BACK TO THE FUTURE
Last summer Cowboy pro personnel director John Wooten heard a lot of talk as to how teams would be playing wide-open football this season, with the run-and-shoot Falcons and Oilers leading the way, with even the most conservative teams using four and five wide receivers as early as second down, with offenses everywhere spreading from sideline to sideline. After watching a few of the very good teams—the 8-0 49ers, the 7-0 Giants (heading into Monday night's game at Indianapolis), the 7-1 Bears, the 6-2 Raiders—during the first half of the season, Wooten has noticed one thing about the NFL in 1990. The wide-open game is not having the impact he expected it would.
"It's like the football Vince Lombardi taught," says Wooten. "Teams have turned back the clock. It's almost like football has gotten back to being a pride thing. Teams come out and say, 'We're going to kick your butt.' They're playing hard-nosed, in-your-face football and trying to dominate games physically."
For all the changes in the NFL over the years, the innovations haven't altered the way most good teams go about winning. "Football," says Cardinals running back Ron Wolfley, "always has been and always will be a physical game. You can try to trick and dance around, but it comes down to hitting folks harder than they're hitting you."
Aside from the 49ers, who have maintained their success despite a spotty running game, the consistent winners—who also include the 7-1 Dolphins and the 7-1 Bills—have stuck to the ground. There's one other thing the six teams with the best records have in common: They are all playing intimidating defense and stopping the run.
Dan Marino (nine touchdown passes, seven interceptions) is having one of his worst seasons statistically, but Miami has 939 yards rushing after eight games compared with 639 at the midpoint of last season, and its defense is top-ranked in the league. The Raiders, Giants and Bears are all grinding it out on the ground and allowing less than 15 points a game. Buffalo's defense has been inconsistent, but the Bills' average of 4.5 yards per rushing attempt is fourth best in the league.
The run-and-shoot? It's exciting, which is good for a staid league. However, the jury's out on whether, over the long haul, teams that use this offense can avoid frequent turnovers and play well enough to win championships. The three run-and-shoot teams—the Oilers (4-5), Falcons (3-5) and Lions (3-5)—are 10-15.
"I'm not as sophisticated as a lot of people in this league," says Chicago coach Mike Ditka. "I learned a system under Coach [Tom] Landry, and I think you have to establish the run. If football is played for 2,000 more years, the winners will always go back to the basics."
RIGHT MAN FOR THE JOB
"He always was a rally guy," said Giants coach Bill Parcells after seeing highlights of his former backup quarterback, Jeff Rutledge, pulling out a 41-38 overtime win for the Redskins. "Jeff always was at his best in helter-skelter games. The crazier things got, when everything was going wrong, the better he was."
Sent in to replace struggling starter Stan Humphries with 10:23 left in the third quarter and Washington trailing Detroit 35-14, Rutledge completed 30 of 42 passes for 363 yards and one touchdown. He also ran 12 yards for a score on a quarterback draw with 18 seconds left in regulation, a play that shocked everyone in the Silverdome. In overtime, Rut-ledge's pinpoint 40-yard pass to Art Monk, thrown from his own end zone on third-and-15, kept the winning drive alive.
"I may never play again," said Rutledge, 33, afterward, "but you can't take away what happened to me today." A 12-year NFL veteran, Rutledge was a Plan B signee with the Redskins in the off-season after eight years with the Giants.
The Lions did as much to lose the game as Rutledge did to win it. They entered the fourth quarter with a 17-point lead and with Barry Sanders, arguably the best back in the game, available to run out the clock. But on their last three possessions of regulation, a total of seven plays from scrimmage, Detroit called six pass plays, used up only 3:21 and did not make a first down. Sanders didn't carry the ball in the fourth quarter or in overtime. Hey, Lion fans, don't blame the run-and-shoot for this defeat. Blame the play-calling.
Speaking of jokes, the Bears scored all their points in a 26-6 win over the Buccaneers during a 27-minute span of the second and third quarters. In that time, Tampa Bay quarterback Vinny Testaverde completed none of 11 passes and threw four interceptions. "We might just scrap the entire passing game," said Buc coach Ray Perkins after Tampa Bay had lost its third game in a row to fall to 4-5.
THE END ZONE
When Mark Carrier met Mark Carrier before the Bears-Bucs game in Tampa, they shook hands and smiled. "Finally!" said Mark Carrier.
To explain. Chicago free safety Mark Carrier is a distant cousin of Tampa Bay wideout Mark Carrier, and though they were aware of each other's football prowess—with the Bears' Carrier starring at Southern Cal and the Bucs' Carrier at Nicholls (La.) State—they had not met before Sunday's game.
Testaverde completed five passes to the Carriers: three to his receiver and two to the Chicago free safety. On two plays, Carrier deflected passes intended for' Carrier. "We didn't have a chance to talk during the game," said the Bears' Carrier. "It was a little too hectic today to talk about the family tree."
However, they did exchange phone numbers, and they talked about getting together with family in the off-season to try to sort out just how they connect as cousins. Too bad the game wasn't played in the Carrier Dome.
NEW DECADE, NEW STARS
Here are three players whose careers have taken off.
Marion Butts, Chargers—In the 1989 draft 24 running backs were picked ahead of Butts, who had only 64 carries in two years as a part-time fullback at Florida State; he was taken by the Chargers in the seventh round. Butts had a 176-yard rushing day against the Chiefs in '89, but he still had to beat out a handful of veteran backs in training camp to win a starting job this year. So here's blue-collar Butts, getting his 18 rushes a game, pile-driving defenses and trying to carry a mediocre team. Butts is surprised that he's the NFL's leading rusher, with 713 yards for a 4.5-yard average. But then, he says. "I'm surprised I was drafted at all."
Reyna Thompson. Giants—The Giants were mining for Plan B free-agent prospects in February 1989 when coach Bill Parcells saw a tape of Reyna (pronounced Re-NAY) Thompson smashing through wedges and fighting off double-team blocks on Miami's special teams. "I saw three plays, and that was enough." says Parcells. "I said, 'Sign him.' " A part-time cornerback and a full-time pursuit player on punts and kickoffs. Thompson has excelled on New York's special teams for a year and a half. But he didn't catch the country's attention until he made three solo tackles against his old team in Week 3 of this season. All three stops came after he had beaten double coverage to get to the return man. "I want everyone to know," Thompson says, "that I'm out there to lay the hat on people."
Trace Armstrong, Bears—Throughout the off-season Armstrong bugged his coaches for tapes of other defensive left ends to play on his home VCR. One day he would ask for Reggie White. A few days later, Charles Mann. A week later, some vintage Howie Long. Then some old Dan Hampton. "It really helped," says Armstrong, a second-year pro. "In fact, I switched from a righthanded stance to lefthanded after watching Mann." After arriving a month late for camp because of a contract holdout, Armstrong showed promise in 14 starts in '89, but—as was true for the rest of the Bears—the season was really a washout. This year Armstrong, a 6'4", 270-pound speed rusher, has a team-high seven sacks and leads Chicago linemen, with 39 tackles.
(DIS) PARITY IN THE NFL
Is this league bottom-heavy or what? Here are the league standings, with the 28 teams split into four groups. After Sunday, there were 10 teams with winning records.
The top seven: 49ers, Giants, Dolphins, Bills, Bears, Raiders, Redskins.
The second seven: Chiefs, Steelers, Bengals, Eagles, Jets, Oilers, Chargers.
The third seven: Bucs, Packers, Falcons, Seahawks, Rams, Broncos, Lions.
The bottom seven: Saints, Cowboys, Colts, Cardinals, Vikings, Browns, Pats.
THE WEEK AHEAD
Falcons at Bears. A matchup for the '90s. Atlanta's up-and-coming passing game—Chris Miller throwing to Andre Rison, Michael Haynes, Shawn Collins, Floyd Dixon and Steve Broussard—ranks fourth in the league. What's more, Miller and his five targets average only 24 years of age. Chicago's tough, five-deep secondary-safeties Mark Carrier and Shaun Gayle, cornerbacks Donnell Woolford, Lemuel Stinson and Vestee Jackson—averages 25 years old. "Even though we're young," says Gayle, 28, the Bears' oldest defensive back, "we've had a good deal of experience. Last year, as a rookie, Donnell took on the other team's best wide receiver every game." All that practice will come in handy on Sunday. Rison is second in the league in catches (49) and receiving yards (778).
Packers at Raiders. Every day, when Green Bay coach Lindy Infante walks from the practice field to the club offices at Lambeau Field, he looks at the stadium and muses on the Packers of yesteryear. "I think, Wow, I'm pretty lucky," says Infante, who is in his second year with the Pack. "I want to help this franchise continue its great past." He can start by winning this game. Vince Lombardi is spinning in his grave over what this series has become since Super Bowl II, on Jan. 14, 1968. That day at the Orange Bowl, in Lombardi's last game as Green Bay's coach, the Packers routed the Raiders 33-14. Since then the Raiders have won all five meetings of the two teams, by a combined score of 114-38.
Vikings at Lions. "This is a season from hell," says injured Minnesota quarterback Wade Wilson. If Detroit wins, the Lions will have swept the season series for the first time since 1962, when their current coach, Wayne Fontes, was a rookie defensive back with the Jets.
TDs scored by offense
OPPONENT'S DRIVES IN FOURTH QUARTER
13 plays, 72 yards (FG)
14 plays, 82 yards (TD)
4 plays, 64 yards (TD)