NICE GUY FINISHES FIRST
This is Steve Largent's week to drive the kids to Heritage Christian School in Bothell, Wash. So on Monday, the morning after Largent returned from Cincinnati and from breaking one of the most significant individual records in football, he piled his four kids into his minivan, picked up four more kids on the 20-minute drive to school and dropped them all off.
The previous evening, in the dusk of Riverfront Stadium, Largent had taken off the Seahawk jersey he wore in making his NFL-record 100th career touchdown reception, breaking Packer Don Hutson's 44-year-old mark of 99, and handed it to Pete Gross, the Seahawks' radio play-by-play man, as a gift. Last year Gross had surgery to remove a cancerous portion of his stomach, and in November he missed four games while undergoing chemotherapy. "I admire you," Largent said to Gross.
The feeling was mutual. In the NFL record books the nice guy is finishing first all over the place. Largent already holds the records for career receptions (816), career receiving yards (13,035), career 1,000-yards-receiving seasons (eight) and consecutive games with at least one reception (175). On Sunday, with 42 seconds left in the first half, he found a deep hole in the Bengal zone, waved to quarterback Dave Krieg, made eye contact, watched the pass into his gut, kept both feet in bounds at the back of the end zone and tumbled over. History.
Setting this last record of Largent's 14-year career had become something of an endurance test. He finished last season needing three touchdown receptions to pass Hutson. Largent said then that if he retired with the record unbroken, "it would haunt me for the rest of my life." In Week 1 this season, he broke his elbow at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia and missed the next six games. In all, it took him almost two seasons to get the five scoring catches he needed to retire in peace.
"Physically, it is a battle now," says Largent, who's 35. "I don't regret the decision to play this year, but I also know retirement at the end of the year is the best decision I could make." Now he can leave knowing he has surpassed everyone who has ever played his position. The next stop will be Canton in 1995. After dropping the kids off at school a few more times, of course.
TOUCHY ISSUE OF THE WEEK
NFL personnel people find themselves in a tough spot these days about what to do with college juniors. "We don't want them to come out, and we don't encourage them," says George Young, the general manager of the Giants. "But there's a personnel community out there. We have to be in tune with it." On Monday the NFL cautioned both Blesto and National Football Scouting—the league's other scouting organization—that it is league policy not to scout juniors.
The big question, aside from which players might want to come out early, is what the NFL will do to stop them. The NFL has long prohibited drafting college players with eligibility left and who have neither graduated nor completed four years of study, but the rule is of questionable legality, and the league has consistently backed down from enforcing it when challenged by players. The latest to do so was Barry Sanders. Last April the league allowed Sanders, a true junior who was never redshirted and had eligibility left, to escape probation-saddled Oklahoma State, and officials fear his case may open the floodgates.
Complicating matters, the top pick in April could be a junior, Alabama linebacker Keith McCants—if he decides to turn pro. One Dallas scout says of McCants: "He's Lawrence Taylor. He's the best player out there. It's not even close." There are at least 17 other players with eligibility left who, if available, could go in the first three rounds:
•Quarterbacks—Scott Mitchell, Utah; Jeff George, Illinois; Andre Ware, Houston; Major Harris, West Virginia.
•Running backs—James Joseph and Stacy Danley, Auburn; Rodney Hampton, Georgia; Emmitt Smith, Florida.
•Center—John Flannery, Syracuse.
•Guard—Mark Tucker, USC.
•Wide receiver—Rob Moore, Syracuse.
•Defensive lineman—Marc Spindler, Pitt.
•Linebackers—Lamar Lathon, Houston; Junior Seau, USC; Ron Cox, Fresno State; Huey Richardson, Florida.
•Safety—Mark Carrier, USC.
Ware, Hampton, Smith, Spindler, Seau and Cox are third-year juniors. The others are all in their fourth year but have a year of eligibility left.
FREE FOR ALL
When the NFL Players Association decided to decertify itself on Nov. 6, the assumption was that the action was intended to bolster the union's antitrust suit in federal court challenging the NFL's draft and free-agency rules. Last week, when player representatives met in Dallas to be briefed on decertification, another reason for the move became clear. In effect, the union proposed opening a second front in its long and so-far fruitless legal battle with the league. By decertifying itself as a union, the NFLPA told the players, each player would become his own bargaining agent with management on all issues. That, the union said, would permit a player to sue the league after his individual contract expired, in an effort to gain unrestricted free agency.
NFLPA assistant executive director Doug Allen says: "The party that will bring the suit will be a player or players. We'll have no problem finding people to do it." Allen says the Players Association will continue to serve as a professional organization, with one of its major functions being "to coordinate and fund the lawsuits and help players secure a free marketplace."
What is it with this angry young man Randall Cunningham? Giants coach Bill Parcells says Cunningham is among the top quarterbacks in the game and Randall gets offended. "I don't take it as a compliment when somebody says I'm among the top 10 quarterbacks in the league," Cunningham says. "There's only 28 quarterbacks, and that's saying I'm an average quarterback. I've worked too hard to be considered an average quarterback." Look at the numbers. Cunningham was the league's 13th-rated passer in '87 and 14th in '88; he's 13th this season. He has never thrown for 4,000 yards in a season. The Eagles have never won a playoff game with him at quarterback. There's no question that Cunningham is one of the game's best quarterbacks, but it certainly isn't clear-cut that he's better right now than Joe Montana, Jim Everett, Warren Moon, Jim Kelly, Boomer Esiason, Dan Marino, John Elway or Bernie Kosar. He's a peer of theirs, which means he's among the top 10 quarterbacks in the game....
The strangeness continues: The Vikings, who play in Cleveland Sunday, are 0-5 outdoors above the Mason-Dixon line this season.
THE WEEK THAT WAS
A SOBER BOUNTY BOWL
When the Eagles gathered for their Saturday-night team meeting before facing Dallas at home on Sunday, they were in no shape to play a football game. Not because they were distracted by Bounty Bowl II, the soap opera involving former Eagle kicker Luis Zendejas and Philly coach Buddy Ryan that was being played out in the press. (Does Luis really have a tape recording of his phone call with Eagle special-teams coach Al Roberts confirming that Ryan had put a price on the kicker's head before last month's Dallas-Philadelphia game? Is Buddy guilty? Will Jimmy Smits play Luis in the miniseries?) No, the Eagles were upset because Philly quarterback coach Doug Scovil died of a heart attack Saturday. "The coaches were devastated," guard Ron Heller said. "Buddy, you could tell, had been crying."
The death was hard, too, on quarterback Randall Cunningham, who regarded Scovil as a mentor. "I think I had the best relationship with him that I'd ever had with a coach," Cunningham said. "He used to say my head was getting too big for my helmet." Cunningham and the Eagles shook off their grief long enough to beat the Cowboys 20-10 in a game marred only by words. "I have two Christmas wishes," Zendejas said afterward. "The first is, I'd like to get 15 seconds in a dark alley alone with Ryan so I could ask him why he did what he did. And the second wish is, I'd like to have another 15 seconds alone with him so I could beat the crap out of him."
Since Nov. 5, when Jim Kelly, the AFC's top-rated quarterback, returned after suffering a dislocated shoulder, Buffalo has gone 2-4. Defensive end Bruce Smith, one of the AFC's perennial sack leaders, had two sacks in those six games. On Sunday, in the Bills' stunning 22-19 home loss in the snow to the warm-weather Saints, Buffalo's vaunted rushing tandem of Thurman Thomas and Larry Kinnebrew gained 67 yards. This all adds up to an 8-6 record and the real chance that the Bills could miss the playoffs.
Bills fans spent much of the fourth quarter booing Kelly and calling for Frank Reich. Reich, you'll recall, went 3-0 when Kelly was out. Kelly threw two bad interceptions Sunday, and later his spirits seemed as low as they had ever been. Asked if he had lost confidence, Kelly said: "Maybe you could say that." You could say it of the Bills, too.
IT'S OVER, MIKE
•From late '84 through September '89, the Bears went 25-0 against Tampa Bay, Green Bay and Detroit. Since September, Chicago has gone 0-4 against them.
•On Sunday the Bears lost their fourth in a row, to the Lions 27-17. The last time they lost four in a row, Jim McMahon was a senior at Brigham Young.
•Chicago is a home underdog against Green Bay Sunday.
STATS OF THE WEEK
•Miami wide receiver Mark Duper, who caught a combined 19 touchdown passes in '86 and '87, has had two since—and only one in his last 20 games.
•These are Giants quarterback Phil Simms's combined numbers against the Broncos in Super Bowl XXI—the last time he faced Denver—and the first 16 minutes of Sunday's game: 27 for 30, 312 yards.
THE WEEK AHEAD
Oilers at Bengals. The Bengals hate the Oilers. They think coach Jerry Glanville's boys are a dirty, fight-starting bunch. Last year, in the Oilers' 41-6 rout of the Bengals at the Astrodome, Houston defensive back Cris Dishman stood over fallen Cincinnati quarterback Boomer Esiason and screamed, "You're in the House of Pain now, Boomer! It's all over!" To which Esiason replied: "Hey, Dishman, why don't you go cover Eddie Brown one-on-one so we can get back in this game real quick?"
Bills at 49ers. The deal that took O.J. Simpson from Buffalo to San Francisco in 1978 may have been the last bad move made by the 49er franchise, which surrendered five picks for an aging back who lasted only two seasons. But the trade was a boon to Buffalo. One of the draft picks the Bills received was converted into linebacker Tom Cousineau, who was traded to Cleveland in '82 for three more picks. One of those, a No. 1 in '83, yielded quarterback Jim Kelly.
Vikings at Browns. Imagine Herschel Walker (left) wearing the other team's uniform. The Browns, who love to run the big back, lost Kevin Mack for 12 weeks this season after he had knee surgery and was imprisoned for cocaine use. So they entered the Herschel stakes in October, offering the Cowboys six high draft picks and linebacker Clifford Charlton for Walker. The Vikes outbid them. Now, on the tundra of northeast Ohio, the man who would have been a Brown will try to push Minnesota into the playoffs and knock his former suitors out.
OTHER PEOPLE'S MONEY
The highest-paid players in the NFL this season are the 49ers, according to a Players Association salary survey obtained by SI. But the Eagles' average player paycheck made the most startling jump from 1988 to '89--from 14th in the league to second--propelled by huge new deals the club signed with defensive end Reggie White (four years, $6.1 million) and quarterback Randall Cunningham (seven years, $20.2 million). The NFLPA's figures, gathered at the start of this season, include salaries and bonuses scheduled to be paid to players during the calendar year. Overall, the average player salary rose to $302,400--a 27.6% increase, the largest one-year rise ever. Here are the NFLPA's survey results:
1988 Avg. Salary
1989 Avg. Salary