The Steelers lost their first two games this season by a total of 82 points and then won four of six. The Rams won their first five games, dropped four in a row and then drubbed the Giants, who had lost only once, on Sunday. After the Bills lost Jim Kelly, the AFC's top-rated quarterback, to a shoulder injury, they won three consecutive games with a quarterback, Frank Reich, nobody had wanted as a Plan B free agent. Kelly returned two weeks ago, and Buffalo promptly fell to the lowly Falcons.
Dallas, the worst team in the league, won by 10 points in Washington. Washington won by two in New Orleans. New Orleans won by 19 points in Anaheim against the Rams. The Rams beat the 49ers, the best team in the league, by one in San Francisco. Do these results make any sense?
Here comes that P word again. In the year that parity-loving Pete Rozelle left office as commissioner, it's fitting that the NFL is at maximum parity. The season is 10 weeks old, and the competition could hardly be more balanced. Never before have 16 teams been bunched at 4-6, 5-5 or 6-4. Twenty-two teams have at least four wins. That means more than 78% of the teams still have a realistic shot at making the playoffs, with six games left. "What an unbelievable year," says Bills general manager Bill Polian. "I turn 47 in December, but this season my stomach is 116."
Parity has also made for closer games (box, right). "I can't remember the last time I was in a game that was over in the third quarter," says Patriots guard Sean Farrell. What's going on? Pete's parity has become even tighter in the last year for a number of reasons:
1) The Forced .500 Factor. The NFL has long tried to pit the weak against the weak and the strong against the strong early in the season to keep as many teams as possible in playoff contention. But since 1987 life has been even tougher for the top teams. Before then the league presented a division's first-and fourth-place finishers with the same caliber of competition the next year. Second-and third-place finishers also faced similar competition. (Fifth-place finishers played against other fifth-place finishers.) Since '87 the higher a team has finished in its division, the tougher its schedule has been the next season.
2) The Getting-Caught-in-the-Draft Factor. In the 14 years since the NFL moved the draft from two weeks after the Super Bowl to three months after it, scouting has become uniform and seemingly endless. "It used to be that the good organizations were ready to draft in January, and the others weren't," says Tex Schramm, former president of the Cowboys. "After the first round, I'd always see four, five, six of our preferred players still on the board, and we'd get one in the second round. Teams have so much time to scout now, that nobody can make a really big mistake."
3) The Passing-Fancy Factor. Late leads are ridiculously unsafe. In the past few seasons teams have become adept at using wide-open passing formations, especially those that employ four wide-outs. That, coupled with various rules changes over the last decade that have benefited the passing game, means that desperate offenses can strike more quickly. "It's clear that it's easier to make games close in the final minutes with the opening up of the passing game," says Polian. "You've got to have a three-score lead at the two-minute warning to be safe."
4) The Plan B Factor. The system of unrestricted free agency for any player not on a team's protected 37-man roster, which was instituted last winter, distributes marginal players to needy teams. For example, the Raiders and Dolphins got needed linebacking help from Plan B and are much improved.
5) The Nice-Guys-Finish-Last Factor. Teams fired assistant coaches at a record rate this past off-season in an effort to find different combinations on their staffs and to make sure they didn't miss out on any new wrinkles in the game. Case in point: Steeler coach Chuck Noll, with prodding from club president Dan Rooney, broke up that old gang of his in Pittsburgh in the off-season, hiring a defensive coordinator (Rod Rust), a linebackers coach (Dave Brazil), a defensive-backs coach (John Fox) and a special-teams coach (George Stewart), none of whom are former Steelers. "There's very little cronyism and friendship in hiring today," says Giants general manager George Young. "It used to be you hired your good friends for your coaching staff. Now you hire the best teachers and motivators and coaches."
Fans seem to like the current state of affairs. The Monday night game is pulling down a boffo 18.1 TV rating, 1.2 points better than last year's. The NFL's attendance record for a season—an average of 60,745 fans per game in 1981—is endangered, too. This year the league is drawing 61,080 per.
THE EAGLES HAVE LANDED
It seems like yesterday that Randall Cunningham signed his $2.89 million-a-year deal with the Eagles. In fact, he came to terms on Sept. 17, just a few hours before he threw for 447 yards and five touchdowns as he led Philly to a 42-37 win over Washington. In Sunday's rematch he passed for only 177 yards and no TDs. He wasn't pleased with his performance.
Cunningham is peeved that coach Buddy Ryan has become so enamored of the running game in the last six weeks. Ryan has insisted (with much historical proof) that you don't get to the Super Bowl without a solid ground attack. The Eagles ran well during their four-game winning streak in weeks 5 through 8, and Cunningham couldn't say much. Now they've lost two games in a row, and the run-versus-pass debate is hot in Philadelphia.
"You tell me how we won last year," says Cunningham. "Did we win running the ball?" The answer is no.
Says Ryan, "This is the only town I've ever been in where a damn running game detracted from a passing game."
It should be noted that Cunningham's receivers dropped 11 passes on Sunday, including one to Carlos Carson that would have been a sure 75-yard TD. There's some frustration in the Eagles' locker room, and they might not be the team we thought they were.
Bears defensive tackle Dan Hampton will have his 10th knee operation on Monday. The arthroscopic surgery on his right knee wasn't done in October, when the left knee was 'scoped, because Hampton's doctors didn't want to leave him with a double limp. Hey Dan, we love you, but it's time to retire....
As if you couldn't have guessed after the game-deciding replay reversal in Green Bay on Nov. 5, Chicago, which lost 14-13, is suddenly against the use of the instant replay. The team's management will switch its vote from yea to nay when the system comes up for renewal at the league meeting in March. The replay's prospects for survival are dim, now that its two leading supporters, Rozelle and Schramm, are out of the league....
Beware of trends: Through the first four weeks of the season, teams scored 45.2 points per game, a higher average than they'd had for a full season since the 1970 merger. In the next four games, teams averaged 40.4, the fewest of any nonstrike season since '79.
THE WEEK THAT WAS
SAVING THEIR SKINS
"On our bus to the stadium you could hear a pin drop," said Redskins offensive line coach Joe Bugel after Washington's 10-3 victory at Philadelphia on Sunday. "We're not usually like that. But we had fear in our hearts, fear of losing."
No wonder. Entering the game the Skins had gone 11-14 since winning Super Bowl XXII, they had lost to the woeful Cowboys at home the week before, coach Joe Gibbs had said he thought he might lose his job if the losing continued, Washington fans were catatonic, running back Gerald Riggs was out with a foot injury, and three of the five starting offensive linemen wouldn't play against the Eagles—who were second in the league in sacks with 38—because of injuries. To make matters worse, on Washington's fourth offensive play, tackle Joe Jacoby tore two ligaments in his left knee and was lost for the season. That made the neo-Hogs, from left to right, Ed Simmons, Raleigh McKenzie, Jeff Bostic (the lone remaining regular starter), Mark Schlereth and Ray Brown. Schlereth said he didn't have to be a Hog to be happy and christened himself a piglet.
That makeshift line held Philadelphia to two sacks, backup running back Jamie Morris rushed 38 times—the second greatest number of carries in a game in Redskins history—for 88 yards, and Washington held the ball for 37 minutes. In addition, several young players, particularly Simmons and rookie tight end Jimmie Johnson, shone for Gibbs, who has long been known as a play-your-veterans-till-they-drop coach.
"Where this leads us, I don't know," Gibbs said afterward. "We're all right for another week, I guess. But it doesn't mean the hard times are over. It's like fishing. You sit out there in the boat for a couple of hours and don't get anything. Then you get one hit, and you're back in it."
To get back in the NFC East race, the Redskins, who trail the division-leading Giants by three games, need more than a hit. They need lots of them, especially from some new players. Maybe this was a start.
FISH OF THE WEEK
Still don't take the Dolphins' playoff chances seriously after their 31-23 defeat of the Jets? Maybe this will persuade you: None of 6-4 Miami's remaining six opponents has a winning record. "In my three years here, we struggled to get to .500," says linebacker John Offerdahl. "But I'm smiling now. I think that everyone on this team realizes our playoff potential."
What the Rams did to the Giants on Sunday was amazing. Not only did L.A. beat New York 31-10 to snap a four-game losing streak, but the Rams also outrushed the Giants 150 yards to six and outsacked them 4-0. What's more, New York's vaunted young secondary gave up 18 consecutive completions to quarterback Jim Everett. Since 1985, the Giants have lost only three of 70 regular-season games by 14 points or more. Two have been to the Rams in the past two seasons.
This comes under the heading, Your Cash Ain't Nothing but Trash. Phoenix quarterback Tom Tupa (1989 salary and bonus: $145,000) led the Cardinals to a 24-20 win over Dallas and quarterback Troy Aikman ('89 salary and bonus: $2 million).
STATS OF THE WEEK
•Don't Pinch the Packers: Quarterback Don Majkowski is on pace for a 4,734-yard passing season, which would be the fourth most prolific in NFL history.
•On Sunday, Aikman threw for more yards (379) in his fifth pro start than Roger Staubach or Danny White ever did in one game for the Cowboys.
•After gaining 103 yards on 21 carries in his Raiders' 14-12 loss to the Chargers, Bo Jackson has a career rushing average of 5.6 yards. Jim Brown's was 5.2, Gale Sayers', 5.0.
THE WEEK AHEAD
Chiefs at Browns. Kansas City coach Marty Schottenheimer, who resigned as Cleveland's coach last December after a dispute with owner Art Modell, returns to the Dawg Pound for his first game since then. The change has been good for both teams. The Browns are 7-3 and have a more innovative defense under new coach Bud Carson, and though Schottenheimer's Chiefs are only 4-6, they are much improved over last year; Kansas City ranks fourth in the league in rushing offense and second in total defense.
Dolphins at Cowboys. Rumor has it that Soap Opera Digest will cover this one. Count the plot lines. 1) When first-year coach Jimmy Johnson left the University of Miami for Dallas, he hoped that one of his Hurricane assistant coaches, Gary Stevens, would succeed him, but the university shunned Stevens, who was then hired by Dolphin coach Don Shula to be his quarterback coach. 2) David Shula, Don's son and the Dolphins' previous quarterback coach, left Dad to become offensive coordinator in Dallas, where he's coaching former Hurricane quarterback Steve Walsh, who was coached by Stevens in college. 3) Last January Dave Wannstedt gave up his job as the Hurricanes' defensive coordinator to become the Dolphins' linebacker coach, but when Johnson got the Cowboy job a month later, Johnson lured Wannstedt from the Dolphins to Dallas by offering him the position of defensive coordinator. 4) "And," says Johnson, who spent five years in Miami, "I had a tremendous relationship with Don Shula. I've seen the Dolphins practice more than any team in pro football except our own."
Last year, for the first time since the NFL expanded to 28 teams in 1976, a majority of games (50.4%) were decided by seven points or fewer. So far this season, not including Monday night's game between Houston and Cincinnati, 47.5% of the games have been won by a touchdown or less, a rate that's significantly higher than the percentage for the decade. Indeed, as this chart computed for SI by the Elias Sports Bureau shows, games have been getting steadily closer on a decade-by-decade basis since 1940.
Pet. of 7-Point Games