THE NEW ELITE
A number of players who had previously attracted little attention made names for themselves in the first half of this season. Among them are:
1) Christian Okoye, 28, running back, Chiefs. We should have seen this coming. Okoye, a second-round draft pick in 1987, averaged 54 rushing yards a game in his first two seasons with Kansas City. Then coach Marty Schottenheimer brought his ground-hugging offensive scheme to K.C. this year, and the 260-pound Okoye took off. After gaining 126 yards in the Chiefs' 20-10 defeat of the Seahawks on Sunday, he was the only runner in the NFL averaging more than 100 yards a game (104.0). He is an amazing physical specimen. At mini-camp last spring, Okoye weighed 262 pounds, yet ran a 4.46 40. "He can be the best, up there with Eric Dickerson," says Chiefs tackle Irv Eatman. "Nobody has that combination of speed and power." Says Cincinnati strong safety David Fulcher, "Okoye is probably the best running back in the league."
2) Rufus Porter, 24, defensive end, Seahawks. Porter says he pinched himself last week after reaching the halfway mark of the season. "Yup," he says, "it's really happening." What's happening is a classic NFL underdog story. In 1988, Porter was an undersized (6'1", 207 pounds) and undrafted linebacker out of Southern University who used his 4.53 speed and reckless style of play to earn a job on Seattle's special teams. Now he has bulked up to 221, and the Seahawks use him as a pass rusher in obvious throwing situations. He has gotten eight sacks, despite playing only eight to 12 downs a game. "People really don't know how to play me," says Porter.
November 13, 1989
3) Tony Casillas, 26, defensive tackle, Falcons. During the 1988 preseason, Casillas—a first-rounder in '86—was unsure whether he wanted to keep playing pro football. So he left camp for three weeks to get guidance from a psychologist. "I didn't have the burning desire anymore," says Casillas. "I'm sure the way I dealt with it shocked the hell out of some people." Casillas was still an above-average player last year, but this season he has become one of the best at his position. He has made 10 or more tackles in four games. The psychotherapy, says Casillas, made him realize the importance of football. "I want to be in on every single tackle," he says. "It's like a manic reaction on my part."
4) Michael Dean Perry, 24, defensive tackle, Browns. Perry is no longer just the Fridge's little brother (and he's not so little at 280 pounds). Through half of the season, Perry induced offensive linemen to commit 12 holding penalties and had three sacks for 26 yards in losses and another 40 tackles totaling 65 yards in losses. That means Perry, a second-round draft selection a year ago, was responsible for 211 yards in losses for opposing offenses. Though he is only six feet tall, he also has knocked down five passes. "It's like we didn't notice him last year," says Bengal offensive coordinator Bruce Coslet. "But, boy, is he playing great now. Quick, very quick, and he's strong as a bull."
5) Don Majkowski, 25, quarterback, Packers. Entering this year, Green Bay was praying either for Bart Starr to wake up 25 years younger or for Majkowski (.503 completion percentage, 14 touchdowns, 14 interceptions in two seasons) to grow out of his weaknesses overnight. Coach Lindy Infante's offense requires a quarterback to read defenses while his receivers are in mid-pattern and to stay in the pocket as long as possible. Majkowski had never done either well. "Last year Don would get in a shaky pocket and he'd scramble," says offensive assistant Joe Clark. "He didn't give the patterns time to form." This season Majkowski has stayed put. As a result, after Sunday's 14-13 upset of the Bears, he led the league in touchdown passes with 18 (Green Bay had 13 in all of '88) and in passing yards with 2,602. "I haven't seen him flustered yet," says Packer center Blair Bush.
6) Webster Slaughter, 25, wide receiver, Browns. He averaged 51.3 receiving yards a game in his first three seasons, and his role figured to be diminished this season after Cleveland drafted wideout Lawyer Tillman. But Slaughter kept his job, and this year he has three of the longest receptions in the NFL. He is also averaging an AFC-high 91.8 yards a game.
1) Steve Atwater, free safety, Broncos, first round, 20th pick overall. "I've never felt like a rookie on the field here," says Atwater. For 10 weeks before the start of preseason practice he lived and trained in Denver, learning the system of defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. Many big hitters get intimidated by thick NFL playbooks early in their careers, but not Atwater, who had beaten out veteran starter Mike Harden by late August. Defensive-backs coach Charlie Waters nicknamed Atwater the Smiling Assassin, and with a team-high 74 tackles, he has lived up to the sobriquet. "I'm always smiling," says Atwater. "People say to me, 'Why don't you quit grinning?' I'm having too much fun." He has been a key to Denver's improved defense against the run, which is allowing only 3.8 yards per attempt after having yielded 4.6 last year.
2) Barry Sanders, running back, Lions, first round, third pick overall. Run-and-shoot backs often have gaudy numbers, but Sanders, who's averaging 5.3 yards per carry, would be marvelous in any scheme. At 5'8", 203 pounds, he makes defenders miss him, either by eluding them or stampeding them. "He's one of the best backs I've ever faced," said Minnesota defensive tackle Keith Millard after Sanders had 129 rushing and receiving yards against the Vikings on Oct. 8. "I've never seen anyone break so many tackles. We thought he had silicone on his pants the way we kept slipping off him."
3) Derrick Thomas, outside linebacker, Chiefs, first round, fourth pick overall. "I don't think I've ever been around a linebacker who can run so fast," says Schottenheimer. Thomas is the first exceptional outside pass rusher Kansas City has had in the 1980s. With 7½ sacks, Thomas already has nearly twice as many sacks as any Chief had in 1988. What separates him from the crowd are his quickness and his conditioning. "He has limitless energy," says Seattle's offensive coordinator, John Becker.
4) Eric Metcalf running back, Browns, first round, 13th pick overall. "He's just an amazing little athlete," says Cleveland executive vice-president Ernie Accorsi. The Browns looked as if they had vastly overpaid to move up seven spots in the first round (Cleveland sent Denver first-, second-, fifth-and ninth-round picks), but it has been a great deal for them so far. The 5'10", 185-pound Metcalf is first among AFC rookies in receptions (33), second in rushing yards (377) and first in kickoff-return average (27.4), and he threw a 32-yard touchdown pass against Houston in Week 8.
5) Myron Guy ton, strong safety, Giants, eighth round, 218th pick overall. Two stunning things here. First, Parcells is loathe to play rookies on defense. Guyton is the first in the Parcells era to have started eight of the first nine games. Second, Guyton played Division I-AA football at Eastern Kentucky as a center-fielder-type free safety, yet he has been nearly perfect as a strong safety. He has missed two tackles in nine games.
The best teams at midseason:
The 49ers would have been 8-0 going into Monday night's game with the Saints if one of the NFL's most sure-handed players, running back Tom Rathman, hadn't had the second fumble of his four-year career. It led to the decisive field goal in a 13-12 loss to the Rams. Now San Francisco would have to suffer a grand el foldo to lose the home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. The Niners play five of their last seven games at Candlestick.
The 8-1 Giants have the best secondary and special teams they have had in coach Bill Parcells' seven-year tenure. If Phil Simms and Lawrence Taylor are healthy, great things are possible.
The Eagles (6-3) had a brutal first-half schedule—against other teams their opponents had a combined record of 39-17. Philly now faces only two teams, the Vikings and the Giants, that had winning records in the first half.
Things were so grim for the Cowboys before their 13-3 win over the Redskins on Sunday that they had been reduced to letting the fans determine who starts at one defensive end (Too Tall Jones, who was briefly benched before a popular outcry forced coach Jimmy Johnson to restore him to the lineup). Now they are 1-8 but still facing the fact that the possible top pick in next year's draft has been spent on a quarterback—Steve Walsh, taken in last summer's supplemental draft—who can't throw a 50-yard spiral.
The Lions (also 1-8 after being defeated 35-31 by the Oilers on Sunday) got rid of most of their conventionally sized offensive skill players before the season. So Detroit is stuck with the run-and-shoot—either that or the Lions fire everybody and become an expansion-team offense.
Leon Hess, owner of the 2-7 Jets, who eked out a 27-26 win over the Pats on Sunday, is a lot like his friend Wellington Mara of the Giants was 15 years ago—a nice guy who hated to fire people more than he loved to win. But Hess has to face reality and put one strong man, instead of the current management-by-committee, in charge of football operations.
...AND THE MADDENING
The Vikings (6-3) finally have a franchise running back, Herschel Walker, but now their passing attack is on the skids. Receivers Anthony Carter, Steve Jordan and Hassan Jones have combined for only three touchdown passes, and even after Sunday's 23-21 overtime victory over the Rams, Minnesota was last in the NFC in passing.
The Rams (5-4) are a nervous, shaken team. They were leaky defensively while going 5-0, but now the offense has gone on the fritz, and quarterback Jim Everett is throwing the way Steve Sax did for the Dodgers a few years ago.
The Seahawks (4-5) have outstanding offensive weapons, but they are 24th in the league in scoring. "I've coached several teams," says Seattle's Becker, "and each week you had an idea what to expect from your players. But this year, I have no idea what I'm going to see out there. None."
TREND OF THE YEAR
In the old days—back, oh, about 1983—the 3-4 defense was the rage. Teams got widebodies like the Giants' Jim Burt and the Bengals' Tim Krumrie to play nose-tackle and occupy a couple of offensive linemen, while speedy receivers consistently faced double coverage.
Seen the game in 1989? Defensive variations on the line of scrimmage, prompted by Buddy Ryan's pressuring 46 defense when he was defensive coordinator for the Bears in mid-decade, have been adopted by almost every team in the league. Now there are three or four down linemen, with the outside linebackers lined up on the outside shoulders of the ends. Some inside linebackers have almost become extra defensive tackles, and strong safeties (or, in Denver's case, either strong safety Dennis Smith or 213-pound free safety Atwater) play up close, ready to support against the run, to blitz or to retreat into coverage. In effect, this is an eight-man front, and everybody is dabbling in it. "I would say probably every team uses it 20 percent to a quarter of the time," says Chicago scout Jim Dooley.
San Diego has one formation in which the defensive ends line up wide, the tackles line up over the offensive tackles instead of the guards, and two inside linebackers—and sometimes the strong safety—clog the middle. The Chargers figure that they can stop the run and put pressure on the passer this way, though the cornerbacks must cover one-on-one. "No one is thinking bend-but-don't-break," says Seattle offensive line coach Kent Stephenson. "People want to force you into a different play, and they can do that by putting more people up front so you are outnumbered."
Here are a couple of the factors that helped bring about the new defenses:
•Offensive linemen have, as a rule, gotten bigger than defensive linemen, and big running backs have become common. How does a team expect to stop 256-pound jumbo back Larry Kinnebrew of Buffalo running behind a line weighing in at an average of 287? Just clog, baby. Bunch the inside linebackers close to the center and back them up with a big strong safety.
•Quarterbacks were having a field day without a heavy rush, despite the coverage in the secondary. Ryan's Bears had success by constantly putting defenders in the quarterback's face. In 1985, Chicago scared the heck out of offensive coordinators by showing how easy it is to sack the passer. Defensive size isn't paramount anymore; quickness is. Case in point: The Seahawks' best rusher in 1989 is Rufus Porter, who is only 221 pounds. "I've never had a guy [that size] make that kind of impact," says Seattle coach Chuck Knox.
To counter these pressure defenses, offenses are spreading their formations. Some teams use four wideouts and one running back. Consequently, some of the best receivers are getting single coverage. Says Denver's Phillips, "The pressure is on the corners. They've got to cover."
Patriot wide receiver Hart Lee Dykes has been a slow learner and has only 10 catches in an offense desperate for him to blossom. Cincinnati guard Freddie Childress didn't make it past the final preseason cut because of fatness (340 pounds) and a lack of discipline. Cleveland wideout Lawyer Tillman (two catches, 12 yards), who signed two days before the first game, will be a nonfactor all season. And where is the sixth pick in the draft, Tampa Bay linebacker Broderick Thomas, who has one sack?
Q: Which will be the scariest team in the second half of the season?
Philadelphia. The Eagles started the season as a one-man (quarterback Randall Cunningham) offensive team and a one-man (end Reggie White) defensive team. White is now tied for second in sacks, with tackle Jerome Brown, behind end Clyde Simmons, and the Eagles are winning by running. They were 2-2 passing 61% of the time. Since then, they have gone 4-1 by running 58% of the time.
Q: Are the Bears finished?
They're no longer dominant, but consider this: In nine games they have started nine different defensive lineups, and of the 25 defensive players the Bears have had on the active roster, 20 have started at least one game. Chicago, which lost 14-13 to Green Bay on Sunday, is in chaos on defense—but still only one game off the pace in the NFC Central. The Bears ain't dead yet.
Q: Are the Redskins as bad as they looked in losing 13-3 to Dallas?
They might be. In the past 24 months, coach Joe Gibbs made 11 quarterback changes. Now the ball belongs to Doug Williams, who made his first start of the year on Sunday and is one scramble away from disk surgery.
Q: How do the Giants win without chewing up the rushing yardage?
Coach Bill Parcells thinks a more important stat is rushing attempts. He likes to milk the clock by running the ball, even if he can't get four or five yards a clip. Since the start of 1988, the Giants have been held to 3.5 yards or less per rushing attempt in 13 games. They are 12-1 in those games. Over that same span, the league's 27 other teams are 110-133 in games in which they have averaged 3.5 yards or less per run.
Q: Are the Vikings better with Herschel Walker or just different?
Since acquiring Walker from the Cowboys, Minnesota hasn't turned around much of anything. To wit:
When Shell took over five games ago, he told the Raiders to be more aggressive, and they have forced 19 fumbles, intercepted eight passes and sacked opposing quarterbacks 14 times since then. He told the Raiders to run the ball better, and Bo Jackson showed up. After gaining 159 yards on Sunday, he has 467 yards on 63 carries in four games.
THE FIVE-STAR ROAD TRIP
Much has been made of the 49ers' success on the road. Since 1981 they have gone 51-14-1 away from home, including a 6-0 record this year. One factor that certainly hasn't hurt is that they travel in luxury. For instance, every player gets two seats on long flights and first-class meals in the air. Here's what the Niners were fed on the flight home following their victory over the Jets two weeks ago.
Fried chicken, salami slices, cheese and crackers.
Lettuce and tomato.
Chateaubriand, Duchesse potatoes, mixed vegetables, mushroom sauce, dinner rolls.
Fresh strawberry shortcake, ice cream bars, fruit and cheese baskets, macadamia nuts.
Points per game
Yards per rush
First downs per game
Yards per catch