1. Why Is This Man Smiling?

Eric Dickerson's grin is just one subject to ponder as the NFL season nears
August 11, 1991

When Eric Dickerson walked into the Indianapolis Colts' training camp on July 18, even those who knew him best did a double take. What a specimen! In a tank top, Dickerson's upper body appeared to be chiseled out of marble, and his legs looked like steel pistons. In addition to stepping up his weightlifting regimen, Dickerson explained, he had spent a chunk of the off-season, in Houston's oppressive heat, running up a 40-yard patch of artificial turf that was pitched at a 45-degree angle.

"He looks greater than I've ever seen him," says Indy coach Ron Meyer, who also was Dickerson's coach for three years at SMU. "What a perfect body."

There's one other noticeable change in Dickerson's appearance: the smile. In his eight previous NFL seasons, the broad grin was repeatedly wiped from his face by contract disputes, charges that he was malingering, a bitter split with the Los Angeles Rams, the inexperience of the Colts' offensive linemen and his endless harping that he should be paid more than any other running back in the league. Rickey Henderson has got nothing on this guy. And agents? Dickerson has had 10, including himself.

Now, though, the smile hardly ever leaves his face, and with good reason. The Colts have shown enormous faith in the 6'3", 224-pound Dickerson, who this time last year was holding out and ripping everyone in the Indianapolis organization, in an attempt to get traded to a team that would pay him top dollar. Eventually, however, the Colts came around and signed him to a four-year, $10.65 million deal that kicks in this season. So for now—and just for now, because nothing is forever with him—Dickerson is happy to be carrying the ball for the Colts.

"With a sport like football," Dickerson says, the quiet passion rising in his voice, "you have to love your job. Last year, I just didn't want to play—period. Now I'm content, very content. I eat, drink, breathe and sleep my job. It's the most I've looked forward to playing in the last five, six years."

Here are three reasons why:

•Money. Once while he was with the Rams, in the preseason of 1987, and once with the Colts, during the '89 season, Dickerson was led to believe by management that the club was willing to renegotiate his contract and make him the NFL's richest running back. On both occasions, according to Dickerson, the teams broke off negotiations just when it appeared that an agreement was near. He became embittered both times, so much so during the '87 season that the Rams couldn't take any more of his whining and shipped him to Indianapolis.

Last year, after Dickerson had bashed the Colts, refused to take a preseason physical and spent the first six weeks of the regular season suspended by the Colts for conduct detrimental to the team, general manager Jim Irsay made a huge and risky decision. In October he made Dickerson the highest-paid running back in NFL history. "The bottom line is that when Eric is healthy and happy, he's special," says Irsay. "I believe he'll go down as the best back ever. A healthy and happy Dickerson makes you a playoff team."

Different things make different guys happy, and Dickerson wasn't going to be happy until somebody made him the bestpaid back in the game. Even as he approaches his twilight—Dickerson turns 31 on Sept. 2—it's hard to argue with him. He has gained at least 1,200 yards in every one of his seven full seasons.

•Quarterback Jeff George. After having the likes of Gary Hogeboom and Jack Trudeau hand him the ball for three years, Dickerson wondered if the Colts would ever get a playoff-caliber quarterback. Last season they drafted one, George, and Dicker-son loves the guy. "Jeff can make my life a lot easier," Dickerson says. "I've played against a lot of eight- and nine-man fronts in my career. Teams play us to stop the run. I'm so sick of going into cities and hearing, "Stop Dickerson and you stop the Colts.' When you have a guy who can really throw it, they have to stand back and say, 'We can't let this guy beat us.' People think I'll be jealous of Jeff taking my so-called [starring] role. I laugh. I love it. He's the future."

•Walter Payton 's record. Dickerson, who has 11,903 career yards, badly wants to break Payton's alltime league rushing mark of 16,726 yards. He says he would like to fulfill his current contract and then, at 34, decide if he wants to play longer. If Dickerson stays healthy and averages 76 yards a game over the next four years—he has averaged 103 yards for his career—he will pass Payton. "He did it in 13 years," Dickerson says. "If I do it in 12, they can say what they want about me."

All of this adds up to one happy camper. But why should we believe Dickerson now, considering his extreme mood swings of the past? You look at the guy and you sec the smile, the 5.7% body fat (a career low) and you consider what motivates him, and you can draw only one conclusion. "He's on an absolute mission," Meyer says.

Funny how things work out. In Anaheim, Ram coach John Robinson sits in his office, thinking about what could have been if Dickerson's pouting hadn't forced the team to trade him. "I have great sadness that our divorce had to happen like that," Robinson says. "If he had stayed, I think he would have become the greatest back of all time. Now...."

He still could.

2. Are the Bills due?

Frank Reich spots the football and Scott Norwood swings his right leg into it. The ball sails fortysomething yards toward the goalpost. The kick is long enough. The Bills stare in anticipation.

Perfect.

Wait. This isn't Super Bowl XXV in Tampa. It's Buffalo's training camp in Fredonia, N.Y. This field goal attempt was from the left hash mark, not the infamous right hash. And the ball hooked right down the middle, instead of slicing 30 inches wide to the right.

"Should have been that hash mark," coach Marv Levy says good-naturedly.

"I was thinking the exact same thing," says general manager Bill Polian.

That's the extent of the Bills' hangover from their devastating 20-19 loss to the New York Giants in January. The defeat doesn't seem so devastating half a year later, for the team or for Norwood, whose 47-yard miss from the right hash with eight seconds to play made the Giants the Super Bowl champions.

Buffalo players say the loss isn't an open wound. They say they went so far last season and had so many great days—like the 51-3 thrashing of the Los Angeles Raiders for the AFC Championship—that a one-point loss to a terrific team in the Super Bowl is hardly a negative. There really are no negatives here. Neither retirement nor Plan B free agency robbed the team of a single first-stringer. The NFL's Defensive Player of the Year, end Bruce Smith, had arthroscopic knee surgery on July 22, but he is expected to be fine for the Sept. 1 opener against the Miami Dolphins. And no one west of Giants Stadium has figured out how to stop quarterback Jim Kelly and Buffalo's no-huddle offense.

Not since the '72 Dolphins has a team coming off a Super Bowl loss been so highly regarded, and Miami went on to win the next two Super Bowls. NFL observers tend to be impressed by a team that piled up a total of 95 points and 995 yards in two playoff victories. Opposing players believe in the Bills too, especially after their performance in the AFC Championship.

"That game," says Raider defensive end Howie Long, "was the most amazing thing I've ever seen in sports. I've never seen 11 guys on the same page like that. They were running a no-huddle with no conversation! You know, Cincinnati comes to the line and Boomer Esiason says about 50 things: 'Minnesota! Bombay! Thirty-two! Ruth! Leroy! Green, green!' Kelly came to the line that day, looked us over and said, 'Set, hut!' And he'd complete a 32-yard post. They played the perfect game."

Can they do it again, and again? "I think we're still on the upswing," Norwood says, "because we're so young and we jelled so late last year. I think falling short last year keeps us hungry mentally."

Mentally, by the way, Norwood seems to be line. He figures pure adrenaline might be what pushed his plant foot—the left one—four or five inches ahead of where it should have been, thus helping push his decisive kick wide right. "There's no avoiding the magnitude of the kick, but I'm not going to let it ruin my life," he says. "You try not to get sucked up into the emotion of the moment, but it was hard. It was like a frenzy out there." Which is how life could be in Buffalo next January, after Super Bowl XXVI.

3. Was last season the beginning of the end for the 49ers?

Absolutely not, although it sure seemed that way when we last saw the Niners on Jan. 20. Running back Roger Craig was standing alone and aloof in a corner of the Candlestick Park dressing room after fumbling away the NFC Championship to the Giants. When offensive coordinator Mike Holmgren approached Craig and told him that one play never decides a game, Craig burst into tears on Holmgren's shoulder.

That game had so much symbolism, and it portends much for San Francisco's future. Craig had the huge fumble, and quarterback Joe Montana was kayoed late in the game by New York defensive end Leonard Marshall, and the 49ers rushed for a piddling 39 yards. Still, San Francisco should have won, instead of losing 15-13. What this means is that the Niners have one heck of a defense. In eight quarters against the Giants last year, San Francisco did not give up a touchdown. This, finally, will be the year that the Niner defense outshines the offense. "They had the most incredible defense in the league," says Giants quarterback Phil Simms. "They're so fast, and they fly to the ball like you wouldn't believe, even their linemen."

Linebacker Charles Haley and ends Kevin Fagan and Pierce Holt (31 sacks among them in '90) will anchor the game's best front seven. "The real football minds can see the ability of this defense," says Keena Turner, a former 49er linebacker and now an assistant to team consultant Harry Edwards. "Good players doing the little things right have turned this defense into a great force."

As for the offense, it struggled last season for the first time in the Montana era. The big problem? The running game. Craig had his worst season as pro, rushing for only 439 yards, and he has joined the Raiders as a Plan B free agent. Until 5'8" Dexter Carter proves he can be an every-down back, or until the Niners trade for one—they've already talked to the Kansas City Chiefs about one of their big backs, and John Stephens is being shopped by the New England Patriots—the running game will be a big weakness.

But that sort of weakness is hard to notice on a blisteringly hot day at the 49er camp in Northern California, when Montana's throwing deep to Jerry Rice and Haley is steaming in over left tackle. These guys still look super.

4. Will Bo Jackson ever play football again?

Even Bo doesn't know. In the hours they've spent together planning the rehabilitation of the most famous hip injury in sports history, Bo Jackson and his orthopedic surgeon, James Andrews, have not broached the subject of his return to the Raiders. Not once. "We'll worry about football when football gets here," Jackson has told Andrews. They have focused solely on his return to baseball, with a goal of being activated by the Chicago White Sox for pinch-hitting or DH duties, activities that wouldn't seriously aggravate the left hip. (The back of the hip socket was fractured and some cartilage was sheared away while Jackson was being tackled in a playoff game in January.)

"Our goals from the outset," says Andrews, "have been, number one, to get him as good a hip as possible for the rest of his life; and number two, to get him back playing professional sports. His rehabilitation has gone extremely well. The main thing is, he has picked up his tempo, he's in a walking and running program now, and he's not having any hip pain. But I have no idea whether he'll be able to play football, except to say, if it's possible, he'll be there."

Jackson has told Raider coach Art Shell that if he plays baseball again, he'll try to play football too. He has said that he'll report to the Raiders within 10 days after the baseball season ends, as his contract specifies. He has told friends that he doesn't want to walk away from the NFL without a Super Bowl ring.

"Everybody told Christopher Columbus the world was fiat, so he had to sail around the world to show them," says Raider running back Marcus Allen. "Bo's exactly like that."

The guess here is that Jackson will move mountains to play football again. Just because.

5. Will the Giants miss Bill Par cells?

There's a smugness in the Giants' camp. It's almost as if this team is saying, We've outgrown Bill Parcells, and we're going to prove it to you.

Think back to when Bill Walsh left the 49ers in 1989, and Pat Riley left the L.A. Lakers in 1990. Remember the subtle digs from some of the players on those two teams: "The guy's outlived his usefulness here." That is what you hear from some of the Giants now. They acknowledge Parcells's immense contributions to their two Super Bowl victories; after all, he won 62% of his games (85-52-1) in his eight years as the Giants coach. A couple of players who were Parcells's favorites, Simms and linebacker Lawrence Taylor, have acknowledged how much they miss him, without slighting the new coach, bookish Ray Handley-But that sentiment is not unanimous.

"I think we're a mature enough team that we don't need a coach who plays mind games," says linebacker Gary Reasons. "Ray's just a straightforward, no-nonsense guy." And Marshall says, "Veteran players never knew where they stood with the other guy. Ray's honest. All he wants from you is an honest day's work."

So the players like Handley. But the question is whether he can motivate them and sustain their intensity the way that Parcells did? Example: Taylor was struggling to beat double-and triple-team blocking in October 1989. During the week leading to a game with the Minnesota Vikings, Parcells kept calling Taylor "What's the matter with," because the writers had all been asking, "What's the matter with Taylor?" He pounded the nickname into Taylor all week. Taylor is a competitor, and Parcells knew how to hit his button. Unleashed in the game, Taylor had 2.5 sacks and 11 tackles. "They're not going to be asking you what's the matter with Taylor anymore!" a defiant Taylor told Parcells after the game.

Handley hasn't had to get into the marrow of any player's bone yet, so who knows if he can? Parcells had a line that he used whenever speculation about a player's future swirled around the press room. "That's why they play the games," he would say. The same rule applies here, in the first year of the post-Parcells era.

6. Is this a make-or-break year for Vinny Testaverde?

Absolutely. After four years as a pro, the book on the Tampa Bay Buc quarterback is: great arm strength and football sense, throws well on the run, slower than average but not plodding, needs a trusting, back-patting coach to prosper. Testaverde was handled with kid gloves at the University of Miami and won the Heisman Trophy. Then, after Tampa Bay made him the first player chosen in the '86 draft, he was handled with boxing gloves by coach Ray Perkins and won nothing.

Headcase in point: Last year, Testaverde was leading the league in passing five weeks into the season, but he aggravated a turf-toe injury that caused him to miss a game in San Diego in Week 8. With the Chargers up 24-7 at halftime, Testaverde, in street clothes, suggested the Bucs try a play that would take advantage of a weakness in the San Diego defense. "That's not in our game plan," said Perkins, in a way that humiliated Testaverde. "It made me feel like I wasn't a part of the team," says Testaverde.

The next week, with Testaverde back in the lineup against the Chicago Bears, Perkins jumped on him for overthrowing wideout Mark Carrier early in the game. "He snapped at me the week before, and now this," says Testaverde. "I know it's not good for me to react like that, but it definitely got inside my head a little bit." Testaverde threw five interceptions that day, the Bucs lost and they went on to finish 6-10. With three games left, Perkins was fired and receivers coach Richard Williamson was promoted.

During an off-season golf outing, Testaverde let it slip that he thought the offense under Perkins was "the most conservative offense in the history of the league." The remark made the papers, and now, in the new wide-open offense and under the calming direction of Williamson, the pressure is on Testaverde to prove he is a top-flight NFL quarterback. "A person cannot be successful if he's uptight all the time," Williamson says. "I called Vinny in last spring and told him, 'Don't worry about being a leader or being responsible for the team. Worry about getting Vinny ready. Make Vinny work.' "

To that end, Williamson plans to give Testaverde leeway to run, with more bootlegs, rollouts and play action. "I like Coach Perkins," Testaverde says. "His system just didn't work. Now I have the whole offense at the line of scrimmage. I'm starting to feel free, the way I did in college."

Testaverde is only 27, and he knows there's time for greatness—if he acts now. "People will probably hear this and laugh, but I want to be a Hall of Fame player," he says. "That's my dream."

A lot of people are laughing. It's up to Testaverde to make them stop.

PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIER PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIERThe way Dickerson sees it, George will make life easier for him on the ground. PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGHWith Fagan (75) and Haley (94) emerging, the name of the game in San Francisco is defense. PHOTOCHUCK SOLOMONHandley, the Giants' new coach, does not play the mind games that his predecessor did.
PHOTOV.J. LOVEROWhile Testaverde (above) still hopes to prove that he's Hall of Fame material, Bo doesn't know if he will ever run for the Raiders again. PHOTOJOHN BIEVER[See caption above.]

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)