Seahawk coach gets radical Seattle's Chuck Knox has come to be known as a conservative, three-yards-and-a-swatch-of-Astro Turf coach with no imagination. You know, Ground Chuck. "It's so convenient to put a label on someone," says Knox. "But I change. In 1984, we lost Curt Warner in the first half of the first game. We started throwing the football, and we went 12-4."
In the off-season, Knox and his staff took a hard look at their team, which in '89 finished 7-9, scored only 15 points a game and was particularly weak at linebacker. They decided to add the run-and-shoot to the offense, intending to use it about 30% of the time, and to switch from a 3-4 defense to a 4-3.
So far, the run-and-shoot—Knox calls it the Spread—is agreeable to everyone on the team. "The good thing is we're not going to it full-time, so lots of times defenses aren't going to know when we're in it and when we're not," says quarterback Dave Krieg. "They're not going to know who to substitute."
One other note on Knox. He's one of six NFL coaches who in the off-season entered a weight-loss competition sponsored by a diet-drink company. Knox wrote down a diet game plan, with weekly goals, and he locked out his old eating habits. "I can't go cruise control on anything," he says. "If I play gin, football, anything—I want to win." He did. He lost 63 pounds.
NEW ARMOR FOR MARINO
John Sandusky began coaching NFL offensive linemen in 1963, with the Colts. Five guys who weren't alive then make up his most promising project yet in 15 years with the Dolphins. From left tackle to right, the players who make up the youngest offensive line in the league are 23,23, 24, 25 and 25 years old: respectively, rookie left tackle Richmond Webb (first-round draft pick), rookie left guard Keith Sims (second-round choice), second-year center Jeff Uhlenhake, third-year right guard Harry Galbreath and fourth-year right tackle Mark Dennis.
In the Dolphins' 25-year history, no rookie offensive lineman has started in the first game of a season, but coach Don Shula will start two on Sunday in New England. "The bad thing about a young line like this is it's going to make some errors," says Sandusky. "You don't have the veterans out there to help them and communicate with them. But the advantage is the kids will do things the way you teach them. If you're teaching the right things and they have ability, they ought to be successful."
Sandusky's biggest worry is the inexperience on the line's left side, which is so important in protecting quarterback Dan Marino, because that's where most topflight pass rushers pounce from. Sandusky used Webb and Sims together on nearly every preseason down, trying to force-feed them for the opener. They're massive enough—averaging 6'4" and 300 pounds—but are they good enough?
"We're just starting to get our chemistry down, and it could take maybe a year, to get confident with each other," says Sims. "But there are no excuses now. We've got to play well right away."
IT'S SHOW TIME, HERSCHEL
Herschel Walker had a nice 1989 season—915 yards rushing, 423 yards receiving, a 93-yard kickoff return and all the perks (house, car, 10 first-class plane tickets to the destination of his choice) that came his way in October when the Cowboys traded him to the Vikings. But Walker is not supposed to have nice seasons. He's supposed to have great seasons. Minnesota is expecting one from him in '90.
If Walker has it in him—and he's at a running back's prime age, 28—he could have a monster year, maybe carrying the team with 1,800 or 2,000 yards from scrimmage. The Vikings, who more often than not last season subbed for Walker on third down and on plays at the goal line, plan to make him an every-down back at any one of four positions. He'll be the running back in the traditional two-back pro set, the I-back in the one-back set, the 226-pound bull on the goal line and either the flanker or wide receiver in some passing schemes. "We're using just about every formation in football," says coach Jerry Burns. "We've used them in the past. We're just using them earlier and maybe more often now."
"All my life, I've said I've wanted to be known as a great football player," says Walker. He means a great player, not just a great back. Minnesota, which gave up about 5,000 of its 10,000 lakes to get him, expects nothing less.
On Aug. 25, in a preseason game against the Giants, the Jets unleashed a pass rush that looked like a pack of rottweilers running through traffic to get to a pile of filet mignon. They looked like a bunch of Chris Dolemans and Keith Millards. On six of his first eight pass attempts, Giants quarterback Phil Simms was sacked, chased from the pocket or belted as he threw. Jet ends Jeff Lageman and Ron Stallworth swooped in on him from the outside, while tackles Scott Mersereau, Dennis Byrd and Gerald Nichols penetrated the pocket.
After the game, Giants coach Bill Parcells said the Jet pass rush looked "like a jailbreak." He was angry, because the Giants are supposed to have a good offensive line. And they do. But maybe the Jets aren't sad sacks anymore. Incorporating stunts installed by new defensive coordinator Pete Carroll, who as defensive backfield coach in Minnesota the past five seasons saw the Vikings use them with terrific success, the Jets just might resurrect talk of the old Sack Exchange. They had a league-low 28 sacks last year, but they had 15 in four preseason games.
Lageman insists that he wants this line to take on its own identity. "What I like about the new defense is that it's not as structured," says Lageman, who played linebacker in the old scheme. "We attack. It's like playground ball."
BACK TO CAMPUS
What has been forgotten about Denver quarterback John Elway, who has lived and died by the bomb in hi? seven NFL seasons, is that he is a heck of a touch passer. At Stanford, where he ran a prostyle offense and frequently threw to his backs, Elway was a 62.1% passer and averaged 19 TD passes a season. In seven years as a pro, Elway has completed 54.2% and averaged 17 TD passes.
The Broncos have decided to allow Elway to go back to his future. They've always had dump-off pass plays in their playbook, and now they're going to use them. Look for Elway to throw more often from a five-step dropback instead of relying primarily on the standard seven-step drop. Denver changed the emphasis of its offense in the preseason, and the results for Elway were impressive: a 70.8 completion percentage, three touchdown passes and one interception.
Guess who Dallas owner Jerry Jones consulted before signing the NFL's most lucrative radio contract, with KVIL, a five-year deal reportedly worth $3.5 million per season beginning in 1991? George Steinbrenner. "He gave me some tips," says Jones. In 1988, Steinbrenner worked out long-term deals with Madison Square Garden cable-TV and WABC radio for a total of $560 million....
Update on the two most prominent injured bodies of '89: Giants tight end Mark Bavaro and Bengal running back Ickey Woods, both of whom are coming off major knee surgery. The news is good for one and bad for the other. Bavaro showed surprising quickness in late-camp practices despite some tendinitis and soreness in his left knee. Woods says that his left knee is fine and that he's ready to play, but the Bengals think otherwise after having watched him in preseason games. Woods will go on the physically-unable-to-perform list for the first six weeks of the season, and his replacement will be rookie Harold Green. One scout says that he thinks Green, who is coming off a terrific camp, can be one of the best backs in the AFC....
Here are my early picks for the best of '90: offensive player of the year, quarterback Chris Miller, Atlanta; defensive player, end Lee Williams, San Diego; offensive rookie, running back Anthony Thompson, Phoenix; defensive rookie, linebacker Aaron Wallace, Raiders; comeback player, running back Gary Anderson, Tampa Bay; coach, Dan Henning, San Diego.
THE END ZONE
Cincinnati quarterback Boomer Esiason, raised in East Islip, N.Y., 50 miles east of Manhattan, spends a big part of every off-season around his beloved Big Apple. He knows the Bengals will never deal him to a New York team, and he likes living in Cincinnati and playing for the Bengals. But he can dream, can't he? Esiason was at Giants Stadium one day in the off-season to do commercial work for NFL Properties, and he asked to dress in Simms's locker. One of the ad people had a Polaroid camera. "Take a picture of me in Simms's jersey," Esiason told the ad guy. Esiason wrote "Wishful Thinking" on the snapshot and hung it in the locker.
The Week Ahead
Oilers at Falcons. The new Houston coach, Jack Pardee, unveils a kinder and gentler Oiler team than those of his predecessor, new Atlanta coach Jerry Glanville. "I want the same things Jerry wanted," says Pardee. "I want physical play. I just don't want the penalties." Last year Houston averaged a league-high 9.3 penalties a game. Atlanta's average of 5.1 penalties in '89, fourth-lowest in the league, is in danger of doubling, considering Glanville's history.
Eagles at Giants. For the past two seasons, New York had a 22-10 regular-season record, and Philadelphia was 21-11. In four head-to-head meetings over that span, the Giants outgained the Eagles by a total of 196 yards. So why did Philly win all four of those games? In order, here's how the four Giants debacles were decided: New York tight end Mark Bavaro dropped a fourth-quarter pass for the go-ahead touchdown; Eagle defensive end Clyde Simmons returned a blocked field goal for a touchdown in overtime; the Giants blew a nine-point fourth-quarter lead; four of New York's five turnovers set up all of Philadelphia's 24 points.
"I've heard their excuses," says Eagle strong safety Andre Waters. "You don't get beat four out of four and say you're the better team. The better team finds a way to win." And this week? "They know they're going to get whupped," says Waters. "They just don't know how."
Steelers at Browns. Fifty-two weekends ago, in Pittsburgh, the sky fell: Browns 51, Steelers 0, and it really was that bad. Eight Pittsburgh turnovers. A team-record margin of defeat. Last year's worst debut for a heralded rookie. Pittsburgh's first-round draft choice, running back Tim Worley, fumbled three times and rushed for 37 yards. But by year's end, the Steelers had beaten the Browns 17-7 in their rematch and were a playoff team. Now they may be better than their archrival. "We're going to flash back," says Worley. "We owe them a big one."
A Nice Pickup
One of the best stories of the off-season—and one that went virtually unnoticed—was the crosstown trade of running back Greg Bell from the Rams to the Raiders for just a fourth-round draft choice. Raider boss AI Davis did his research and found a 28-year-old back with mediocre speed and Pro Bowl-caliber production the last two years.
In 1988 and '89, Bell rushed for a better average (4.2 yards per carry) than Herschel Walker (4.0), gained more yards (2,349) than all but four other NFL running backs (Walker, Eric Dickerson, Roger Craig and Neal Anderson) and scored more touchdowns (33) than any other player in the league.
Bell says he doesn't care about numbers; he only wants to play a prominent role with his new team. When the Raiders open the season Sunday against the Broncos, Bell will be used in a rotation of backs. That rotation will be affected by the arrival of Bo Jackson, after he finishes playing baseball.
"This isn't an individual game, so I can't worry about individual stats," says Bell. "Eric Dickerson rushed for 2,000 yards [in '84], but what came of it? Did the Rams win the Super Bowl? I've been around seven years and put up some good stats and made some good pay. But I don't have the Super Bowl ring."
The 5'10", 210-pound Bell will try to become the first NFL back ever to run for 1,000 yards in a season for three different teams. He gained 1,100 as a rookie with the Bills in '84.
Bell already is one of only two NFL backs ever to rush for 1,000 yards and 15 touchdowns two seasons in a row. Jim Taylor of the Packers was the other.
Six of the top dozen rushers in league history have been elected to the Football Hall of Fame. The accompanying chart shows how the best back-to-back seasons for each of these six greats compare with Bell's performance in 1988-89.