It worked in sleet one day last January. A week later, it worked in snow. Twice this month it has worked in steamy heat rising off artificial turf. It works with a gimpy starting quarterback, or with a healthy backup under center. It works with stars at the receiver spots, or with subs spread wide—as the famous Don Beebe (you know, the Don Beebe from Chadron State) proved on Sunday. The Bills' no-huddle offense is the most startling innovation on the field since Buddy Ryan, then of the Bears, sicced his 46 defense on the NFL seven years ago.
"Our offense is like a runaway train," said Beebe after Buffalo routed the Steelers 52-34 at Rich Stadium. A third-round draft pick in 1989, Beebe had a modest 28 catches after two years with the Bills and was almost cut in the preseason this year. So, naturally, he caught four touchdown passes against Pittsburgh. It's so nuts, this offense, that you wouldn't raise an eyebrow even if Buffalo's burly tight end Keith McKeller made four TD catches.
The Steelers had the league's top defense in 1990, and they had all their troops ready for the Bills. You wouldn't have known it, however, by looking at Buffalo's offensive statistics: 31 first downs, 537 yards, six TD passes by Jim Kelly. Despite playing on a tender left ankle, which he sprained in the preseason, Kelly threw for 363 yards and completed a career-high 31 passes. A year ago, Pittsburgh went 12 games before giving up its sixth touchdown pass. "They made us look like babies," said Rod Woodson, the Steelers' All-Pro cornerback.
The Buffalo offense has entered a zone that teams pass through but seldom remain in for long. When Kelly drops back now, he has more options and more open receivers than he knows what to do with. After Pittsburgh had closed to 31-27 at the end of three quarters, the Bills scored three TDs in six minutes. In that run, Kelly had trouble choosing plays because they were all working so well.
Steeler defensive line coach Joe Greene said Sunday his team was out of its neighborhood against the Bills. It's a pretty exclusive neighborhood. In fact, no one else lives there right now.
Tell Him, Terry
Terry Bradshaw has this message for Joe Montana: Do as I say, not as I did. After playing the 1982 season with chronic muscle deterioration in his throwing elbow, Bradshaw underwent surgery in March 1983 to have the muscle reattached to the bone. But in trying to come back from the injury too soon, the man who quarter-backed the Steelers to four Super Bowl championships ruined his elbow and played in just one more game, late in the '83 season, before retiring.
"Joe's injury is to a tendon, not a muscle, but I hear it's severe," Bradshaw said on Sunday night. On Monday the 49ers announced that Montana probably would miss more than the four weeks they had thought would be needed for his frayed elbow tendon to heal. He will not try to throw for at least another week, and if there has been no progress made in his recovery, surgery would be a consideration.
"If I could say one thing to Joe," Bradshaw said, "I'd say this: Don't be pressured into coming back too soon. Don't be forced to come back by the performance of Steve Young. Don't jeopardize a career for something that can be fixed. Who cares if it takes all year?"
Montana says he'll be the good patient, though he has always been impatient about getting playing time. "I don't want to rush this," he says. "I don't want to be in this position again."
"I felt pressured into coming back," said Bradshaw. "Most of it was self-inflicted. But my own coach [Chuck Noll] pressured me in his combative way."
And today? "My big regret," said Bradshaw, "is I wasn't able to finish my career on my terms."
Innovation of the Week
"The wake is over," defensive end Howie Long said after the Raiders' 16-13 victory over the Broncos. L.A. had been mauled for 98 points in their previous two games, giving up 51 to the Bills in the AFC Championship Game last January and 47 to the Oilers in this year's opener. The Raiders would have been panicky if they had been shredded by a third straight AFC team, especially at home.
L.A. surprised Denver by adding a third tackle, veteran Reggie McElroy, to the offensive line in place of a wide receiver or a running back. McElroy set up between right guard Max Montoya and right tackle Steve Wright, with tight end Ethan Horton aligned next to Wright, and the Raiders used this goal-line offense for much of the game. In the second quarter, Los Angeles had a 16-play, 62-yard scoring drive that featured Roger Craig—in his first start since moving down the coast from San Francisco—carrying the ball nine times. Craig finished with 99 yards on a career-high 27 rushes.
This is the way the Raiders will have to play against any team that has a wide-open offense, such as Denver, because the L.A. defense hasn't shown that it can contain the no-huddle or run-and-shoot stuff. The Raiders need to hang on to the ball for as long as possible. "When the league switches totally to the run-and-shoot, I'm gone," said Long. "Retiring. I can't tell you what a nightmare it is."
Iron Man at a Brittle Position
There are many amazing stats in the nine-year career of Dolphin quarterback Dan Marino, who turns 30 on Sunday. Perhaps the most amazing is his current string of consecutive starts (110), the longest such streak (excluding games played during the players' strike of 1987) among active quarterbacks. Here are the consecutive-start figures for Marino and his two closest pursuers:
LAST START MISSED
Dec. 16, 1983
Dec. 27, 1987
Oct. 1, 1989
The vulnerability to injury of quarterbacks is a big story every year, and it already had made headlines by the end of Week 1 this season. Two quarterbacks who took their teams' every snap in '90, the Cards' Timm Rosenbach and the Sea-hawks' Dave Krieg, and the Eagles' Randall Cunningham, who until last week was second among active quarterbacks in consecutive starts (62), went on the shelf within 11 days of each other. Rosenbach and Cunningham are out for the season with knee injuries, and Krieg is gone for eight weeks with a broken thumb.
That's why, in today's NFL, the backup quarterback should be considered among the five or six most important players on a roster. As Bills coach Marv (Yogi) Levy says: "You don't need a parachute until you need a parachute."
With the exception of cornerback Deion Sanders, class of '89, the Falcons' recent first-round picks are killing them. Linebacker Aundray Bruce, the No. 1 overall choice in the '88 draft, wasn't even on the active roster for the first two games of this season; wideout Shawn Collins, Atlanta's second first-round pick in '89, was shopped around during the preseason and hasn't played this year; running back Steve Broussard, the top pick in '90, has two carries this season; and cornerback Bruce Pickens is sitting at home in Kansas City—he's the only '91 first-round pick who has yet to sign a contract....
Tackle Paul Gruber hasn't missed an offensive snap for the Bucs since entering the league in 1988. He lined up for his 3,000th consecutive play during last week's 21-20 loss to the Bears....
Somebody get ESPN analyst Joe Theismann some smart pills, and quick. On Sunday he said, "Philadelphia will be a better team with Jim McMahon at quarterback." ...Only 11 players from the World League of American Football—seven defensive players and four kickers or punters—were on NFL opening-week rosters. One of the 11, Chiefs linebacker Tracy Simien, doesn't count as a pure WLAF man because he was on the K.C. practice squad when he was loaned to the Montreal Machine last spring. Eleven other WLAF players were signed to NFL practice rosters, and eight more were signed and placed on injured reserve.
Game of the Week
New York Giants at Chicago, Sunday. The last time these two teams played was the last time the Giants' offense was potent. Since beating the Bears 31-3 in a divisional playoff last January, the Giants have played four games, and their kicker, Matt Bahr, has outproduced the rest of the offense 40-24. Now, after New York's 19-13 loss to the Rams on Sunday, there's some grumbling at the Meadowlands that new coach Ray Handley, wild shirts and all, is an even more conservative play-caller than his predecessor Bill Parcells was. The Bears? Well, every year some experts pick a team other than Chicago to win the crummy NFC Central, and every year Mike Ditka makes them look foolish.
The End Zone
Cowboy running back Ricky Blake has played in every outdoor pro football league in the world in the last four months. He played with the WLAF's San Antonio Riders from Feb. 16 until May 25. Then on June 6 he reported to the Canadian Football League's Winnipeg Blue Bombers and trained with them for nearly five weeks. On July 7, his agent, Art Sparks, negotiated Blake's release from his CFL contract so he could sign with an NFL team. Blake worked out for three teams while Sparks talked contract with nine others. Blake signed with Dallas and reported on July 18.
In the past four months he has played in Europe, Canada and the U.S., but it all has finally caught up with him. Blake, who is on injured reserve for four weeks with a neck injury, almost could have qualified for IR because of fatigue. "You know that old saying, 'Put a tiger in your tank'? " Blake said in Dallas after a recent workout. "Well, I need to get me down to the local zoo and kidnap me a big cat. The needle's about on E."
Opening Kickoff, Glanville-Style
In a team meeting at the Falcons' practice facility, coach Jerry Glanville is preaching. That's what it sounds like, anyway. "The good Lord gave you ability!" he yells. "The good Lord gave you intelligence! But the good Lord didn't give you courage! To be on the Atlanta Falcons' kickoff team, you gotta manufacture courage!"
Safety Tracey Eaton, a key wedge-breaker on the kickoff-coverage unit, soaks it in, because he believes so strongly in what Glanville's saying. "It is kind of a church revival atmosphere," Eaton says. "Jerry's the brain. Jerry's the head. We're the body."
Later, at practice, Glanville oversees the kickoff-coverage team as it runs through its paces. In shorts and T-shirts, these guys crash into each other at about three-quarter speed. "Attack block! Attack block!" Glanville yells. "Hit the wedge!...Knock somebody out!...This is us! This is what we're all about!" A beefy linebacker goes flying over a couple of blockers. Turning to an assistant coach, Glanville says, "I love it when they knock each other out."
Does this sound like Apocalypse Now, or what?
There's one more thing. Before each game, Glanville holds a helmet from the opposing team high in the air on the sideline, and Falcon special team players have to crowd around and slap it before taking the field for the opening kickoff.
The Falcons held opposing kick returners to the third-lowest average (16.6 yards) in the league last season. After two games in '91, they haven't had an opportunity to show their stuff—five of Atlanta's six kickoffs have not been returned. "I always hope we lose the toss, so we can kick off," says Glanville. "There's not one single play in the game that can set a tone for the game like that one."
YOUNG AND RICH
While we don't quite know what to make of Steve Young as an NFL quarterback, we do know this: Robin Leach would like to meet him. As a result of Young's having struck two extraordinarily lucrative deals in the past eight years—he pocketed $5.4 million in two seasons with the Los Angeles Express before the United States Football League called it quits after the 1985 season, and he signed a two-year, $4.5 million deal to remain with the 49ers as a backup to Joe Montana last spring—Young has been one of the best-compensated pro football players over that span.
In fact, the five top money-earners between '84 and '91 are quarterbacks. (The highest-paid defensive player in that time is Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor, who has earned $10.15 million.) Here are the total earnings, including cumulative salary and signing and reporting bonuses but excluding incentive bonuses, of the five very rich signal-callers. The information comes from documents obtained from agents with access to NFL Players Association salary surveys.
Houston (USFL), Bills
L.A. (USFL), Bucs, 49ers