 64 years, faces tough going. He simply doesn't have a good team with which to work. Los Angeles has drafted poorly recently and doesn't have a base of young talent for the 1990s. Although the 1988 Raider choices—wide receiver Tim Brown, cornerback Terry McDaniel and defensive end Scott Davis—were excellent, the '84 through '87 drafts were busts. In those years L.A. should have gotten starting players who now would be in the prime of their football lives. Instead, from the first five rounds of those drafts only one clear-cut starter is a Raider today—right tackle Bruce Wilkerson. To be sure, L.A. boss Al Davis did parlay two of those selections, offensive tackle John Clay and running back Napoleon McCallum, into their quarterback of the present and future, Jay Schroeder. Otherwise, the Raiders can only hope that Shell's simpler offense and a renewed emphasis on Raiderness will pay off. "I want these guys to relax," Shell said at week's end. His first change was to rescind dismissed coach Mike Shanahan's rule prohibiting players from sitting on their helmets. Then Shell cut the game plan nearly in half for Monday night's clash with the Jets, which the Raiders won 14-7. "I want them to react on the field and play power football, using the explosiveness we have on this team," he said. Now if his bosses could just get him a blue-chip class of rookies.
STRIKE NOW, HERSCHEL
Something unusual happened in Green Bay on Sunday, after the Cowboys had lost 31-13 to the Packers. Herschel Walker got into a snit, arguing with three Dallas-area writers over petty stuff. He has rarely squabbled with anyone since joining the Cowboys in 1986. It was a weird scene, but a fitting ending to a weird week for Walker. A few days earlier Dallas had made a deal to send Walker to the Vikings, only to have the trade rejected by Walker, who said he would retire rather than accept the move.
With the NFL trading deadline (Oct. 17, 4 p.m. EDT) upon us, it's time to face facts: Walker doesn't fit in with the Cowboys anymore. They have gone 1-16 in their last 17 games, and Walker has gone seven games without gaining 100 yards. Dallas can play this badly without him. He can flourish without the Cowboys.
Here's why a Walker deal is a must:
1) It would be right for Dallas. The Browns have offered two No. 1 draft picks, three No. 2 picks, one No. 3 and linebacker Clifford Charlton, a No. 1 selection in 1988—six high choices and a good prospect at a position where the Cowboys need a lot of help. Minnesota would give Dallas fewer picks and more players. The Cowboys have to make a big, big move. This is it.
2) It would be right for Walker. At 27, he's in his prime. A year or two more of getting pounded on a bad team will reduce his value. He says he doesn't want to move to Cleveland or Minnesota, but other teams will surface this week to woo him. And his agents know that they can probably parlay a new contract out of any deal. Walker makes $900,000 this season; next year he's due to get $1 million. In 1990, Eric Dickerson will probably become the league's highest-paid running back, at $2 million a year. Walker should be willing to take, say, a four-year, $8 million deal, especially if it meant completing his career on a contender. Who would pay such a tab? Maybe the Raiders. Maybe the Browns. Maybe the 49ers.
Common sense. That's all this is, and everyone involved would benefit.
NO PLACE LIKE DOME
When SI asked players from all 28 NFL teams to name the three toughest stadiums to play in, we expected some anti-dome sentiment. What we got was an antidome landslide. We awarded a stadium three points for being first on a player's list, two for being second and one for being third. The Kingdome in Seattle, which was cited by 62 of the 142 players polled, got 146 points. Cleveland Stadium, the only open-air arena to make the top five, was a distant second with 74. The Browns' rabid fans and the often brutal weather can take credit for a good many of those points. The Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome in Minneapolis finished third with 59 points. The Houston Astrodome and the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans were fourth and fifth, respectively, with 54 and 53.
"It's just the sound, the relentless sound, like a noise tidal wave," says Buffalo's veteran nosetackle, Fred Smerlas, of the Kingdome. "In some places there are a lot of variations in the sound. Not in Seattle. They start that wave, and you just cringe. You block your ears because you know it's going to rock you. You wish you had a fire hose so you could shut 'em up." Even the uninitiated are intimidated by the place. "I've never played there, but I know it's loud," says Dallas guard Nate Newton. "I have to turn my TV down just to watch a game from there."
The prominence of domes in our poll shows how drastically the dynamics of the home-field advantage have changed. Stadiums with poor fields or antagonistic crowds or fierce weather used to be considered the roughest places to play. Today those conditions characterize only one of the top five—Cleveland Stadium. Noise is now the primary factor. "We've found that when we're in a close game at a domed stadium, we make three screwups a game," says Cincinnati's assistant general manager, Mike Brown. "That's usually enough to beat you."
Bo Jackson reports to the Raiders this week and might be ready to play on Oct. 22, which would give him a 10-game season. His agent, Richard Woods, says neither the Raiders nor baseball's Kansas City Royals have tried to force Jackson to choose one sport or the other. And Jackson hasn't suggested even privately to Woods that he intends to concentrate on one, although his Royals contract has expired, and after his recently concluded 32-homer, 105-RBI season, he could probably sign a huge, long-term deal if he committed himself exclusively to baseball. Instead, Kansas City will probably just sign him to a one-year contract. "I don't know how long he'll keep playing both," says Woods, "but the biggest thing I've ever learned with Bo is, Don't try to predict what he'll do."...
When interviewed by former Giants teammate Harry Carson on the Giants Journal cable-TV show last weekend, Lawrence Taylor said, "I'm like wine. I just get better. I'm playing so much better than in the past because I know I'm older. I have to concentrate more. I have to work harder, study more. I think in the past I was too much of a one-dimensional player—a pass rusher and every now and then I'd play the run. Now I'm a better run player. I think that makes me a better player." Taylor, 30, is the Giants' oldest defensive starter....
Minnesota general manager Mike Lynn has told safety Joey Browner, who had complained that racism was a factor in the strained relations between players and management, that the average salary for a black Viking is $305,453, as opposed to an average of $267,703 for white Vikings....
An amazing streak ended without much notice two weeks ago, when for the first time in 53 games Jet wide receiver Al Toon didn't catch at least three passes during a game in which he started. He grabbed two in the first half of the 17-10 loss to Indianapolis but then had to sit out most of the fourth quarter with a pulled thigh....
Chicago coach Mike Ditka is losing the battle of William Perry's 340-pound bulge. "I wish he had more discipline off the field," says Ditka. Hey, Mike, this case is a lost one. When an undisciplined kid is handed $4 million at age 23, what do you think is going to happen? With the loss of defensive end Dan Hampton, who had arthroscopic surgery on his left knee Oct. 4 and will be sidelined for at least six games, Perry must become a big-time player if the Bears' defense is not to suffer as it did Sunday, when Chicago gave up 42 points in its first loss of the season to Tampa Bay.
THE WEEK THAT WAS
OUT OF THE ASHES
If any coach of a 2-3 team ever deserved a new contract, it's Gene Stallings of the Cardinals. Four of Phoenix's five games have been on the road. In a 30-28 loss at Washington on Sunday, the Cards lost Roy Green, their best receiver of the past decade, with a broken collarbone. Before that, 11 starters missed at least one game this season, including Neil Lomax, their best quarterback; Stump Mitchell, their best runner; Lonnie Young, their best defensive back; and Freddie Joe Nunn, their best pass rusher. "Do you know how tough it is to lose so many players and keep people motivated?" says tackle Luis Sharpe. When wideout J.T. Smith caught his third touchdown pass of the season with 14 seconds left on Sunday, he was mobbed by people named Ernie Jones, Don Holmes and Mike Zandofsky. They're all Cardinals. After recovering an onside kick, Phoenix was just shy of field-goal range when time expired. Stallings is in the last year of a four-year contract. Owner Bill Bidwill should reward Stallings with the chance to take a healthier team into the 1990s.
THE WELCOME WAGON
Minnesota running back Darrin Nelson on the prospect of Herschel Walker becoming a Viking: "All we need is one more person with an ego complaining he doesn't get the ball enough."
RUSTY, WE HARDLY KNEW YE
Before losing 42-35 to the Buccaneers, the Bears were 25-0 against Green Bay, Detroit and Tampa Bay since their last loss to one of those teams, in the next-to-last game of 1984. In that 20-14 defeat by the Packers. Rusty Lisch and Walter Payton quarterbacked Chicago.
MAYBE RUSTY'S AVAILABLE
What the Lions need is another mistake-prone quarterback. See, five Detroit signal callers have thrown two touchdown passes and 25 interceptions in nine preseason and regular-season games, including three interceptions in Sunday's 24-17 loss to the Vikings. Last week they worked out Gilbert Renfroe, recently of the CFL Toronto Argonauts. Renfroe had thrown one TD pass and 13 interceptions in Canada this year.
A PLEASANT VALLEY SUNDAY
On a sunny, breezy Southern California day, the Rams, the only undefeated team in the NFL, beat the Falcons 26-14 before 16,826 empty chairs at 69,008-seat Anaheim Stadium. Of the week's 12 other Sunday games, none was played in front of as many vacant seats.
THE DOUG HOUSE
The Patriots' 23-13 upset of the Oilers gave New England quarterback Doug Flutie (below) an 11-0 record in games he has played at Sullivan Stadium. Flutie was 5-0 at the stadium as a player for Boston College. The amazing part is that he has gone 6-0 there as a Patriot by averaging eight completions in 15 attempts for 121 yards and one touchdown with 0.5 interceptions. Twenty-two quarterbacks threw for more yards on Sunday than Flutie has averaged in the six victories.
STATS OF THE WEEK
•The Steelers' No. 1 draft pick in '88, Aaron Jones, has one tackle in five games this season as a reserve defensive end.
•Under Jimmy Johnson, the Cowboys' offense has five touchdowns in 58 possessions.
•In Seattle's first 17 quarters, kicker Norm Johnson had three field goals. On Sunday, in a five-minute span of the 18th quarter, he had three more.
•Before the Chiefs' 20-16 win at Seattle on Sunday, the average score of the last five Kansas City-Seattle games in the Kingdome had been Seahawks 33, Chiefs 9.
•In his first four games, Giants quarterback Phil Simms had been hit hard or sacked 20 times. In a 21-19 loss at Philadelphia (page 46) he was hit hard or sacked 15 times.
THE WEEK AHEAD
Packers at Vikings. "It's going to be weird if we lose," says Green Bay safety Kenny Stills. That's how weird this rivalry is. Since the start of the 1987 season, Minnesota is 22-10, not counting games against Green Bay, while the Packers are 8-23-1, excluding games with the Vikings. But Green Bay is 4-0 against the Vikes since '87 and 13-4 against them in the '80s. Minnesota simply doesn't match up well against the Pack, and it especially has trouble stopping linebacker Tim Harris (page 70), who forced two safeties last year.
Dolphins at Bengals. Quarterbacks Dan Marino and Boomer Esiason became pals in 1987 over beers at an L.A. comedy club during a break in NFL Players Association meetings. Later that year Miami and Marino beat the Bengals and Esiason 20-14 in Cincinnati. After the game, Marino boosted Esiason's spirits as they played pool at a local sports bar. "It's like he was clairvoyant," says Esiason. "He told me we had a good thing going here and we were going to be a great team. I needed that then." Esiason returned the favor with a phone call two weeks ago, after Marino had suffered his worst game as a pro in a 39-7 loss to the Oilers. Says Esiason, "I couldn't admire anybody in the game more."
Rams at Bills. "I've never played in one of those snow games," says Los Angeles wide receiver Henry Ellard. "What'll the weather be like?" No snow, Henry. But bring the thermals—and a good mouthguard. Buffalo strong safety Leonard Smith, a big hitter and one of the NFL's most underrated players, will be hounding you all game. And tell running back Greg Bell, whom the Rams got from the Bills in a 1987 trade, to bring earplugs, because the Buffalo fans aren't going to welcome him back with a polite ovation.
It's a fact that scoring has increased so far this season, but the reasons remain elusive. Yardage gained by rushing has been fairly constant since mid-decade, including this year, but passing is another story. For example, the rate of completions, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, has been less than 56% after five weeks in all of the last four nonstrike seasons; it is at 57.9% this year.
NFL insiders have some intriguing theories about this development. Defenses are taking more chances by sending more rushers, which creates more one-on-one matchups in the secondary. In response, quarterbacks are releasing the ball more quickly by taking shorter drops and by throwing out of the shotgun more often. In addition, say some, offenses have been sharper than usual because the new 80-man roster limit forced teams to give more playing time in the preseason to veterans and less time to rookies and to free agents. Here's how offenses have performed through five games (excluding Monday-night games) in each of the five most recent nonstrike seasons: